Robert Kubica’s accident yesterday has left the Formula 1 world in a genuine state of shock. Robert is a lovely bloke and a bloody fast racing driver, and after spending time with him in Valencia just a few days ago and listening to his thoughts on the positive steps his Renault team had taken for 2011, to learn that he is in such a bad way has hit everyone for six.
With the news that Robert may be forced to sit the majority of the 2011 season out, there is thus a natural but unfortunate question which will be asked and will no doubt be poured upon over the coming days. Who will step into his seat?
The problem for Renault is that Robert is an absolute number 1. His natural instincts and feeling inside the car make him a phenomenal car developer and the team will miss his input and directional lead at this most critical period of development. With just three test sessions left, Renault needs every piece of insight and feedback to develop what could be an excellent racing car into a race winner.
There were a few raised eyebrows when Renault launched with five reserve drivers, but their role could now become all important to the team. Naturally, all of the talk right now is centering around the two most experienced reserve drivers, and the team’s two official third drivers, Bruno Senna and Romain Grosjean.
In Valencia, Eric Boullier said that should a reserve driver be needed it would most likely be Senna who received the call as Romain Grosjean has commitments in the GP2 and GP2 Asia championships, the latter of which begins racing next week. Grosjean has just half a season of F1 under his belt and that was over a year ago. Senna meanwhile has an entire campaign (bar one race) of racing in F1, albeit at HRT who put no updates on their car in 2010.
I rate Senna highly and a promotion to a race seat could very much be a case of “cometh the hour, cometh the man.” But will the team take the risk, or will they, as has been suggested, look to a more experienced driver to lead the team in 2011, for while Vitaly Petrov has shown class and speed he is not yet close to being a team leader.
Nick Heidfeld and Tonio Liuzzi are two names which have already been mentioned. Both are unemployed and both are highly regarded, with much experience in Formula 1. For Liuzzi, it could be the shot he’s been waiting his entire career for and an opportunity to finally show the potential that his numerous fans have awaited since he made his debut back in 2005. For Nick Heidfeld, his vast experience could prove to be the key, and “Quick Nick” would be keen to show he can still mix it with the youngsters.
Anthony Davidson is a name which has not yet been mentioned but which I believe should be. Rarely has there been a better car developer than Davidson. His work at BAR Honda was incredibly highly valued, and he made something of a name for himself as a Friday driver. He has recent and relevant racing experience for Super Aguri in F1, regular simulator sessions over at Mercedes have kept him sharp, and racing for Peugeot at Le Mans hasn’t done him any harm either. Could he lead the team? You bet. Could he take a good car and turn it into a race winner? Absolutely. He is, perhaps, the very best driver to do so in these circumstances.
Clever, technically gifted, a wonderful development driver, a proper bloke and a team player, Davidson would be a perfect fit.
And what of Giorgio Pantano? The 2008 GP2 champion is the only GP2 champion not to have gained promotion back to Formula 1 and for many this is a baffling fact. Pantano is now into his 30s and he is a very different driver to the youngster who made his F1 debut in 2004. He is fast in everything he ever steps into, and if he was to be afforded a shot at an F1 drive you can guarantee he would give it everything. He has recently been praised for his technical diligence by such big hitters as Chip Ganassi and his GP2 team boss Alfonso de Orleans Borbon who claimed that Pantano, along with Sebastian Vettel, was the best driver he had ever run. Eric Boullier knows Pantano well given both of their long shared careers in F3000 and GP2, and will also be well aware of the very close relationship between Pantano and Vitaly Petrov given that it was in 2007 when, as Pantano’s team-mate, Petrov made perhaps his greatest strides as a driver before being paired with Robert Kubica at Renault last season. Would Renault take the risk on a man who still, for some reason, has question marks hanging over him? It would certainly be a bold move. But would favour fortune the bold? And yes he had an F1 shot in 2004 and didn’t make the most of it, but anybody who read my piece on Giorgio in last month’s F1 Racing mag will hopefully see why he deserves a second shot.
Of course there are others. Nico Hulkenberg has moved to Force India as a tester and has been mentioned as a possible replacement, but again if you bypass Senna on the sole basis of his inexperience then that counts out Hulkenberg too. The same is true of Lucas di Grassi, who is a magnificent car developer. Sebastien Bourdais might feel that F1 is unfinished business for him, and there has even been talk that Kimi Raikkonen could step into the void.
It all seems far too early to be talking about any of this, but sadly while nobody wanted to be in this situation and while our thoughts and prayers will rest with Robert and what everyone hopes will be a swift recovery, this is a question which will be asked and must be asked because there are just three test sessions left until the season begins, and the next one starts in just three days’ time.
What can be in no doubt, however, is that everyone in this sport hopes that whatever replacement is made is but a temporary change, and that we see Robert back in a racing car soon. Mieć odwagę Robert.