The 2018 Formula One (F1) season ended this past Sunday, Nov. 25, when British driver Lewis Hamilton crossed the finish line in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to win his 11th race of the season, capping off a year that saw the Mercedes driver clinch his fifth Formula One World Championship two races prior.
Four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel finished second to Hamilton in Abu Dhabi as well as in the Championship standings, the German driver coming up short in what was a competitive season between the two titans of the sport. The season played host to a number of other supporting storylines as well, none bigger than the retirement of 37-year-old double World Champion Fernando Alonso, at least for now.
Rookie phenom Charles Leclerc is one of a plethora of drivers set to change teams for 2019, as he will be promoted to drive for Ferrari alongside Vettel, and Formula Two (F2) champion George Russell will get his Formula One chance with Williams next year. The question of who would be Russell’s teammate, however, led to what was quite possibly this year’s most remarkable story in F1, if not in the sports world as a whole.
Robert Kubica made his Formula One debut for BMW Sauber in 2006 at 22 years old, stepping up from his reserve driver role and finishing a very impressive seventh on debut before being disqualified for having an underweight car. In only his third race that year, he claimed a podium and over the remainder of the season he cemented himself as a formidable Formula One driver.
In 2008 Kubica took his first victory, (to date the only victory for a Polish-born driver) vaulting him to the Championship lead. While he did not go on to win the Championship that year, Kubica had gone from reserve to rookie to respected in just two years, and a move to Renault in 2010 only cemented his status as a high-level professional driver in Formula One.
All of that changed in a heartbeat, however, when Kubica decided to compete in the Ronde di Andora rally between the 2010 and 2011 seasons and suffered a near-fatal crash. With a partially amputated arm, compound fractures in his elbow and legs, and a significant loss of blood, Kubica remained in the car for nearly an hour before safety workers arrived on the scene. Following the crash, doctors told him he would never be able to drive again, let alone drive in the immensely physically demanding cockpit of a F1 car. Kubica remained signed to Renault through 2012, but a freak accident at his home that year saw the Polish driver suffer another broken leg, casting his ultimate recovery further into doubt.
Kubica’s first return to racing ironically came in the form of Rally driving, where he won his first rally—the Ronde Gomitolo Di Lana—placing his horror crash firmly in the rearview mirror. He then made his fulltime start in World Rally Championship-2 in the 2013 season, where he proceeded to win the competition in his first go. Kubica’s progress earned him simulator sessions with the Mercedes F1 team, but mobility issues in his arm made it clear that he was still a long way off from being competitive in F1 machinery.
Kubica continued to impress with his rally driving, earning a seat in the top World Rally Championship, and competing in Gt3 endurance races. In 2017, he debuted in the World Endurance Championship (WEC)— the series many consider to be the second most prestigious in motorsport behind Formula One—in the Le Mans Prototype One (LMP1) class for privateer team ByKolles.
Renault rewarded Kubica’s persistence later that year when they decided to give him an independent test, curious if their old driver still had what it took to race a Formula One car. Unsurprisingly, just as Kubica had his entire career, he impressed with his professionalism and consistency. Head of Renault racing Cyril Abiteboul stated later that there was no reason why Kubica couldn’t return to Formula One.
Kubica’s test turned heads, and multiple test sessions with the Williams F1 team soon followed, their big brass also impressed with the Polish driver. Williams faced a decision before the 2018 season, looking for someone to partner with their 19-year-old driver Lance Stroll in his second year. Naturally, the team wanted a driver with experience, but pressing financial issues forced the team to sign rookie Sergey Sirotkin and his lucrative Russian backers, slotting Kubica into a familiar reserve driver role.
With continued financial trouble and two inexperienced drivers, Williams suffered their worst season in team history, finishing dead last in the team standings. The news that Stroll was leaving for Force India came midseason, sparking speculations about who would take his seat. Williams signed F2 champion George Russell, but also dropped Sirotkin.
Eight years after last competing in a Formula One race, and now in his mid thirties, Robert Kubica agreed to drive for Williams in 2019, completing his unbelievable comeback.
It remains to be seen if Kubica still has what it takes to compete at the top level, or if he really can physically last the season. But even if he is less than his former self, the mere fact that he has made it back to Formula One demonstrates an unprecedented dedication to compete, and his driving history suggests he may very well still have the ability to win races. Either way, from a near-death accident to the pinnacle of motorsport, the Robert Kubica’s comeback is one of the most inspirational sports stories of the year.