The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is supposed to be two-time champion Fernando Alonso’s farewell to Formula One. The only problem is no-one’s talking about him.
This was supposed to be his weekend, the grand prix at which the sport would have no choice but to acknowledge his contribution as he rode off into the Arabian sunset in search of pastures new.
But even his grand finale has been compromised, and after another excruciatingly uncompetitive season in which he so often melted into the background of midfield, Alonso is again finding himself fading away behind a more significant story at his final F1 weekend.
The reason? Robert Kubica is back.
On Thursday Williams announced to the Yas Marina paddock that Kubica, currently the team’s reserve and development driver, will step up into a full-time race seat in 2019 alongside near-certain Formula Two champion George Russell.
That the announcement came eight years since Kubica last raced in Formula One is itself noteworthy, but of course far more significant is that the intervening time comprised an arduous journey of rehabilitation for the Pole after a life-changing rally crash on 6 February 2011.
Kubica was lucky to escape from his Ronde di Andora smash with his life. So severe was the damage to his right arm, which was partially severed when a crash barrier penetrated his car, that he was thought unable to ever race in single-seaters again.
But Robert was determined to prove that prognosis wrong. He returned to rallying in 2013, and as he learnt to drive around his new physical limitations, his mind turned back to Formula One.
A series of positive tests last season, most notably with a GP3 car, which lacks power steering, suggested he could indeed operate within the tight confines of single-seater machinery, and a midseason F1 test with Renault put him in the frame for a sensational comeback in 2018.
The French manufacturer turned him down, however, and when Williams did likewise after a post-season shootout with Sergey Sirotkin, it seemed he had fallen agonisingly short of what would have been one of sports all-time great comebacks — until Thursday in Abu Dhabi.
After a year helping to diagnose Williams’s multitude of car problems and entering several Friday practice sessions, Kubica was ready to make his return.
“It has been a long road to get to this point, but as that challenge now comes to an end with this announcement, a new challenge begins working with Williams on track,” he said. “Being back on the F1 grid next season will be one of the greatest achievements of my life.”
Followers of Kubica’s four-season F1 tenure know the fanfare for his return is about more than just the journey he undertook to make it back to the pinnacle; the 33-year-old was one of the highest-rated drivers of his generation. And on the weekend Fernando Alonso bows out of Formula One, it’s difficult not to draw parallels between the Spaniard and the rival he once feared above all others.
Both, after all, have reputations preceding them — both are renowned for their pure, raw pace and both are considered cruelly lacking in silverware representative of their talents, even taking into account Alonso’s two titles.
Indeed for a time the two drivers were destined to share a path. Ferrari had signed Kubica to be Alonso’s teammate in 2012, only for the rally crash to cruel what would’ve been a blockbuster line-up. Hypothesising the long-term consequences of Kubica at Ferrari — with Alonso as his teammate, helming the team after Fernando’s defection to McLaren and then perhaps leading the Scuderia to its current successes in the turbo-hybrid era — has long been a favourite F1 thought exercise.
Robert Kubica on the podium back in 2010. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)
Similarities exist beyond ability too, for while one man re-enters the sport just as the other leaves it, Alonso is searching for new challenges beyond the realms of Formula One for the same reason Kubica’s will to return has proved so powerful: both the forlorn Fernando and relentless Robert want to prove their hype is real.
Neither can do so with a Formula One championship, but both have made alternative, meaningful goals. Alonso will attempt to win the Indianapolis 500 to complete the final leg of the so-called motorsport triple crown, indelibly marking his name in racing history, while Kubica will use his scarcely believable comeback to cement his name in the sport for good.
But for the similarities that give the news an added level of interest, there is one key difference that left the start of Alonso’s retirement weekend comprehensively shaded by the announcement.
Whereas the Spaniard leaves the sport somewhat acrimoniously after four seasons embittered by a lack of competitiveness at McLaren and with his dream of a third world title unfulfilled, Kubica’s comeback offers Formula One the chance to believe that fairytales can come true.
“It’s a story which probably nobody has believed,” Kubica said. “We all knew it might be something unachievable.
“This day shows that, somehow, nothing is impossible.”