Kubica closer to an F1 return as Williams ponders decision

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) After nearly losing his right hand, Robert Kubica could be steering a Formula One car with it next year.

If he returns it will complete a remarkable comeback for the 32-year-old Polish driver, rated as one of the quickest in F1 before a gruesome rally accident left him needing seven hours of surgery on a partially severed right hand, and numerous subsequent operations.

Kubica did F1 testing for Renault earlier this season and recently with the Williams team, and is consideration for an F1 seat in 2018.

No announcement is planned during this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Williams says. But in what appears to be a boost for his ambitions, Williams announced Wednesday that Kubica will take part in Pirelli tire testing after the race.

Those tests are aimed at evaluating tires, but it gives driver further time behind the wheel before Williams decides.

It was his love of all racing that pushed Kubica into trying rallying six years ago, and it almost ended his career. After crashing at a little-known Italian rally in February, 2011, he was trapped in the wreckage of his battered Skoda for more than an hour and also sustained arm and leg fractures.

“The accident turned my life upside down, but I’m aware that a few centimeters more and I wouldn’t be here talking about it,” Kubica said. “The biggest job I had to do was in my own head. There were some terrible times when I no longer felt up to it. It was worse than a physical pain.”

Initially, he cut all ties with F1.

“I never wanted to visit a Grand Prix paddock or attend a test, despite being invited,” Kubica said.

Stark realization was setting in.

“Life had given me so much and then in an instant, it (almost) took it all away,” Kubica recently told the official magazine of the FIA, the governing body for auto racing. “They say that time is a healer but that wasn’t the case for me – it made me suffer more.”

That was until he accepted his situation.

“The brain can develop the ability to compensate, at least partly, for one’s physical limits,” he said. “It’s difficult to explain something like this – only those who have experienced it can really understand.”

A popular driver in F1 from 2006-10, Kubica earned 12 F1 podium finishes and was considered among the brightest talents.

“Not a lot of great, great drivers come through,” four-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton said. “Then you have real special drivers like him.”

Kubica won the Canadian GP driving for BMW Sauber in 2008, after placing second at the Monaco GP. He was reportedly close to joining Ferrari in a move that would have offered him a better title shot.

Even if he never races in F1 again, his comeback from that crash is already impressive. Two years later, he won the WRC2 title – rally’s second-tier championship.

This year he has edged closer to F1.

When he tested for Renault on Valencia’s Ricardo Tormo circuit in June, albeit in an older and lighter F1 car, he was overwhelmed.

“I don’t get emotional easily but that day I really did,” he said. “I realized that driving a Formula One car was the thing that made me happy and I finally felt at peace.”

When he tested in the 2017 car at the Hungaroring for Renault in late July, just outside of Budapest, he was fourth quickest and completed 142 laps. It proved his fitness was OK and that he retained some speed from his F1 days.

It wasn’t quite enough to convince Renault, which has since signed promising Spanish driver Carlos Sainz Jr.

But Williams needs a replacement for 36-year-old Brazilian driver Felipe Massa, who is retiring after Sunday’s season-ending race.

One of the main problems is that the weight of the 2017 F1 car – heavier than in recent years – puts greater strain on Kubica’s fragile right arm.

Williams is not giving anything away, saying only that “although conversations are ongoing with Kubica, it is still yet to be finally decided who will replace Massa.”

British driver Paul Di Resta, who previously raced in 59 GPs with Force India, is also being considered.

Kubica has good backing, since he is being managed by 2016 F1 champion Nico Rosberg, and is highly regarded.

“Robert is one of the quickest drivers I’ve ever raced against,” Hamilton said. “Raw, natural talent. If he was still racing today he’d been in contention for a world title.”

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.