Doubts emerging to derail the Kubica F1 comeback ‘hype train’

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As Williams Martini Racing holds the keys to the final vacancy on the Formula 1 grid for 2018 – a rare position for the team to be in given it’s usually a low midfield to tail-end squad in this spot – the ultimate question is whether Robert Kubica will make his F1 race return after what would be a seven-year hiatus.

And after last week’s Abu Dhabi test, which featured Pirelli tire testing as part of the equation, it appears doubts are creeping in about the soon-to-be-33-year-old Pole’s ultimate pace (Kubica turns 33 on Thursday).

Getting the test evaluation out of the way first, Kubica’s best lap according to Pirelli was a 1:39.485 on Wednesday afternoon, which was set on new hypersoft tires – Pirelli’s newest compound set to be introduced next season. And looking solely at the times, that’s ahead of Lance Stroll’s 1:39.580 (day one, hypersoft) and Sergey Sirotkin’s 1:39.947 (day two, soft). All were shy of Felipe Massa’s qualifying time set on the same weekend.

However this is where the old Mark Twain line of there being “lies, damned lies and statistics” takes root for the lap times are, in this case, not the ultimate deciding factors. Temperatures, fuel levels, tire choices and engine power are.

Two leading Formula 1 journalists, Mark Hughes and Maurice Hamilton (must be something to the initials MH), have both penned recent pieces illustrating the doubts about whether Kubica’s pace is actually there or not, and how Williams’ tepid endorsement at best or lack of any endorsement at worst is complicating matters.

For Motor Sport Magazine, Hughes detailed the runs but came to this conclusion that Kubica’s pace had not ultimately been there, and perhaps was lacking that fraction that needed to be there.

“It does look as if, for whatever reason, Kubica struggled to find the best way to use the tire over one lap but that over a race run he was competitive. This would tally with suggestions in the paddock that in the Hungaroring test with the ’14 car, Paul di Resta went faster than Kubica on the low-fuel runs. Is Kubica’s one-lap struggle just missing mileage? Is there something about the tire he just cannot adapt to? Is it just a trait of the hyper soft around a track that was too demanding for it? We can see what Paddy Lowe means when he says it’s complicated.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 30: Paul di Resta of Great Britain driving the (40) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW40 Mercedes on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 30, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

As Hughes broke the news earlier this summer Kubica was set to have a test compared with di Resta at Hungary in a 2014 Williams, this makes this statement – among other in that article – rather telling. Di Resta of course earned plaudits in the paddock for his stand-in role for Massa at the Hungarian race this year at the eleventh hour, despite not having been in a modern F1 car in years.

For, Hamilton summarizes the lack of oomph from Williams as disconcerting because while this would be an excellent story to trumpet from media, marketing and PR standpoints, no one within the team seems keen on doing so.

“Only Williams know the true answer to a trial complicated by track conditions, tire compounds and the time of day. You could add engine modes and fuel loads to the equation but they are likely to be as consistent as possible in the bid to make meaningful comparisons with Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin.

“Nonetheless if Kubica had produced the goods, you would think at least one person within Williams would find it difficult to resist showing some sort of positive reaction, even if only a smile and a knowing wink. But there’s been none of that.”

Another veteran F1 journalist, James Allen (deputized for NBCSN in pit lane at the 2016 Singapore Grand Prix), writes in his blog the challenges Williams would need to do to accommodate Kubica, given his arm limitations after his life-altering rally accident in 2011 that’s led to this remarkable almost comeback in the first place.

“There are a few small accommodations afforded to Kubica in order to get him comfortable with the current generation of F1 cars. His steering wheel, for example, has both up and downshift capabilities on one side to allow Kubica to change gear with his stronger hand. The cockpit headrest is also a little different to give him more space to turn the wheel.

“From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to ascertain where Kubica stacked up in the Abu Dhabi test alongside Sirotkin and regular driver Lance Stroll, as runs were prescribed by Pirelli and – perhaps wisely – Williams has also given nothing away.”

The question mark appears to be between Kubica and Sirotkin for the second seat, the Russian driver known to also have available backing for him. It seems as though Pascal Wehrlein and Daniil Kvyat, either of whom have considerable experience and would probably be more of an asset to Williams given their known points-scoring abilities, appear to be out of frame.

Modern realities of the sport dictate that a driver entering F1 has to have that nearly full package of pace, consistency, marketability and media savvy, and crucially, budget. If you have all four elements you’re usually good to go – if you have three of the four, it becomes a little harder.

Kubica would win the “better story” battle over Sirotkin in a heartbeat, given all that’s happened for him to even be in the position in the first place.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: Sergey Sirotkin of Russia and Renault Sport F1 looks on in the Paddock during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

However Sirotkin is an interesting prospect at this stage in his career. At 22, he’s not too old for a rookie although he’d be three years Stroll’s senior next season. He has a pretty good if not distinguished junior open-wheel career, with back-to-back third place finishes in GP2 in 2015 and 2016 with three race victories. He was respectable in Formula Renault 3.5 as well.

Sirotkin holds an interesting stat in the F1 record books too, in that he’s participated in three seasons of F1 without having ever made a race start. He’s had a total of seven outings in free practice with Sauber (one in 2014) and Renault (six total in 2016 and 2017). There have been a bevy of Friday-only drivers in recent years but none has appeared as frequently on Grand Prix weekends as he has over the last few years.

Stroll did a perfectly adequate job as a rookie this year and got better during the year, and has enough upside to improve into a top-line Grand Prix driver down the road, but a Stroll and Sirotkin lineup doesn’t inspire much confidence from a points-scoring standpoint. On paper, it’s similar to say Renault’s 2016 lineup of Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer or Caterham’s 2013 lineup of Giedo van der Garde and Charles Pic. You know they’re on the grid, and they’ve had OK to sterling junior careers, but they don’t seem set for a monster F1 campaign because neither is particularly experienced in F1 and/or the car’s not up to snuff.

Given the 2019 driver market could be significantly fluid with the number of drivers out of contract, Williams has little to lose with more to gain by running the gamble on Kubica given he’s still significantly regarded in the paddock. Lewis Hamilton told NBCSN’s Will Buxton at Abu Dhabi about Kubica: “Without even being here, he is in the top five of best drivers here. To not be in the sport but be better than three-quarters of the grid is pretty awesome. I hope he’s able to come back here and show that.”

The sound of silence, however, is deafening.

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
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Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”