Since their introduction into Formula One in 1993, Sauber have been seen top drivers rise through their ranks and go on to have glittering careers in the sport. The Hinwil team gave 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen his route into the sport way back in 2001, while Felipe Massa spent three seasons there before his switch to Ferrari nearly bore him a title in 2008.
But neither of those names raise such a mixture of pride, happiness, intrigue and ultimately sadness in the way that Robert Kubica does.
Kubica took Sauber’s only victory in his three-and-a-half years following a mid-season promotion in place of Jacques Villeneuve in 2006 before a move to Renault in 2010.
The big Pole’s big chance came at the famous Hungarian Grand Prix of 2006, when he replaced Villeneuve because of injuries sustained in the previous race. As Jenson Button took his maiden win, Kubica raced to seventh place, but was disqualified because of technical irregularities. Nevertheless, a star was born as Sauber announced his promotion with immediate effect after the race, after Villeneuve quit.
Just two races later Kubica made his first piece of history, as he became the first Pole to lead a Grand Prix and then the first Pole to make the podium with a third place at the Italian Grand Prix, after qualifying sixth and showing excellent pace all weekend. He was not to pick up any more points in the remaining rounds of the season, with two further ninth places the best results for the remainder of the season.
2007 started indifferently as a retirement in Australia and 18th in Malaysia was followed up by three solid points scores as BMW Sauber emerged as the big challengers to the dominant duo of Ferrari and McLaren.
However, his 2007 is more remembered for a horrific accident at the Canadian Grand Prix.
While battling with Jarno Trulli’s Toyota on the approach to the hairpin, the two made contact and Kubica’s car was more of a rocket as he launched towards the wall, with a 185mph impact sending him back over the circuit. He came to rest at the hairpin, and despite earlier reports suffered a sprained ankle and concussion that forced him to miss the US Grand Prix.
That paved the way for a young Sebastian Vettel to make his name as a point-scoring debutant, and Kubica was not to be affected as he returned for the French Grand Prix and rattled off six straight points finishes on his way to a solid sixth place in the World Drivers’ Championship.
2008 was to be his and Sauber’s strongest year, as he remained a factor in the World Championship battle until the penultimate round as BMW Sauber became a real force. After retirement in Melbourne, Kubica wasn’t out of the top four for the next six races, including his famous victory at Canada.
A year on from where he had that infamous accident, Kubica was one of few steady heads in a race more akin to Wacky Races instead of an F1 Grand Prix. After Hamilton had taken both himself and Raikkonen out of the race in the pit lane after a Safety Car, Kubica was promoted to the lead of the Grand Prix once other drivers had pitted.
It was a lead he was not to relinquish, as teammate Nick Heidfeld took second place to complete a memorable 1-2 for BMW Sauber. That result put Kubica level on points with Championship leaders Lewis Hamilton and Massa.
With huge technical changes coming for 2009, Sauber switched their attention to developing 2009’s car shortly after. Kubica was to make the podium twice more with third place at the European Grand Prix where Valencia’s street circuit debuted, and at the Italian Grand at which Vettel took his first victory.
This was to be both his and Sauber’s best season, as 2009 fell well below expectations.
After a late collision with Sebastian Vettel in Australia as they battled for second place, Kubica was to take seven races to score his first points of the season with seventh place in Turkey while Sauber themselves only had six points from six races courtesy of Nick Heidfeld’s third place in the rain-shortened Malaysian Grand Prix.
Kubica was only able to climb to 14th in the World Drivers Championship due to a strong run towards the end of the season, where he scored 15 points from the last 8 races including a second place at the Brazilian Grand Prix (Current points system wasn’t introduced until 2010) in BMW’s final podium in F1, as they pulled out of the sport.
Sauber were to be rescued by Peter Sauber once again and had a solid season in 2010 as a privateer, with Kamui Kobayashi finishing 12th in the standings. Kubica meanwhile joined Renault and comfortably outpaced Vitaly Petrov, on his way to eighth in the standings. He would pick up two podiums in what would tragically be his final season in Formula One.
In February of 2011, Kubica was taking part in a rally close to his home in Italy when on the first stage, he crashed heavily into a barrier, which penetrated the cockpit and struck him. He suffered a broken shoulder, arm and leg and lost part of his right forearm and damaged his right hand. In April of that year, he was released from hospital in Italy to continue his recovery, although a return to Formula One was a tall order despite successful use of the Mercedes F1 team’s simulator.
It wasn’t to be until 2013 that Kubica gave up on a return to Formula One, citing limited functionality of his right hand in tight open wheel cockpits. Kubica now competes in the World Rally Championship, having won the second tier of the Championship in 2013.
A man once considered by Ferrari to lead their Championship charge, Kubica is a driver that had a more than promising career in Formula One cut short by the ruthless business that is motorsport. The Pole will be remembered for his speed, courage, late-braking and ultimately the potential that was left unfulfilled.
In a different world, through Kubica, Sauber would have produced another World Champion.