Were Renault Right To Allow Kubica To Go Rallying?

Formula One driver Robert Kubica is continuing to make good progress after the final round of surgery to repair the injuries sustained in a high-speed rally crash nearly two weeks ago.

The Polish star remains in intensive care in Santa Corona Hospital in Italy following his crash on the Ronde di Andorra on February 6th, in which he was competing for recreational rather than professional purposes.

Kubica lost control of his Skoda Fabia (whether through driver error or mechanical problems is unclear) and slammed into a crash barrier, which detached and skewered the driver’s side of the cabin, entering via the footwell and breaking bones in Kubica’s right arm and leg, as well as almost severing his right hand.

The accident came with just weeks to go before the start of the Formula One season in Bahrain on March 13th (although this may be in doubt in light of the civil unrest in the island state) and the 26-year-old has come in for some criticism of his decision to indulge in what is seen as an unnecessary activity when he should have devoting his attentions to preparing for the 2011 campaign.

Among the more vocal critics were BBC commentator Martin Brundle and triple world champion Niki Lauda, who are of the opinion that Kubica should have put the interests of his Lotus Renault employers before those of his own.

Lauda told SpeedTV: “It makes no sense for him to put his job and his life at risk like this. Was it unreasonable? Of course it was.

“He has to ensure that he can do his job, and his job is F1. Only he is to blame for what happened to him. Did he have to be doing this? No!”

Brundle told the BBC: “I think it’s pretty crazy that he was doing that rally in between key Formula 1 tests which are happening over this four-week period.

“When you look at the course and the trees and the walls and the drops and the barriers, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that he was out doing that.”

On the other hand, Kubica’s fellow drivers have rallied (no pun intended) round him, defending his decision.

Double world champ and current Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso is a close friend of Kubica’s, having known him since the pair’s karting days over 15 years ago.

He argues that rallying is a worthwhile way to keep your reactions tuned and to channel the excess adrenaline that any F1 driver worth his salt will constantly crave.

Kubica himself, for his part, says: “I drive better in Formula One because I have taken part in many rallies.

“The rallies help you in concentration, considering that in Formula One there are very few tests. Rallies have allowed me to work on certain areas that I can improve on. It is important in a season where you have 20 Grands Prix.”

The fact remains that racing drivers having an inherently dangerous job. Formula One safety has come on leaps and bounds in the past two decades, with the last fatality in the sport being that of Ayrton Senna during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, and the last serious injury being suffered by Felipe Massa in 2009, from which he has now fully recovered.

Compared to rallying, it’s like a children’s playground. Rallying is arguably the most dangerous form of motorsport there is. Whereas modern, purpose-built F1 circuits are safe to the point of sterility, with massive run-off areas and deformable safety barriers, rallies are run through forests and up mountains, where the closest approximation of a safety barrier is often a line of trees on the edge of a precipice.

Some would argue that rallying goes some way to replacing the need for the danger that was a staple of F1 during years gone by, but as now been diluted, and that the only people the drivers endanger if they participate are themselves.

Whatever your opinion might be, it is academic. Kubica is likely to miss the entire season and his replacement at Renault is his former team-mate Nick Heidfeld, one of the most underrated drivers of the last twenty years. Whether he will deliver the stellar performances that F1 fans are used to seeing from Kubica is open to question.

Renault team boss Eric Boullier has gone on the record to insist that he believes drivers should be free to pursue activities outside F1. While this is an admirable departure from the corporate-driven opinions of most of his peers, it may be a decision that he comes to regret. BOLA TANGKAS