How close was Robert Kubica to winning the championship in 2008?
Short answer: 24 points. Long answer: read on…
Since his most recent spell with Williams Racing in 2019, I’ve seen a decent share of disrespect on Robert Kubica’s name on social media and I am here to try and put a stop to it. This starts with a trip back in time to the Summer of 2007. More specifically, the Canadian Grand Prix.
While the race is famous for being Sir Lewis Hamilton’s first pole position and Grand Prix victory, Robert Kubica spent the aftermath of the race in the circuit’s medical centre after a nasty crash at turn 10.
Luckily, the Pole escaped with a concussion and just a sprained ankle with some hailing it as a miracle that he even survived due to the heavy damage on the nose which left his feet exposed during the shunt.
He missed the following race at Indianapolis for the United States Grand Prix as a precaution, instead giving a young German by the name of Sebastian Vettel his debut Formula 1 Grand Prix.
He completed the rest of the season and finished 6th in the driver standings, an impressive feat in his first full season of F1 and just twelve points behind his team-mate Nick Heidfeld. As well as that, BMW Sauber clinched second place in the constructors’ championship following McLaren’s disqualification (see Spygate).
The next season, Kubica started the season swinging. He qualified P2 in Australia but unfortunately had to retire after a collision with the Williams FW30 of Kazuki Nakajima. All was quickly forgotten a week later in Malaysia where he joined Kimi Räikkönen and Heikki Kovalainen on the podium in P2.
Now with some momentum behind him, he took his BMW Sauber F1.08 to the team’s first pole position in Sakhir and eventually finished in P3. These consistent results to start the season saw BMW Sauber take the top spot of the constructors’ championship, again for the first time ever. The lead didn’t last long, but a couple more consistent P4’s in Catalunya and Istanbul had Kubica well in the four-way championship battle that was taking shape.
So close to taking his first Grand Prix victory, Kubica narrowly missed out on winning in Monaco the race after, finishing in P2. Race leader Lewis Hamilton was found to have had a slow puncture at the chequered flag, but because the race was cut two laps short due to the two-hour time frame he held on regardless.
He would have to wait another two weeks for the opportunity and when it came, he took it. A year after his horrific crash at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2007, took the top step of the podium ahead of Nick Heidfeld in BMW Sauber’s first 1-2 finish as a constructor. The race victory was seen as a bit of a fluke considering the circumstances behind Hamilton and Räikkönen’s retirements but nonetheless, the Pole had done it.
With that, he took the lead of the championship. Four points in front of Hamilton and Massa in their McLaren MP4-23 and Ferrari F2008, respectively. His three podiums and one win, coupled with the fact he had been within the top four finishers in every race so far (excluding Australia) meant that Kubica was showing a much better consistency to his championship rivals.
A P5 in France two weeks later meant that Felipe Massa overtook him by two points and a mid-season struggle saw Kubica lose more ground to them around him. A fortnight later, a gravel trap was the cause of him missing out on points in Silverstone. This was followed by minimal points in P7 at the Hockenheimring and P8 at the Hungaroring.
He bounced back with a P3 in Valencia for the European Grand Prix, but with his recent races he found himself 15 points behind championship leader Hamilton. This grew to 18 points by the time the Belgian Grand Prix came and went with Kubica finishing P6 with Heidfeld in a strong P2.
When the circus came to Italy, Kubica capitalised on poor wet condition pace by the championship leaders on a waterlogged Monza circuit. He finished in third place, behind Kovalainen and Vettel who captured his first win in Formula 1. Next was the Singapore Grand Prix which is now infamous for Renault’s ‘crashgate’ scandal and saw Kubica fall victim to the aftereffects.
When Nelson Piquet Jr. (on team orders) put his Renault R28 into the wall at turn 17, Kubica was already running low on fuel. The crash obviously brought out the safety car and thus the pitlane was closed as per the 2008 regulations, but Kubica was limping around and was forced to pit for fear of retirement. He was given a ten-second stop and go penalty for the infringement and his race from P4 was ruined, finishing in a lowly P11.
He was still sat in third place in the drivers’ championship but with him 20 points adrift of Hamilton at the top, it was highly unlikely but still possible for him to take the top spot. Now of course we all know what happened in the rest of the season with the thrilling showdown in São Paulo between Massa and eventual champion Hamilton. But if it wasn’t for too gutting retirements at Silverstone and Australia, Kubica could well have been up there.
He finished the season in 4th place, ahead of his team-mate by 15 points. He was technically joint 3rd with Räikkönen, having 75 points a-piece but still 23 points behind the McLaren. He had finished above the likes of Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Heikki Kovalainen and talented rookie, Sebastian Vettel.
Looking forward to another competitive year in 2009, the financial crisis hit the sport and money wasn’t as free flowing. Some sponsors questioned their involvement in the sport, as did the car makers who were now sailing in uneasy territory regarding their funding. The 2009 car didn’t meet expectations and by the summer break BMW had announced its withdrawal from F1 at the end of season, leaving a lot of people in doubt.
And so, Robert Kubica almost had a title-shot. It was a long shot, but he was unfortunate. Everyone knows that you need a little bit of luck on your side sometimes in Formula 1, had results gone his way rather than someone else’s, who knows?