I was going to write a lengthy intro for this interview, mainly because it concerns Robert Kubica and I like to use every available opportunity to try and explain some of Kubica’s struggles in the WRC to people who still have problems understanding what it means to arrive to WRC with close to no experience. Maybe I’ve been wasting time in those earlier attempts, but there will be no lengthy intro this time. This fantastic interview is all you need to know and read about Robert Kubica and his rallying and motor sport plans and desires, his thoughts and expectations. I’m not sure if this interview will change your opinion on Kubica, but you will surely appreciate the honesty behind it. I for one did. I’ll stop talking now and let Robert take over the talking duties.
This interview was conducted by Mikołaj Sokół of the Sokolim Okiem, and translated by omnipresent Michał Hryszko. You guys are awesome and I cannot thank you enough for giving me an opportunity to publish this, one of the best motor sport interviews I’ve ever read, on the pages of World Rally Blog.
Published with permission of Mikolaj Sokol (@SokolimOkiem) – SokolimOkiem.com
Translated by Michał Hryszko (@MadYarpen)
PART 1: I HAVE MY PLAN FOR RALLYING
In the first part of our honest conversation Robert Kubica tells me about the life of the racing driver on rally stages, about problems and challenges he has to face. He mentions issues which – as he admits – haven’t been mentioned to this day. Enjoy the read.
I remember an interview from a long time ago, in which you had been asked if you were more Polish or Italian. You said you were a racing driver. And now – are you more of a circuit racing driver or a rally driver?
Racing. I think… Actually I know, I’m a racing driver – this is how I have been brought up and that’s how I’ve grown up. One cannot forget, eliminate or completely delete twenty years of working on something. Maybe in the beginning it wasn’t clear where this path would lead me, but the target was always to be a better racing driver. I believe the two disciplines are so different that from the beginning you have to develop certain characteristics and predispositions behind the wheel, and not only there, in order to be on the highest possible level in one and in the other discipline.
So you are a racing driver doing rallies. What are the differences between the two worlds – and I don’t mean sporting differences, since they are clear to all. What is the atmosphere in rallying?
The rallying world is more “relaxed” than the one of the circuit racing. I believe this is due to the format of the weekends and of the competition – on a circuit, despite the fact everything is happening in a paddock, every team – as you well know – is operating within its, so to say, territory – garage, trucks and motorhome. You stay in this area, and don’t leave it – and once you do, you attend a briefing with the FIA or with the race director, and there is very little time there. In fact, you see other drivers in a hotel, but there you want to rest.
During rallies there is much of “empty” time. For example we drive a road section, stop before a Special Stage and sometimes we have up to 20-30 minutes to spare. So you either sit there and watch the sky or somebody stops and you start talking. This is why I think the atmosphere is more relaxed and there is more interaction between the drivers.
Do you like such an approach? During the rallies you smile more often, while on circuits…
There I was at work, and during the rallies I’m not at work yet. This is the fundamental difference, noticed by few. Not many people realise I don’t treat rallying the way I treated my starts in Formula 1. I’m not ready yet and I’m not on the level to treat them the way I used to treat circuit racing – which doesn’t mean rallies are only a hobby for me. Surely there is a different approach, and I think everyone should know their place. In 2007, in my second F1 season, I had a different psychological approach and different priorities in comparison to my second season in WRC.
One could say you are not at work, but at school.
Exactly. And as usually it is at school, sometimes it is funny, while it shouldn’t be :-) No, I’m kidding. But in general there is a different approach and in fact, as I say, rallies have a different influence on me, and I treat them in a different way.
And what did famous reset look like after a few starts this year? What changes were there?
There was no reset. There was a reset because media needed to hear there will be one. That’s the truth.
But have you changed anything?
I did change two things in my pace notes and that’s it. Generally after a tough time it is not easy, but it is not like… I have my plan for rallying and I try to choose the path which will lead me there. This is why sometimes this path may be rough and twisty, may be painful, but I think it is the best path for me. It is not my target to attend rallies only to nurse the car to the finish, to score points for 6th, 7th or 5th place. I have a different target, but to achieve it I need a different approach. In order to be ready in a few years you have to choose a different path sometimes, and today I think this one is more twisty and rough, but it will be better. Time will tell if I’m right.
You mentioned your target. We know you had a different one before 2011.
Do you still believe you will be able to fight for it?
The point is whether there will be time for that, and that’s also a risk. Currently I have limitations that don’t allow me to freely drive an F1 car on every circuit. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be able to do it – I think I could drive on most of them easily, but then again there is a question what target do you set for yourself, for your driving. If the target is only to drive – maybe I could do it. If the target is to drive at least on the level I used to race, I am not able to do it today. I don’t know if I could do it. Of the last three years I was racing in F1, two were… Almost excellent.
2008 and 2010?
2008 and 2010 were the seasons in which you reach the peak of your abilities, and not only that. You are in, so to say, a trance, in which everything works out. And even if it doesn’t – you are so confident that you don’t pay attention to that, because you know that the next day everything is going to work again. And it is crucial, because in order to race on the highest level, self-confidence and positive thinking allow you to reach the peak of your skills and then everything works out.
Of course it is illusory at the same time, because motorsport is not an individual sport. There is a machine, there are teams, a big group of people and their work, much technology, and the more people, the more technology, the less influence you have. Sometimes it seems that the car feels it as well. Of course it cannot feel, but Vettel’s situation is a good example. For 4 years everything has been working out for him, nothing happened even if his car got hit, and now he cannot finish one race without bigger issues. So the situation can change, and this is why I think these two seasons – 2008 and 2010 – were very good.
You haven’t said you won’t come back, yet. Do you see any improvement, is it going in the right direction?
It is hard to tell if it is improving. Of course there are some improvements, but in reality I’m doing rallies as a full time job. A week has 7 days, a day has 24 hours – for me as well. So I’m either focused on one thing or not. I’m driving in a very difficult championship and I need a full commitment. It wouldn’t be fair for my partners and sponsors if I approached it as my way of killing time and waiting. It is not this way, because I’m an ambitious man, at least I think of myself this way, and I expect a lot from myself. If I committed to rallying on a more full scale than the last year, my approach has to be different as well.
In 2008 and 2010 – seasons you have just mentioned – you were almost a master of the situation. Before the accident you used to do what you loved. Now you are limited by the circumstances, the problem with your hand. How hard is it to deal with?
Let’s say rallying helps me a lot, because it takes a lot of time and work. I think there is nothing worse than to sit at home and wonder, and rallies give me very little time to do that. Sure, I miss racing, I miss F1. I cannot hide it and I really would give everything to be able to compete where I used to, but the reality is different and you have to move on.
Can you do anything to improve your situation, increase the chances for the comeback?
Yeah, I can, but as I say – nothing is guaranteed. There are things beyond my reach, beyond my control. It is hard to wait for something you have no control over, or zero influence on. This is why I decided to take another direction and see what results it will bring.
There are some opinions that different incidents and “moments” on the stages may be partly caused by your hand’s limitations…
Surely. I agree, in many moments I’m “lacking a hand” [a Polish saying]. Obviously not literally, it’s about the ability to grasp or make a save. Especially on gravel – not only in an emergency situation, but also for example in ruts, when the car suddenly jumps out of them and it is hard to predict what will happen. Let’s say operational radius of a turn is very long in comparison to tarmac or circuit driving.
On circuit it is much easier, because everything is much more predictable, you turn the wheel less, much more subtly, and a radius of a turn is also shorter. On gravel it is all multiplied by ten and much less predictable. Regarding some of the emergency situations this year, I think I would be able to easily save the car without my limitations, and avoid stopping. Sadly, some things cannot be avoided. I can only keep in mind what my limitations are, but even then I know achieving the target I would like to achieve is going to be much harder.
It is a sensitive issue that I’ve never really mentioned, and which I don’t want to use as an excuse, but surely it is not easier for me – in fact it’s the opposite. But that’s the way it is and in reality only I know how it is for me to drive on gravel and how hard it is – not only due to my skills or the experience, but also because of these limitations.
People laughing at another Kubica’s shunt on the Web probably don’t realize that.
You just need not to read it, that’s a very simple cure for such things. Usually people learn from mistakes, and until a mistake is made – nothing is learned. In my opinion there is no bad luck in sport, but there are moments when you can have more or less luck. Rallies can give you a lot of satisfaction, but they also don’t forgive – they can give you everything or nothing, can be ungrateful. This is characteristic for this sport, and maybe it’s the reason it is liked so much – but it is hard for a spectator to understand these things if he has never competed.
PART 2: WHAT THE TIGERS LIKE THE MOST
The second part of our conversation is dedicated to rallying. Robert tells me about the driving on gravel and admits he is disappointed with the cooperation with the M-Sport team. In the third part we will talk more about current situation in F1.
How much are you looking forward to the tarmac events?
Let’s say I’d love to change the proportion of the events so that we had ten tarmac and four or three gravel rallies. The reality is different and maybe that’s why the challenge of starting in WRC is so big, due to the road surface and difficulties with adaptation or getting used to it. And it is not only the surface, but also the way the car behaves [on gravel], how much time it needs to react. This is totally different driving than on tarmac.
Last year during the test before Rallye Deutschland I got into the car and after two turns of steering wheel in order to warm up the tyres I told Maciek Baran: “This is what the tigers like, this is driving!”. The car was reacting much quicker and in a way much closer to what I was used to. The softer, more “flexible” the car gets, the slower it reacts and you have to do everything earlier, you need more time for that.
In F1 – or even not only in F1, but in single-seaters in general – usually it was enough to look at the steering wheel, even without turning it, and the car already started to turn. In a rally car with gravel setting you also operate with a totally different turning angles. For 20 years I have been told that in a right turn the steering wheel should turn right as well, and not left. In rallies it is the opposite really, you drive a lot with an oversteering car. You even have to, in order to make the car work. You need quite an aggressive driving to make the dampers work, or get good grip from the tyres – especially WRC tyres, which are very different from these of national championship or ERC.
Before this season you changed two important things in your rally world: the co-driver and the car and the team. How would you assess the situation in the middle of the season, were these decisions good?
The change in my right seat was a forced situation. It took me a long time to make the decision – not about the person in the right seat, but I had to decide if I would stay in rallies. The role of a co-driver is very important, especially for someone with so little experience as me. Therefore, after Maciek’s [Baran] decision, there was an uncertainty regarding my future starts in the WRC with a new co-driver I didn’t know. It is not like I was from this rally world and knew everyone – every co-driver – and knew what to expect from each one of them. I had to rely on the information I could get and also on my intuition.
Did it fail you?
No, because there are very few experienced co-drivers in Poland, who would make it possible to fight for the top in the world championship. It is not as we don’t have talented co-drivers, because they are surely there, but there are only few of them with world championship experience. It helps, though a lot depends on what was the approach to these starts, whether when being on rallies you were able to gather all the information, in order to use it in the future.
It is also very important, because there are many rallies and we learn something all the time. To remember it you need to want to in the first place, and write it down. I may think I will remember – for example now I recall most of the characteristic moments of the Rally Italia Sardegna – but after next few rallies, when I’ll come back to Sardegna in 12 months, everything will be mixed. Even if I think I memorized one full Special Stage.
And how would you judge the choice of the car and the team?
I believe Fiesta is a nice car, especially on gravel. On this surface this car gives the driver quite a lot of confidence. Maybe it is what got me lost at the beginning of the season.
Regarding the cooperation with the team, honestly I have to say that in the past I used to enjoy working with English teams more. Before this season I was very upbeat – maybe not excited, this would be a wrong word – but I could not wait to work with a team with English mentality again. But maybe this English mentality is different in rallies than in racing and sadly this got quickly verified. It’s a pity that my enthusiasm got muffled so soon. I still think English teams are the best to work with, but I cannot hide that some things were better last year, when it comes to the team.
Can you reveal what things?
There are some things, but I’d rather keep them to myself.
Does it influence your long term plans?
Surely it does, because I believe it is not the peak of my dreams to drive in world championship just to drive. I’m competing in WRC and I am happy that thanks to my partners and sponsors I have this possibility, but my target is clear. At least I’d like to be able to get closer to this target. And for this to happen, you need to have the right opportunities.
Of course at the moment I have to gather much experience, and in reality I’m a rookie in comparison to the top and to the drivers I compete with. OK, [Elfyn] Evans is the closest when it comes to experience, but he comes from the rallying family, and in fact has grown up to be a rally driver. He still has more experience, even if he hasn’t started in WRC for so long. The rest are very experienced drivers, who also needed time to get to the current level. I believe patience, toughness and time are fundamental in rallying. Obviously the less time it takes to get all the experience and achieve high level, the better – but everyone needed their time.
Time and mistakes…
In Sardegna I experienced one thing for the first time – taking the wheel off the rally car. I have rolled several times, I went off the road several times, but I have never taken the wheel off. During the Rally Poland last year I didn’t take it off, as people think, but damper’s mounting was torn off on a root. Initially the wheel remained there, but the damper got out and everything followed.
Here I have taken the wheel off for the first time. And here is the thing. I’m competing in WRC with 15 theoretically best drivers and I don’t think there is one among them who has never taken a wheel off. It is just impossible, at some stage of a career or an adventure with rallying everyone had to experience that. I experienced it in Sardegna for the first time, and this is actually the first time I thought about it, since usually you realise something only after it happened. Surely there are many things I don’t know and haven’t thought about yet, which can happen. And when they do – that will be my first time.
Usually you learn from your mistakes – and you don’t learn unless you make them. I believe what happened in Sardegna was a bit unlucky, but it was also my mistake, which 95 out of 100 times wouldn’t be noticed. Even on the same stage, 7-8 kilometers before, there was a huge stone in the middle of the road – I think Mikkelsen broke his damper there. I managed to avoid it, but in such a way that I touched something with left rear wheel – probably a bank. You have to remember that in order to win, or even just to keep driving, you also need a lot of luck. Before Rallye Monte Carlo I talked to Thierry Neuville and asked him how many times he started there. He said three times. I replied he had much experience then. And he said “Yes, I have never finished the first day”. And he started for the fourth time and after six kilometers he was out. Ogier, who won Wales Rally GB last year, was there for the sixth time and this was the first time he reached the finish [without “moments” and in the top ten].
PART 3: IT WILL BE NICE TO WIN A GRAVEL STAGE
In the last part of our conversation we talk about rallying experience and current F1 state – read his opinion on the sound of the new engines and find out if he takes at least a little credit for Mercedes’ current form – since he spent a lot of time in their simulator last year.
Before the season you set yourself a target of winning a special stage. You achieved it first time out and you said you need a new target. What is your aim now, before the second half of the season?
In fact my quiet target was to win a gravel stage. I was close in Sardegna – if only there were no problems on one rough braking zone. I don’t know the margin on that stage because I didn’t check what was Haninen’s time in the end, but I know I lost some time there. Surely it would be cool to win a gravel stage, but I don’t think it will be possible.
I believe feeling in the car and my sensations are more important than the results. Without that there is really no point to start. In Sardegna I felt really good – for the first time even when we were driving a long stage, almost 60 kilometres. Most of the stage I knew from the last year, but this knowledge was in fact disturbing me. Last year I drove some parts so slowly, that now – having pace notes but recalling a place – I was telling myself “no, you have to brake”. And I did brake, because I did it last year – this is a safer option, but in fact many parts I could have driven much faster.
This is specific for rallying – having certain information I have to wait a year [to check it]. On the circuit that’s different, because you are in exactly the same place within a minute and you can verify how it is. All the question marks, riddles or doubts are resolved much quicker. Here you have to wait a year, and even then you don’t know if you can check your data, because you don’t know if stages are going to be the same. This is why it is easier in circuit racing to get the experience, which gives you possibility and comfort to fight for the top, much sooner than in rallying.
I remember your pace notes from the times you treated rallying only as a hobby – much information at every turn, precision in distances and angles. Was it due to the lack of the experience in rallying and desire to support yourself with the most precise notes as possible? How do you approach that now?
First of all I think you cannot drive on the level of the top drivers of WRC on a stage you are driving for the first time while they are driving it for the tenth time. You can have the best pace notes in the world and yet you won’t be able to get close to them because you have no information which they have. Obviously the pace notes are a kind of compromise with what I have taken from circuits – and there you fight for every tenth of a second, every centimetre. Often my circuit vision, meaning a driving line through the turns on the gravel stages, has nothing to do with the reality – though now the difference isn’t so big any more. And if you are not driving as the first car on the road, you have to stick to the line of the other drivers, running in front of you, so your vision is not necessary at all.
There are also some things you write down during recce, driving 50 km/h, which are in fact unnecessary, because with 120 km/h they don’t exist anymore. This is important, because the feedback in a rally car is different to the one in a road car during recce.
For instance, in Argentina there were a lot of some kind of water drain-pipes. We are braking and our spines almost crack. So we need to brake, and it goes to the notes. First loop – on the straight road you are going in sixth gear, doing 150 km/h for some 200 meters. I’m braking, shifting down two gears and I already know you can drive there even flat out. But then you cannot drive flat right away if you have just shifted down two gears [on the first pass], because only idiot would do that. So you shift down one gear and only then you know it is possible to go flat out there.
So the difference appears not in a turn, but results from the experience and information regarding seemingly dangerous place on recce, which doesn’t really exist in the rally car. You would bounce a little, but if you brake, you’ll lose more than a second within these 200 meters. Such things come with experience and information. This is why in rallying there are so few generation changes. The same drivers win for a long time. In circuit racing generation changes are much quicker, because it is much easier to get the experience which as a result is less important.
Is it easier for you to get close to the top on the stages you know from the last year, or on the stages completely new, unknown for everyone?
On completely new for everyone. For example in Sardegna shakedown was new for everyone. OK, we had different tyre choice there, but you could easily see it. A lot depends on the characteristics of a stage, but the worst scenario is to drive for the first time on a stage which is run since, for example, 2005.
Let’s take the long stage from Sardegna, Monte Lerno. Mikko caught a flat tyre twice during recce – we have one spare tyre so I borrowed him mine. We finished the stage and I said it was nice, because I remember some parts from last year. And I asked: “How many times have you driven here?” They started to count with his co-driver and here it comes: “2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 we didn’t, 2011… Tenth time”.
Ten times – meaning ten recces, two passes each – twenty times. In total he did this stage at least 30 times. This way you can check different things. On gravel the road does not end when the road ends. This is a big difference, and at the beginning it was a big shock for me. For me the road was the road. Everything having a different colour was a run-off area for me – you don’t drive there, it’s worse. It was always like this on circuits, but here it is different, because gravel and grass have basically the same grip. Experienced drivers widen their turns – for example when entering second gear turn I was seeing tyre marks one meter away from the road. Now I notice it more, but then again I won’t put my car in a place where I haven’t checked before. During recce I have only two passes and no pace notes from the previous years.
You are always behind, you always have to play a catch-up. OK, there are special cases – for example Ogier who managed to get to the top quite soon, but he needed his time as well. I remember I was checking Ogier’s time from his first rallies and it was really easy to notice the difference. I don’t think he had much worse skills back then – he just has more experience now.
Do you watch Formula 1? Have you heard the new engines?
Sometimes I watch. They sound bad. I think it would be good for TV to turn the engines up a little and turn the commentary down, because it is hard to watch a race. It used to be nice, you could hear everything. Thierry Neuville told me he was in Monte Carlo during the Grand Prix. He lives not far from the circuit, and when F1 was driving he couldn’t hear a thing from there and when GP2 or World Series were driving, it was cool. I think squeak of the tyres reminds me driving rental gokarts, on indoor track with tiles on the floor. It doesn’t look great but that’s the way it is.
And the competition itself?
I think that big differences between teams are normal, considering all those big regulation changes. Mercedes used its potential regarding development and construction of the engine – or the power unit as it is called now. It turns out not only engine is so important – there are many other components which have a huge influence on the car’s performance. This gives them a huge advantage.
Last year you were frequent visitor in Mercedes’ factory and simulator. Do you see your little input in their current form?
I don’t think I can take any credit for that. Last year, when I was driving in the simulator, we improved the simulator so that it is more realistic and gives better results – closer to the reality than in the first sessions I had there. I think in this area we did a very good job with engineers and I believe that I can take some credit here. But when it comes to Mercedes’ results on the track, I had no influence.
Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are fighting for the title, the drivers you used to beat in karting…
Not only in karting!
True… What are your thoughts now, watching your former rivals dominating in Formula 1?
In some way it is uplifting and in other way annoying – not because it is Lewis and Nico who dominate, but due to my current situation…
I believe – and it looks like this – that I was born and raced in karting in one of the best generations of the last 20 years. Drivers born in ’84, ’85, ’86 or ’83 belong to one of the strongest generations, especially in karting. Now they are dominating – not only F1, but also DTM, GT racing or racing in America confirm that this generation was particularly strong. I don’t know what is the reason, why it is this way – but there are many drivers whom I’ve met at different stages of my career and who achieve very good results. It is nice, because at least it shows that I was able to compete against some of the best drivers in the world and learn from them.
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