Kubica - is the Pole heading North once more? 27 Apr 2007
Its not been the easiest of starts to the new season for BMW Saubers Robert Kubica. After the Poles spectacular mid-season debut last year, he had been tipped for great things in 2007, but to date he has been overshadowed by resurgent team mate Nick Heidfeld. However, after finally scoring his first points of the year in Bahrain, are things looking up for Kubica?
Many - not least his growing legion of fans back in Poland - will certainly be hoping that is the case. The 22 year-olds arrival last season was as refreshing as it was surprising. Aside from several confident outings as BMW Saubers third driver, Kubica was still a relatively unknown quantity. Indeed when he was announced as Jacques Villeneuves replacement for the final six Grands Prix of the 2006 season, he was viewed by many as a quick-fix and was widely expected to struggle.
Yes, Villeneuve had enjoyed his best results almost a decade earlier; but stepping into the shoes of a former world champion is a tough proposition for any driver - let alone a rookie. Kubica, however, was unfazed. Beating Heidfeld to Q3 in qualifying in his debut appearance in Hungary, the Pole finished the race in seventh and would have scored points were it not for his subsequent disqualification for having an underweight car.
Although Heidfeld made sure he out-paced the Pole during qualifying for the rest of the season, during the races, the two team mates remained pretty evenly-matched - a fact that reflected far better on debutant Kubica than it did on the experienced Heidfeld. Indeed at the Italian Grand Prix Kubica crossed the line in third, five places ahead of the German and by doing so became the first Polish driver in history to score world championship points. The finish also meant he had matched Heidfelds best result of the year.
At the seasons close, Kubica had proved even the most hardened cynics wrong. It was a worthy performance and one that proved to his team mate he was no soft touch. Indeed, it seems the arrival of Kubica was something of a wake-up call for Heidfeld. With over 100 race starts under his belt, many felt the German was approaching the twilight years of his career. However, it seems the challenge of a fresh team mate gave the 29-year-old a psychological boost ahead of 2007 - Heidfeld is currently enjoying his best start to a season of his eight-year career.
But while Heidfeld has notched up 15 points, Kubica has struggled, scoring just three. It is a disproportionate gap considering just how strong BMW Saubers 2007 car seems to be. Widely regarded as one of the top three machines on the grid, the F1.07 has so far only been out-paced by the Ferraris and McLarens. So why is Kubica lagging behind?
Bad luck rather than a clear drop in form seems to be the principal cause of the Poles troubles. Gearbox gremlins forced an early retirement in Australia, while Kubicas Malaysian race was left ruined by poor braking stability and a puncture. In qualifying too, his final runs at both events were thwarted by ill-timed out-laps, rather than a lack of pace. His sixth-place finish in Bahrain also suggests he does have the speed, especially when the fact a broken fuel cap marred his aerodynamics is taken into consideration.
But Kubica's fans should not breathe a sign of relief just yet. In Sakhir, he crossed the line over 30 seconds behind fourth-placed Heidfeld - a big disparity considering the two Ferrari drivers were within 11 seconds of each other. Additionally, unlike Heidfeld (whose experience certainly counts in his favour in this respect), he has struggled to find the best set-up on his car at each race.
But does Heidfeld have a long-lasting edge over his Polish team mate? Many would argue its too soon to say. Kubica is not just a naturally-gifted driver; he is also hugely resilient and Heidfeld will have to work really hard to ruffle his feathers. Ever since watching his first Grand Prix at the Hungaroring in 1997, Kubica knew that Formula One racing was where he wanted to be, and with one of the best cars around at his disposal, it is surely only a matter of time before he hits his stride again.