Will Gray

Gray Matter: Can Kubica still cut it?

Robert Kubica had a mixed return to competitive action this fortnight when he won the first rally then crashed dramatically in the second — so does the Pole have what it takes to make a full F1 comeback?

Kubica's world turned upside down when he crashed in the Ronde di Andora Rally in February last year. A crash barrier penetrated the car's footwell and severely damaged his right arm and leg and partially severed his right hand.

Professor Luigi Celli, who performed the initial operations on Kubica, said at the time that he was sure he would return to F1 but did not target a date — and since those words it's been a long and rocky road.

A month after the accident, it was claimed he would walk in three weeks — but it took until June for him to get mobile again on his own. At that point, it was suggested his rehabilitation would end that August but more than a year on it is still ongoing.

That said, the Pole's determined and persistent nature and the regular supporting comments from his former F1 colleagues continues to maintain the belief that he will, one day, return to the grid.

Hopes of a comeback in 2011 were dashed when Kubica had more operations to remove calcification of ligaments and internal adhesions in his elbow. At that point, he was on five or six hours of rehabilitation per day - but in January he suffered a setback when he fell at his home and broke his right leg in the same place again.

The setback, along with claims that Kubica still did not have even strength to grab a glass of water with his right hand, again diminished hopes of an imminent return. But, in contrast, his positive approach saw him continue to push on, driving a kart and testing in simulators.

As is often the case when someone is pushing hard to recover, however, each time he takes a few steps forward he seems to take another one back.

Kubica's approach appears to be to test his limits, reach them, then take a look at what restricted him and work on how to solve it.

The simulator tests this year suggested his mobility was still not good enough to race, so he had two small bone prostheses inserted in his right elbow to try to give the stabilisation and mobility to help him turn left while driving.

The next step was to get into a rally car.

He returned to competitive action for the first time in 18 months in the relatively tame Italian Rally Gomitolo di Lana, in a modified Subaru Impreza WRC, then in the tougher San Martino di Castrozza Rally last weekend.

First he won. Then he crashed. Twice.

The first accident came in the shakedown test, when he ended up in a ditch. The second was more violent, and ended in the trees with a lucky escape. Once again, two steps forward, one step back.

The best way to develop the body back to top performance level is to do the action it needs to perform. In Kubica's case, that is to drive - but each time the limits become a little more dangerous.

His next plans are possibly to test a GT car on a circuit - but just getting into a single seater is a whole different challenge.

For his rally return, engineers had to modify the car so the paddle shift was operated entirely by his left hand, as his right hand is still not strong enough. Making similar modifications to a single seater is not so easy — and with so many controls on an F1 wheel, full functionality of both hands is crucial.

The restricted movement of Kubica's elbow was also less of a problem in the rally car, as there is plenty of space to allow him to have it pointing away from his body as it has to, rather than tucked tightly in at his side. Fitting into the tight space of a single-seater cockpit is currently impossible.

So, after 16 operations Kubica is back on track — but there's still a long way to go.

The rally accident was not Kubica's first major crash. He broke his upper right arm in five places as passenger in a car crash at 18 and walked away from a massive high-speed F1 accident in Canada in 2007. After that crash, he recovered to win at the same track one year later.

Former Benetton driver Allesandro Nannini's F1 career ended when his right forearm was severed in a helicopter accident in 1990. It healed thanks to successful microsurgery and although he only regained partial use of his right hand, he recovered to have a successful career in touring car racing in the 1990s. F1, however, was not an option.

At 27, Kubica is still relatively young, clearly determined and, apparently, not very risk averse.

"The main thing now is to return to automatism in motorsport and to help the hand's rehab," Kubica was quoted as saying after the rally. "I have driven sports cars for 20 years and my body is used to certain activities. The only way I can 'recall' them is to sit behind the wheel."

"I still have too many limitations to drive a car on a track," he told Italy's Omnicorse. "And I'm not talking about a Formula One car, I mean any single seater. It will take a little luck (to fully recover) and not everything depends on me. But hope dies last. And believing costs nothing. I still believe, but I am also realistic."

His sights are still on racing but recent comments may suggest any F1 ambitions could be a little optimistic. With belief, and luck, though, you can still hope...

The ongoing story of Kubica's recovery is told in detail at the website http://robertscomeback.blogspot.ca/