In Depth Sata Rallye Açores, Ponta Delgada 25-27 04 2013

Published on May 22nd, 2013 | by F_Zanier

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Kubica, Future WRC Star or Not?

After taking part in the first four events of his rookie season as a full-time rally driver, Robert Kubica still has to experience a drama-free weekend. The Pole’s speed was beyond any expectation, his pace being so competitive  that at some point he managed to lead all the three ERC rallies he contested so far. Things weren’t so different in his only WRC2 outing: in Portugal, at his first gravel rally, Robert managed to climb as high as 2nd in the standings. Still, results didn’t match his potential: Canaries and Azores saw him spoil two very good performances with driving mistakes (and consequent crashes), in Portugal he was hampered by 3 punctures and gearbox issues and in Corsica, where he was showing both speed and consistency, he was forced to retire from the race due to a fuel-feed issue on his Citroen DS3 RRC.

To add some bitterness, that happened  just after he had inherited the lead from a crashing Craig Breen, hence becoming the favourite for the final win. Kubica chose not to restart on the following day, even if according to reports the issue on his car could have been fixed easily by the team. Frustration for the lack of results in spite of a very good potential may have played a role in Robert’s decision, and that’s understandable. Kubica feels he could already be a winner, and being let down by the car twice in a row sure had a bitter taste. But judging from what we saw so far, could Kubica become the next rally star? And where does he need to improve in order to do so? To understand more, we asked a real expert.

A rally racer himself in his early years, Vittorio Caneva founded the only Rally School in Italy: after a successful career that saw him bag wins and podium finishes at national level, in 1987 he had a few outings in the  Group N World Championship, finishing as high as 3rd place in Portugal. Two years later he decided to retire from active racing, and use his skills to perfect a training method for talented youngsters. He worked with Piero Liatti, Subaru WRC driver and winner of the famed Rallye Monte-Carlo in 1997, and was a personal trainer and assistant to Gigi Galli, Italy’s last WRC star. Caneva’s job soon drew attention also abroad, and in no time he became a drivers’ favourite: the list of young guns that took his course is huge, and includes big names as two-times JWRC champion P.G. Andersson, Juho Hanninen, Kris Meeke and Mads Ostberg. The man definitely knows his stuff…

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A press cutting from an Italian magazine covering Caneva’s activity

So Vittorio, Kubica’s performances in his first international outings raised a few eyebrows, did he impress you so far?
“Well, sure I was amazed like everybody else was. The best thing about Robert is that he has the gift of speed, and in large quantities. That’s the first important bit, because it’s something you cannot learn. Anyway I had few doubts about that, somebody who’s been a winner in F1 can’t be less than bloody quick”.

Sure, but Raikkonen was a former World Champion when he left F1 for rallying, and in two seasons he didn’t manage to leave a mark. Kubica did that in just four races…
“I think we must be fair to Kimi. Maybe he wasn’t as suited to rallying as Robert is, but he was still quick. His mistake was going straight to WRC, not being able to accept that in order to be competitive you have to climb the ladder. You can’t just finish a couple of minor rallies and then pretend you can mix it up with the WRC boys, it doesn’t work like that. They had raced the same stages one year after the other, they knew each corner, they had perfected pacenotes, while Raikkonen knew nothing. Considering his complete lack of experience, Kimi tackling the WRC was like a beginner boxer asking for a match vs. Mike Tyson. He would have been destroyed, Kimi in comparison coped with the odds quite well. Kubica’s strategy seems more appropriate, the drivers he’s facing are very strong, but they ain’t WRC top runners. Those are in a league of their own”.

Back to Kubica, we started with speed, what’s next?
“Circuit racing and rallying differ in so many ways, one of them being the mindset they require. When an F.1 driver is waiting on the grid, he knows that from the moment the lights go off to the checkered flag he will need all of his focus. Total concentration, for 90 minutes or so, and then it’s over. It’s a different story for a rally driver: he needs to find his focus for a special stage, so for a time that could vary from 10 minutes to half-an hour, then relax through the transport stages and then find focus again for the next SS. That goes on for the whole day, and some manage it better than others: Kubica seems to have adapted to this different mindset very quickly.
Last but not least, he has a very strong human side, his humble approach quickly earned him respect from the rallying scenario. People likes him, he feels at home, and that is an ideal situation for a beginner”.

Now the weak spots, do you see anything that needs to be corrected?
“Well, surely Kubica’s first outings proved that he’s pretty prone to making mistakes. Bear in mind, it’s something that can happen to a rookie while pushing hard, but it shouldn’t happen when you’re leading the rally with a  5 minute gap on the competition (in the 2012 Rallye du Var) or when you have a one-minute lead like he had in the Canaries Rally. Those mistakes could originate from the fact that he is still learning how to manage his pace, or from his lack of experience, especially when it comes to pacenotes. To get a better understanding, I examined the in-car video of Kubica’s Canaries crash, asking a Pole driver I’m working with to provide translation for the co-driver’s voice: in the corner where they went off,the pacenote was wrong: he called a ‘2 long’ while it sould have been a ‘2 tightens’. And that’s quite a big point, because pacenotes are the key to a rally driver’s pace.
Apart from that, there could be an issue with car control”.

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Kubica’s burnt C4 WRC after his crash at the 2012 Rallye du Var

Kubica used to be very good at that in his F1 years, could you explain your point?
“When speaking about Robert’s performances, we need to remember that he’s doing everything with his left arm, with little support from the right one. This makes his achievements even more remarkable, but it could lead to issues with car control. His amazing talent allows him to be incredibly quick in the standard car behaviour envelop, but how does he cope with a car that is suddenly getting out of shape? How quick his reactions can be with just one arm working at 100%? I’m asking because of my personal experience: years ago I had an accident that caused some damage to my left arm. It was nothing compared to what Kubica had to endure, but still I never fully recovered and my left arm is now slower  than the other. When in need of controlling an extreme situation, that could prove an issue”.

Even if F1 is still his primary aim, Kubica’s future could as well be in rallying. If that will be the case, on what area should he focus to extract every bit of his potential?
“I would say pacenotes, I can’t stress enough how important it is to have good and detailed pacenotes, from both a performance and a safety standpoint. You know, while on a circuit corners are usually separated by straight bits, long or short it doesn’t matter, in rallying it’s different: often a bend leads into another one you can’t see, then another one and so on. Good pacenotes are vital to approach those corner sequences effectively, and if you don’t you’ll lose a lot of time or worse. You can’t rely on what you see because most of the corners are blind, and Kubica sure can’t rely on memory as he’s never been there before: hence, pacenotes are everything he has, and he should pay a great deal of attention to them. Frankly, I’m not aware of what method he’s using and if somebody taught him, from my side I can only say that I would be more than happy to help. The most common mistake that rookie drivers make is to ask co-drivers to teach them how to write good pacenotes. That’s wrong, because co-drivers aren’t the ones watching the road, they are reading all the time. Only an experienced driver can teach another driver how to judge a corner and how to write down the right amount of information”.

Once this will be sorted, what do you reckon Kubica’s potential could be? Could he become a WRC star?
“It will depend from his physical conditions, the fight at the top in the World Rally Championship is fierce and you need to be in good shape to join the fray. If his right arm will recover enough, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t be a front runner at the highest levels. He is 29, so he can still afford to take a bit of time to learn, refining those skills that can only get better with experience. Then I think he could be worth the top 5 in the World Championship, he has the speed to get there”.

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About the Author

In love with racing since I was a kid, from 2004 on I was lucky enough to make it my job. A motorsport reporter for Italian magazines (SportAutoMoto, Paddock) and websites, I’ve also experienced working on the other side of the fence, mainly as Series Coordinator and PR Manager for the Auto GP World Series (2010-2012) and as Event Coordinator for the Gulf 12 Hours in Yas Marina Circuit.



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