x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Kubica's right on cue

The Polish Formula One driver tells us about BMW's improvements and his love of snooker.

Robert Kubica is hopeful of an improved showing in his BMW Sauber car thanks to new upgrades.
Robert Kubica is hopeful of an improved showing in his BMW Sauber car thanks to new upgrades.

The Polish Formula One driver tells Matt Majendie about BMW's improvements and his love of snooker When he wasn't at the wheel of his BMW Sauber, Robert Kubica spent much of the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend checking the scores at the World Snooker Championship. It is not often that the slow-paced action of the green baize mixes with the high-octane world of Formula One but it does with Kubica, who is a massive "Rocket" Ronnie O'Sullivan fan.

"When we were in Bahrain, I tried to see if I could find it on the television but it's obviously not very big in Bahrain," he says. "But I managed to keep an eye on the scores." The Pole has yet to see a live snooker match but boasts an almost obsessive knowledge of the game, proudly announcing a series of facts, most notably that O'Sullivan's 147 break in 1997 took him just 5mins 20secs to complete.

"I love watching it on TV at home," he says. "It's much better than going to the match where you can't talk, cough or get up to get something to eat whenever you want. "Ronnie O'Sullivan's definitely my favourite player - he's the best isn't he? He's so quick, so dominant, he's just a player I really like. I'm not sure if he follows Formula One or whether he's even heard of me. Who knows?" It is unlikely that their sporting worlds will overlap any time soon - O'Sullivan's schedule taking him to the likes of Wales before losing in the recent world championship in the north of England, while Kubica's next three race weekends see him take in Spain, Monaco and Turkey.

Just like O'Sullivan at the world championship, Kubica, 24, has been disappointing this season, the F1.09 not living up to the expectations of the championship-chasing team. However, the Pole, who has been tipped as a future world champion by many of his F1 peers after finishing tied for third in last year's title race, expects a major turnaround at tomorrow's Spanish Grand Prix when the team introduce a new aerodynamic package and insists race wins will once more become realistic.

"We're expecting a big step forward but a lot of teams will be introducing new aero packages so we'll have to wait and see," he says. "We're confident we'll move up the grid but, as for whether it will mean race wins, I just don't know. The team tell me it will so I'm confident as I believe in them." Kubica's plight is particularly frustrating after his team effectively brought a halt to his own championship ambitions last season in a bid to turn the 2009 car into a front-runner on the grid.

"It's difficult to know whether that was right or wrong," he said. "I still feel like I missed out on an opportunity in last year's championship, but ask me again at the end of the season. I might feel differently if, and when, things pick up." It would appear BMW and Kubica have a long way to go. He was well off the pace in Bahrain, finishing 18th of the 20 starters, a far cry from 12 months ago there when he clinched his first ever pole and finished third.

He admits to liking "desert racing", as he calls it, and is already looking forward to the season finale in Abu Dhabi. As for what he makes of the track, he has no idea. "It's not even built yet," he joked. "So, really no one knows for sure. We'll have to wait and see whether it's a good circuit or not." Kubica's ideal circuit is not, however, Bahrain, despite his past form there. Generally regarded as one of the best drivers in the paddock, he relishes the street circuits - "the real driver circuits" as he calls them. "I love those because you just can't make a single mistake or else it really costs you and that's the ultimate test," he said. "Whereas at circuits like Bahrain, it's a bit too comfortable. If you make a mistake, you can make up for it. And for me, Formula One should be harder than that."

Kubica has been obsessed with racing from the age of 11 when he first took up karting. By the age of 14, he had moved away from his home in Krakow, Poland, leaving behind his family to pursue his dreams in Italy. At the time, he found the move hard, but to chase his long-term ambition of Formula One it was the only option. "If I wanted to be a success I had to move away from Poland," he said. "Racing wasn't big there and my father and I had to travel miles to events by car. So in the end, a move to Italy made sense if I wanted to be a professional driver.

"At first, I really missed home because it was all that I really knew as a young child but then I settled in pretty quickly - I love Italy in fact, the people there will do anything for you - and I started working hard. "I basically just lived and breathed motorsport. I remember from 2004 I actually just lived for a year and a half in the workshop. Maybe it wasn't the perfect lifestyle but I loved what I was doing."

He readily admits the move paid off but even as one of the most recognisable figures in Poland - he was recently voted the fourth most famous Pole of all time behind the likes of the former Pope, John Paul II - he is still not safe from the odd rebuke from his mother. His parents still live in Krakow and Kubica has visited just once this year - in February. "It's hard to find time and of course my mother would like me to come back more -well, she tells me that," he says, "but she understands that I've got a busy schedule.

"It's nice when I go home. I do nothing really. Eat - I think my mum wants to fatten me up - sleep and see friends. But I can't really go out as everyone goes a bit crazy if I head to the city centre. That sort of thing just isn't possible for me anymore." Kubica is Formula One in Poland, and in eastern Europe for that matter. When he first started in 2006, he says, most Poles used to call the sport Formula First. Now about four million of his countrymen tune in to watch every race on the calendar.

But having lived in Italy for so long, he insists he is not all that patriotic. "It's nice to do well for Poland and I cheer for Poland in all sports, although I'm not a maniac about it like some people, particularly when it comes to the football," he says. "I like my country to do well but I wouldn't say I'm crazily patriotic. There's the crazy people at the top, the people that don't care at the bottom and there are those in the middle, which I'd say is me."

As for what being Polish means to Kubica, he is not entirely sure. "Your nationality can mean different things to a lot of people," he says. "Everyone sees Polish people differently. Some say they drink too much but that's not my experience but I can't really judge as I don't drink. In some ways Polish people have good and bad reputations in some people's eyes - their friendliness to some people and maybe problems with football hooligans to others.

"But I think Polish people are friendly people. But nationality doesn't really matter to me - what matters is a person. I have time for someone whether they're from England, Germany, Italy, Poland or Abu Dhabi, it doesn't matter to me." Kubica, however, clearly has not forgotten his roots. This season he set up his own karting team, putting a relatively unknown teenager into the race seat. The driver in question is a fellow Pole, Karol Basz, who won his first race of the season.

And although his team boss says it is too early to start talking about the next Pole in Formula One, he is excited about his sideline business. "I drive the karts whenever I can and thankfully no one's beaten me in one yet...no chance," he says. "That would be bad as I'd never hear the end of it. And I'm a pretty good boss. I'm not really the boss as someone else runs it when I'm away but I see the team a lot and got to drive and help develop the karts a bit before the Chinese Grand Prix. But I think I'm a nice guy - I didn't shout at Karol when he crashed the other day for example."

A racer first and foremost, Kubica's idea of fun in his spare time is yet more racing and going go-karting with friends. Needless to say, he remains unbeaten among his circle of friends, and laughs at the idea that any of them could possibly beat him. However, in Formula One he has his work cut out to match current pacesetters Brawn GP and, in particular, Jenson Button. "As a Formula One driver you always want to be in the quickest car and his is the quickest car, so sure I'd like to be driving that around right now," he says. "But I would have said the same about Lewis Hamilton's McLaren last season. Things change quickly in Formula One and hopefully they'll change for us very soon."

Hamilton and his McLaren team have been dogged by controversy and poor results this season. The defending world champion was stripped of third place at the Australian Grand Prix after McLaren were found guilty of lying to stewards over an overtaking manoeuvre by Hamilton on Jarno Trulli. Hamilton, meanwhile, has struggled in the defence of his world title and boasts just one points finish from four races so far this season.

But Kubica, who has known Hamilton since their early karting days more than a decade ago, believes his friend will bounce back from all the negative criticism. "I don't like to talk too much about other drivers in Formula One, but what I will say is that I was one of the first to predict that Lewis would win races in Formula One," says Kubica. "He's a great driver and he's in a great team, and he'll be winning races again before the end of the season."

For now, Kubica has more pressing issues to worry about than the pace and form of his friend, namely his own BMW team. In qualifying today for the Spanish Grand Prix, the team will finally find out whether their car overhaul has been a success and whether Kubica will be given the machinery to launch a late world championship challenge. And Kubica warns: "Our season rests on Barcelona. We've held back our major developments until now. And I want to be back at the front of the grid. It's a lot better fun and hopefully we'll get back to winning."

mmajendie@thenational.ae