Sadly we are unlikely to ever know just how good Robert Kubica could have become in Formula One – but could he be the first modern F1 driver to really shine on the world rally stage?
There have been many hopeful mumblings about a return to F1 for Robert Kubica, who was devastatingly injured in a pre-season rally outing just when his stock was rapidly growing.
Right now, however, those ambitions seem to be still quite some way off. Asked last week for his latest views on the chances of an F1 comeback, he admitted: “I would pay all the money I have to be back in the cockpit of an F1 car, ut at the moment Barcelona would be possible, Monaco would not.”
Even then, racing is one thing and racing competitively is another.
Kubica, however, has an incredible determination to get back in the cockpit of any competitive car – and his talent and passion for rallying is starting to open bigger and bigger doors.
He dabbled in local rallies last year with mixed results, but last week he stepped things up when he drove a Citroen DS3 RRC in one of at least four planned outings in this year’s European Rally Championship.
So how did he do?
Well, he crashed out on the second day. Just like he crashed out on the last rally he contested.
But before he did, he had obliterated the field, setting the fastest time on every stage on the opening day. He was leading by a more than a minute when he went out.
Tarmac, of course, is his natural territory, and that is where he has been so far. Pace may be harder to find when he hits the rough stuff, but for now, it seems, he genuinely has the speed to perform at the top level.
As long as he can iron out the cracks and stop crashing, obviously.
Switching codes from F1 to rallying is not unusual – Kimi Raikkonen was the highest profile modern-day driver to do so – but very few occasions have resulted in any major success.
Amongst the many who have tried, Sir Stirling Moss was second in the 1952 Monte Carlo Rally, while Vic Elford won that event in 1968 then came fourth in an F1 race just a few months later.
Jim Clark competed on the 1966 RAC rally and after some fastest stage times was tipped as a possible future champion – but died before he could prove it.
And Carlos Reutermann had some success in South American rallies in the 1980s, but never went beyond that. More recently Derek Bell and Derek Warwick tried and even Ayrton Senna tested rally cars, but never competed.
Both forms of motorsport require natural talent in arguably equal measure, but they also demand methodical memory and adaptability to changing conditions – and the balance between these differs in each.
While an F1 driver must learn just a short circuit of up to around 20 corners, a rally driver only goes through a stage once (or a few times on some rallies) so there is far more to learn.
That, however, means that the demand for perfection and precision is reduced in rallying - because there is little or no repeatability – but the flexibility required is arguably greater, because drivers have a very limited familiarity with the route and road conditions.
The debate over which requires the more skill will never be concluded – but could Kubica, a race winner in F1 already, be the first of the modern era to cross codes and take a genuine WRC victory?
Judging by expert opinion from last weekend, it certainly seems a distinct possibility.
The Pole, who owns several rally cars and has participated in the sport for longer than he was in F1, has been said to look similar behind the wheel of a rally car to nine-time rally champion Sebastian Loeb.
Kubica will also drive in WRC2, the second tier of the World Rally Championship, this year and plans to compete at the top-level in 2014 – but there are hints that an outing could come even sooner than that, given his pace last weekend.
But there is always that hankering to get back to Formula One.
There was talk last year of Kubica becoming a Pirelli F1 test driver this season. Given that he feels he could now drive an F1 car at some circuits and not all, that certainly seems like a good option because Pirelli can pick and choose their locations.
Pirelli boss Paul Hembery is up for it, and last year said: "He is that type of person if, physically, he could get back in, maybe doing a year with us would put him in a good situation to come back in 2014. It would be wonderful if we could do that."
That’s off the agenda for now but it could be an option later this season. But perhaps after last weekend Kubica now has eyes on a job to be done in rallying before he tries to switch back to F1...