Rally fan Robert Kubica emerges as F1 contender

LONDON Thu May 1, 2008 9:08pm EDT

BMW Sauber Formula One driver Robert Kubica of Poland waves at the paddock during the third free practice session at the Catalunya racetrack in Montmelo, near Barcelona, April 26, 2008. REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino

BMW Sauber Formula One driver Robert Kubica of Poland waves at the paddock during the third free practice session at the Catalunya racetrack in Montmelo, near Barcelona, April 26, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Gustau Nacarino

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LONDON (Reuters) - Robert Kubica's idea of a fun weekend, when not racing in Formula One, is to stand on a windswept hillside and watch rally cars sliding through mud and gravel.

Poland's first Formula One driver, currently third in the championship in only his second full season with BMW Sauber, could never be accused of being seduced by the glamour of his profession.

The 23-year-old from Krakow, who last year hit the headlines when he emerged miraculously unscathed from a car-destroying crash in Canada, has the heart of a rally driver beating under his Formula One race suit.

"I think there's a good possibility (of moving into rallying one day) but there are two ways to do rallying," he told Reuters in an interview at last weekend's Spanish Grand Prix.

"If I want to do rally properly as a serious driver, I cannot wait a long time. But first of all I would like to have fun in Formula One and achieve something in Formula One.

"The second option is when I stop Formula One, just to do rallying for fun. And I think the second option is more possible," added Kubica, who made his F1 debut in 2006 as a replacement for 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve.

Despite rallying dominating the domestic scene in Poland when he was growing up, Kubica wanted to be different -- a trait that emerged again this year when he singled out British snooker player Ronnie O'Sullivan as his sporting hero.

He focused on karting and single-seaters instead.

POLE POSITION

"There was one moment when I was quite down after one season and I had two offers to go to rallying," he recalled.

"But I said I would try another year and see, because my parents and everybody had made a lot of sacrifices to achieve something in motor racing and in single seaters. I knew the rally possibilities would still be there in a few years' time."

His enthusiasm for rallying continues, despite his Formula One career taking off with podium places and a first pole position this season.

"I like to watch rallies. Every time I go, I park the car where the fans park -- I don't have any special tickets or permission to go -- and I walk six kilometers," he said.

"The night before, I go through some stages to see where are the good points and how to get to them. I like the system of rallying and once you find a good place, you go there and feel closer to the rally.

"Sometimes in Formula One the fans are too far away from what is going on the track.

"If I had to choose and had one week's holiday, I stay at home. But if I am at home and have nothing to do and have a choice, then I go rallying."

Kubica's approach to Formula One is equally uncomplicated. So long as he has food, a fast car to race and a roof over his head then he is happy.

Luxury living and the trappings of modern Formula One are not really his thing and even the food has a limited appeal, with Kubica shedding kilos to put himself on a more level footing with his far smaller team mate Nick Heidfeld.

"I would be much happier to have a strong car than to have a not so good car and more money or something else," he said.

"In Formula One there is a lot of money and glamour and I really think I would have felt better 30 years ago, with fewer motor homes and less everything but more racing. I am a big fan of racing."

COMMUNIST ERA

The irony is that if he had been born in the era of drivers such as James Hunt or Niki Lauda, the global glamour sport would have been closed to him with Poland locked behind the Iron Curtain.

Even for someone born in Poland in 1984, towards the end of Communist rule, it took a considerable effort and personal sacrifice for Kubica to go racing abroad.

In the days before budget airlines and cheap flights to Poland, he was driven by his father around Europe.

"It was hard for my father, hard for me," he said. "Going to Portugal took more than two days so we were losing a lot of time. After that year my father decided I should stay in Italy because it would be easier for me and I would get more driving and testing."

So at the age of 13, he left his family behind and moved to Italy. Even then, money was scarce and sponsorship hard to find.

"When I was racing already in Europe at the highest level in karting, most of the people in Poland were thinking that I was playing, doing it for fun," he recalled.

"It was not easy in some ways but in another way it helps me to get stronger. I am a stronger driver like this than if everything had been easy for me.

"I think I went through hard moments (later in his career) very easily because I was maybe used to fighting and struggling to achieve something."

With BMW Sauber setting the target of a first win for this season, Kubica has already delivered a second place in Malaysia and third in Bahrain. The victory will be harder to achieve.

"Looking at how the car is running and at the others, we are lacking a bit of speed," he said.

"We are always very strong in slow corners and slow sectors...so I think we can be stronger in slow tracks like Monaco and Budapest, the kind of tracks where there are no long straights and many corners.

"Maybe there we will have some chance. But a lot will depend on how quick we develop compared to the others."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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