So who should replace Robert Kubica this season?

“Bruno Senna could not really be expected to shine last season in the HRT, but he did not really even glow a bit”’s Hugh Podmore analyses the state of play at Renault

After his terrible crash and hand injury sustained in a rally last Sunday, Robert Kubica will not race in the upcoming F1 season. It is a possibility, albeit a pessimistic prognosis, that he will never race an F1 car again, which is sincerely to be prayed against. But how will Renault miss the Pole, then, and who could possibly replace him?

It is a true tragedy that F1 2011 will be deprived of the presence of Robert Kubica. He is a gentleman and a star, and further to that a true racer. He finds himself in the exalted company of Jim Clark in that they both were struck down while racing something other than an F1 car: Kubica a rally car, and Clark when he was tragically killed in an F2 race at Hockenheim in 1968. The comparison is not drawn flippantly, but rather to illustrate that both loved the essence of racing: a machine pushed to its limits and the rush of competition. Whenever, and wherever.

Moreover, Kubica took that Renault team places last year. When he arrived they were rudderless; not only had they lost their talisman Fernando Alonso, but morale was hardly bolstered by the umming and ahhing of their parent car company over its continued involvement in the sport. Once Genii had arrived, Kubica was the icing on the cake, the new star on the block. Although James Allison and the technical team must take their share of the credit for what was a nice runner in the R30, there are precious few other hands in which it would have achieved what it did. Take, for example, the podium in Monaco, or the seven consecutive races early-mid season when he never finished lower than eighth. Consistency towards the end of the season showed that Renault had what it took to develop a car, too. You’d have to be a brave man to bet that it was Vitaly Petrov doing the developing.

What is tremendously sad is that the R31, which topped the timesheets on the last day of the test in Valencia last week and (whisper it softly) is rumoured to be actually pretty good, is partly the product of all Kubica’s hard work, and he will probably not now get to race it.

So despite what should be an improved Russian on the other side of the garage, there still remains the thorny
issue of who should occupy the Pole’s seat for what we all hope should be just this season. The contenders, as writes, are as follows. Within the team already there is Bruno Senna, Romain Grosjean, Fairuz Fauzy, Jan Charouz or Ho Pin Tung. Fauzy, Charouz and Tung can readily be discarded as realistic possibilities, given their relative lack of experience. This leaves Senna or Grosjean.

Bruno Senna could not really be expected to shine last season in the HRT, but he did not really even glow a bit. He was outdone by most of his team mates (Chandhok, Klien). He also does not have much experience of developing a car, which it would be too much to ask Petrov to do on his own. But Senna has two big positives: good GP2 speed which might indicate he deserves half a chance in a decent car, and a name that would look fantastic on that black and gold livery that his uncle helped make so famous. That is perhaps not the first concern of Eric Boullier, the man who will make the call, but it’s a good bet a thousand fans would like to see it for sentimental reasons.

Romain Grosjean also has some detractors, not least those who watched him crash into Jenson Button at Spa in 2009. He didn’t look that competent, frankly, even though he was replacing Nelson Piquet Jr. But on the other hand, he was very young, then, and…he did look exciting in the lower formulae, so it may be that he deserves another chance.

On balance, Senna would have to be the better option from those two, simply because he drove an F1 car last year rather than two years ago. But hang on! There’s another two in the mix, as reported tonight by Autosport. Force India refugee Tonio Liuzzi and Nick Heidfeld are the names thought to be on Boullier’s lips. Liuzzi has never excelled himself in any car and there is no particular reason to believe why he would now. The same goes for Nick Heidfeld. Both could be assigned the unfortunate soubriquet of ‘journeyman’. If the car’s as competitive as it is rumoured to be, though, either of them could make their critics look very silly.

So in sum, it is a highly unsatisfactory situation for all concerned. If I were Boullier, Senna would get the call, but there may be an un-team principal-like sentimentality in my decision. Whoever gets the nod, there can be no doubt that they will have to go about their work twice as well as they would have done before. Why? Because it’s a tragedy for everyone that Robert Kubica is not in that car, and on the grid in 2011. We have been deprived.