The tale of Robert Kubica is one of the saddest in F1's recent history. Supremely talented, the Pole appeared to be destined for greater things at the start of the current decade, only for a rally crash on the eve of the 2011 season to leave him with a partially severed right arm.
His F1 career appeared to be over until the story took a remarkable twist in recent months. The Polish driver has been thrust back into contention for a race seat, with two private tests for Renault followed by a hugely popular appearance with the 2017 car at the Hungaroring last week.
With Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso both rating Kubica as one of the sport's lost world champions, ESPN has imagined how the various alternate timelines of Formula One might have looked if the Polish driver's Ronde di Andora accident had never happened.
In early 2011 the world appeared to be at Robert Kubica's feet. About to begin his second season with Renault, he was already being linked to a future switch to Ferrari and tipped as a future world champion. His career at BMW had been impressive; a podium on debut and a win in 2008 at the Canadian Grand Prix. In fact, he had led the championship after that victory in Montreal but suffered from BMW's decision to switch attention to 2009's big rule changes at the expense of that campaign.
At Renault in 2010 Kubica had impressed in a car unable to propel him into the three-team title fight that year, though he was one of the stand-out performers throughout the season. Assuming he had stayed healthy in 2011 his prospects for wins or the championship looked no better in the R31, though Vitaly Petrov and Nick Heidfeld scored a podium each at the opening two races at the team re-branded Lotus-Renault. Where this alternate timeline gets interesting is on the assumption Kubica was overlooked by Ferrari in 2012 and stayed with the team which became Lotus.
Lotus' decision to sign Raikkonen for 2012 was prompted by Kubica's announcement he would not be ready for the start of that season's campaign, as long-term doubts started to grow about his ability to ever return to an F1 car. Raikkonen's eventual move to Lotus occurred after talks with Williams fell through -- in this imagined timeline, the presence of Kubica would leave Grove as the only logical destination for the 2007 world champion to return with in 2012. His eventual switch to Ferrari in 2014 may have followed, though a frustrating season off the pace with Williams FW35 in 2013 may have made the Finn a less attractive proposition than some of the youngsters Ferrari eventually overlooked such as Nico Hulkenberg.
Then that leaves the small matter of Kubica himself at the Lotus outfit. As Raikkonen proved, in both 2012 and 2013 the team had a car capable of claiming podiums and the occasional win, but the Finn's form since joining Ferrari suggests he is not the same driver as he was in his original stint in Formula One. Which begs the question, did we really see the best of Lotus in 2012? Raikkonen only finished 78 points behind eventual champion Sebastian Vettel -- it is not a stretch to suggest Kubica would have fared better than a man returning from a two-year sabbatical. There are some in the F1 paddock who are certain he could have been a title contender in the Lotus E20.
Raikkonen's success at Lotus opened the door to a switch to Ferrari in 2014, but that could well have been Kubica had things played out differently. That is, of course, assuming his career path hadn't gone through Maranello earlier...
Before his injury, Robert Kubica had signed a pre-agreement to drive for Ferrari in 2012. Pre-agreements are not uncommon in F1 and it does not bind a driver to a seat (for example, Kubica had one for 2011 before Ferrari retained Felipe Massa). A good relationship with Fernando Alonso and fluent Italian learned from his karting career suggests he would have been a good fit.
The retained Massa failed to score a single podium in 2011. The presence of a healthy Kubica, would have had a full season at Lotus-Renault under his belt without his injury, may have been too good an option to overlook for a second straight season.
In 2012, Ferrari finished 60 points shy of Red Bull. Massa managed just two podium finishes, while teammate Alonso won three races, made 10 other visits to the podium and led the championship for nearly half the season. Kubica -- the man Alonso has consistently rated as the best of his contemporaries -- would have undoubtedly fared far better than Massa, a driver who was never the same after suffering a life-threatening injury in 2009. At the end of the year Massa was 156 points shy of Alonso, who himself finished just three shy of beating Sebastian Vettel to the championship. That put Massa behind Raikkonen, the McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, and Mark Webber in the other Red Bull. He was the only one of them not to record a win that season.
At worst, Kubica could have provided a more competitive rear-gunner to Alonso's title bid late in the season; at best, he could have competed for wins himself and turned the season into a three-horse race. Two competitive drivers in red could have also given Ferrari its first constructors' championship since 2008. The fact Ferrari has had Kimi Raikkonen alongside Alonso and Sebastian Vettel since 2014 suggests the team would not have been averse to signing another big-name driver had Massa's departure simply come two years earlier.
Kubica would have likely ended up sharing Alonso's frustrations the following year, however, as the team started strongly but ultimately failed to mount a championship challenge with the F138. Further disappointment followed in 2014, prompting Alonso to leave for McLaren and its doomed project with Honda. However, much of Alonso's reason for walking away from Maranello came from his years of failure to win a title with Ferrari -- if 2012 had led to a championship, as suggested above, the Spaniard's desire to stay with the Italian team might have been a lot different at this point.
This career trajectory for Kubica would have had obvious ramifications on the rest of the grid. Notably, it would have left Massa looking for a drive in 2012. Switching places with Kubica at Lotus may have been an option, though its likely the team still would have pursued a big-money move for the returning Raikkonen, just under different circumstances. A lack of options elsewhere could have prompted an early retirement for Massa -- something he actually considered in 2012 when struggling for form alongside Alonso -- or an earlier drop down the grid.
Had Massa gone for the early retirement or moved elsewhere, one interesting question-mark would be who Williams decided to put alongside Valtteri Bottas at the start of 2014. Imagine how the career of Hulkenberg would have looked had he returned to Williams for the V6 turbo era after being overlooked by Lotus in favour of Pastor Maldonado, or what a hungry, wounded Sergio Perez could have done (after being cast away by McLaren at the end of 2013) in the car which spent most of the year as best-of-the-rest behind Mercedes and claimed a pole position in Austria.
Hanging over all this is the "what if?" question around Mercedes. Any driver who has wanted a guaranteed shot at winning a world championship since the turn of the decade has (until 2017) needed to be in either a Red Bull or a Mercedes at the right time. Given Kubica was not in Red Bull's driver academy a move there seems unlikely, even if he had been available when the team started to question Mark Webber's place at the team in 2012 and 2013. But it seems like there would have been at least three opportunities for Kubica to get in on the dominant Mercedes train of the V6 era...
Had Kubica challenged for a championship with Ferrari or Lotus in 2012, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that it would have been the Pole having a poolside chat with Niki Lauda mid-way through that season instead of Lewis Hamilton. As we know now, Lauda was able to convince Hamilton to end a life-long affiliation to McLaren by joining Mercedes for the 2013 season, giving him the freedom he'd never experienced at his former team but also (correctly) promising him the German manufacturer was about to strike gold with its V6 turbo project.
The Hamilton of 2011 and 2012 is not the driver we know today -- he was still prone to hugely erratic fluctuations in form and seemed destined to be consigned to the group of drivers who never quite lived up to their potential. Had Kubica been around and performing at a high level at this time it may have persuaded Wolff and Lauda to follow a different path. In truth, this outcome seems less likely than the two to follow -- the quiet and unassuming Kubica would not have become the sort of global icon Hamilton has evolved into, the marquee driver Mercedes saw and still sees as essential to spearheading its F1 team and selling its road cars.
Imagining a different career path for Hamilton at this stage is fascinating. The Englishman's departure from McLaren coincided with the team's downfall -- it has not won since the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, which also happened to be his last race. For all of the criticism given to any driver in a dominant car, Hamilton deserves credit for having the foresight to recognise what was on the horizon for the Silver Arrows and making a decision so many thought was career suicide at the time. But it's an option which might never have existed for Hamilton in the first place.
Had Kubica gone to Mercedes instead, Hamilton would have stayed with McLaren for its disastrous 2013 season. Prospects elsewhere would have looked little better in 2014 as McLaren struggled again, and here comes a fork in the road -- would he have swapped places with Fernando Alonso at Ferrari instead, blocking the move of Sebastian Vettel? If you thought it was strange seeing Vettel in red in early 2015 shortly after his switch from Red Bull, imagine Hamilton walking out of the garage at Maranello in those famous overalls.
Vettel staying at Red Bull in turn could have kept the likes of Jean-Eric Vergne in F1 and meant the team did not need to promote Daniil Kvyat too early, while also making it unlikely it would have offered an immediate Toro Rosso seat to a youngster named Max Verstappen. Imagine instead the teenager accepting a junior role with Mercedes (which the Verstappens only turned down because Red Bull's offer had the prospect of an immediate F1 drive), which would have likely begun in DTM before being moved up to one of the team's engine customers, as we have seen with Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon.
A situation even more remarkable to consider is it being Hamilton, not Alonso, stranded at the sinking McLaren-Honda project instead of claiming another two world championships and storming towards Michael Schumacher's record for pole positions and race victories. It could very easily have turned out that way had circumstances been slightly different.
But a more logical outcome seems to be that Kubica would have become Hamilton's teammate. In 2014, Nico Rosberg's future was at Mercedes was by no means a certainty. The German driver was out of contract at the end of that season and, despite leading the championship, the team was considering other options. That situation prompted speculation Toto Wolff might sign Fernando Alonso and tentative talks took place, with the Mercedes boss ultimately deciding the Spaniard's disruptive influence could jeopardise the team's harmony further. Imagining Kubica had been on the scene at this time, things may have been different.
For Mercedes, Kubica would have provided a driver as quick and competitive as Alonso without the added baggage of either bad blood with Hamilton or a reputation for politicking within a team. Add into the mix his Polish heritage -- not German, but potentially enough to satisfy the Mercedes board of directors in Stuggart -- and he could have been the perfect candidate to replace Rosberg. A mouth-watering amount of wins and championships could have gone to Kubica.
Had neither of these opportunities presented itself at the time, one more possibility springs to mind. When Rosberg announced his shock retirement at the end of last season as world champion, there was no obvious candidate to replace him -- Wolff still had doubts about Alonso, the likes of Bottas and Romain Grosjean were unproven at the top level, Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz were locked into deals with other teams. Assuming Kubica had not been injured in 2011 and had been driving elsewhere come December last year, the prospect of securing his signature would have been a tantalising one for Wolff.
However you look at it, the career Kubica never had is a frustrating one to imagine. Cream always rises to the top in F1 and drivers of his talent usually get at least one chance to drive a car with championship-winning potential. As many other accidents, injuries and deaths have in Formula One's colourful past, Kubica's 2011 crash prematurely ended what could have been a wonderful career. He may still get a chance to return in the yellow and black of Renault this season or in 2018, but the "what if" surrounding his lost six-and-a-half years will always linger.