*This article was originally published in July, 2017.
The 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix may very well go down in the history books, but what happens after the race will also draw plenty of attention. The post-race test will mark the return of Robert Kubica, whose tragic accident six years ago left him injured and forced to walk away from a sport at which he had just begun to excel. And with rumours circulating that Kubica’s run could soon turn into a full-time seat with the team, Jennie Gow ponders the scale of what a prospective comeback for the Pole would mean for F1 and sport in general.
Poland’s Robert Kubica could be about to become F1’s Miracle Man. When he takes to the track in Hungary for a two-day test with the Renault F1 team, they will assess his ability to compete at the highest level. If he is deemed fit and well enough to eventually race, it could well be the greatest sporting comeback of all time.
Kubica never really left the world of F1 – not in the traditional sense, anyway. He didn’t bow out as he felt his abilities ebbing away. Indeed, he was cruelly ripped from his opportunity to do so at the beginning of the 2011 season, having just set the fastest time during testing in Valencia.
The Polish driver was taking part in the World Rally Championship round of Andorra. It was Stage One and Kubica’s Skoda Fabia left the road at high speed and hit a crash barrier near the church of San Sebastiano. Rescuers battled for over an hour to extricate him. The injuries sustained were substantial: Kubica had suffered partial amputation of his forearm, compound fractures to his right elbow, shoulder and leg, as well as a significant loss of blood. His co-driver had walked away unscathed.
The Pole spent almost three months in hospital recovering, but was back in a rally car in September the following year, where – incredibly – he won the Ronde Gomitolo Di Lana, finishing over a minute ahead of the second placed driver.
Now, five years on from the crash which everyone assumed had ended his Formula One career, Robert Kubica is back. He’s already had two private tests with the Renault team (in the 2012 Lotus car) but this will be the first time the world can see what the man once compared to Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso can actually do behind the wheel of this season’s car.
There have been some impressive returns in the history of sport but, for me, this could be one of the best – I’ll let you be the judge, as I look back at some of the best sporting comebacks ever seen.
Before Kubica’s struggles, one of the most incredible comebacks was that of fellow Formula One driver Niki Lauda. Thirty-nine days after the 1976 German Grand Prix, where a crash saw him trapped in a car engulfed in flames, Lauda returned to his Ferrari and finished fourth at the Italian Grand Prix.
It was an amazing feat considering he suffered severe burns to his head, inhaled dangerous gasses while trapped in the car, had later slipped into a coma, and was missing the majority of his right ear. The recent F1 movie ‘Rush’ paints a grim and very realistic account of the recovery process Niki went through – and to say it was harrowing just to watch does not do the incident justice. To return too quickly could have been foolish, but I will choose to call it unbelievably brave.
Staying with former Formula One, one has to consider the return of Alex Zanardi as extremely impressive. In 2001, Zanardi was competing in the American Memorial race where, in the closing laps, he made a pit stop. In attempting to merge back onto the track, he spun into the path of another car. He was hit side on just behind the front wheels, severing the front of the car. He lost both legs and almost three-quarters of his blood. The accident would mark the end of his open-wheel racing career. But just two years later, Zanardi was back behind the wheel, with the help of a hand-operated brake and accelerator and went on to compete in the Touring Cars Championship.
Undeterred, the Italian returned to a Formula One car in November 2006 at a testing session for Sauber, in Valencia. The car had been uniquely modified to have hand controls fitted on the steering wheel.
After the drive, Zanardi explained that the main problem he was having was using only his right hand to steer through corners, as his left operated the throttle. “Of course, I know that I won’t get a contract with the Formula One team,” he said. “However, having the chance to drive an F1 racer again is just incredible.”
Incredible, indeed. However, his need to compete at the highest level took him down a different path, and Zanardi took up hand-cycling in 2007. He took 4th place in his first marathon – having trained for just 4 weeks. He has since gone on to win 4 gold medals at the Paralympics, and a further 8 World Championship titles.
It may not have been his chosen path, but Zanardi is an inspiration to many and has proven that you can still have ambition even if your plans, body and mind have to alter massively.
Away from motorsport, there was a time when nothing could stop golf’s Tiger Woods – not even himself.
Two weeks before the 2008 US Open, he suffered a double stress fracture in his left tibia. Hank Haney, his swing coach, was with him in Florida when doctors told Woods the preferred treatment was three weeks on crutches, followed by three weeks of rest.
According to Haney, Woods looked at the doctor and said: ‘I’m playing the U.S. Open, and I’m going to win.’
“And then he started putting on his shoes,” Haney recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘Come on, Hank. We’ll just putt today.’ Every night, I kept thinking there was no chance he’s going to play. He had to stop in his tracks for 30 seconds, walking from the dining room table to the refrigerator.” But nothing was going to stand in Woods’ way.
Despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament and that double stress fracture, Woods managed to win a major that required five days of flinching, grimacing and a long list of spectacular shots that have since defined his career. He went 91 holes on a leg that got worse each day, finally defeating Rocco Mediate on the 19th hole, in a playoff.
Staying in 2008, tennis’ Golden Girl Maria Sharapova was at the top of her career when she injured her shoulder. At the time, she was dominating every court, but luck wasn’t on her side. She was forced to have shoulder surgery, which put her out of action for almost a year. However, she recovered and insisted at the time that her career wasn’t over. She completed her career Grand Slam in 2012 by winning the French Open. With rigorous training and a will to dominate, Sharapova made a great comeback.
In the men’s game, 15-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal has had a long and painful history when it comes to injuries. But his trials during the 2012 season were perhaps the worst of all. Nadal suffered a recurrence of a chronic knee injury around the time of Wimbledon that year, just after losing his second round match. He took the rest of the year off to recuperate, during which time he underwent multiple surgeries and intensive recovery procedures. Seven months later, Nadal returned to the clay court tournament of Vina del Mar, in February 2013. He went on to win the French Open and the U.S. Open that year, finishing the season as the World Number One.
In cricket, Sachin Tendulkar – perhaps the greatest batsman of all time – almost ended his career before it ever really got going. He has innumerable records to his name, but this might have not been possible had he given up in 2004, after his body refused to cooperate. Tendulkar suffered from tennis elbow and famously endured a period where he was not even able to hold a bat. The ‘Little Master’, as he is known, was away from cricket for almost seven months. He had surgery and, following that, a further four months of training, but he wasn’t sure if he would ever rediscover his form. That could have been the end of his career, but he didn’t lose hope and made a grand comeback. Doctors said it might be impossible for him to play at the highest level again. But, for Tendulkar, impossible is just a word. He came back strongly, was a part of the Indian World Cup winning team of 2011 and is now the leading run scorer in the sport’s history.
Now at this point, I have a moral dilemma. Do I include the next person for his amazing comeback or not? I have decided to as I’m asking you to judge who you think has made the greatest sporting return. In spite of everything else this man has done, he remains a role model for many and his comeback, whether aided or not, was incredible.
Lance Armstrong beat testicular cancer and went on to win the Tour de France seven times from 1999 to 2005, the most ever victories in the history of the race. As I said, you are the judges of this comeback and its merits.
And what about Ali, I hear you say? The self-appointed ‘Greatest of all-time’ was already used to making a comeback after refusing to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. In doing so, he was stripped of his title and had his boxing license suspended for three years, from 1967 to 1970.
A couple of comeback fights followed, paving the way for one of the greatest (and lengthiest) battles in boxing history.
What Ali had wanted was a shot at the undefeated Joe Frazier. Their first face-off became known as the not-at-all overhyped ‘Fight of the Century’. The bout went the distance: Frazier floored Ali in the 15th and final round, sealing an unanimous points decision, retaining his title and handing Ali his first ever professional loss. The inevitable rematch of 1974 didn’t sustain the magnitude of the first fight as, by that time, Frazier had lost the title to George Foreman. Nonetheless, Ali won the fight in 12-rounds, to a unanimous decision.
With the score now at 1-1, the world craved a decisive, deciding fight. And they got it. The famous ‘Thrilla in Manila’ of 1975 lasted 14 rounds in temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Ali took an early lead in points but, by the middle rounds, Frazier had mounted a ferocious comeback. Ali, however, would not be denied; and the fight was stopped when Frazier was unable to answer the bell for the 15th and final round. His eyes had swollen shut and his trainer, Eddie Futch, simply wouldn’t allow him to continue. In typically modest fashion, Ali lauded his finest rival after the match: “He is the greatest fighter of all times…” the boxer said. “Next to me.”
So, who is your comeback King or Queen? There are plenty to choose from, many of whom have not been mentioned above. Certainly, if Robert Kubica makes his competitive return to Formula One, it will be a thing of Hollywood blockbusters. Just getting into a car is impressive, but to race alongside the likes of Hamilton, Alonso and Sebastian Vettel would be truly incredible.