Any pre-season doubts about Robert Kubica's 'fit' at Renault have already been cast asunder. Just ask the Pole's biggest fan - the team's engineering chief, Alan Permane.
"He's without doubt the hardest-working driver I've ever encountered," says Permane of Kubica. "He will be at the track until well after midnight, even if he's racing the next day. He wants to go through and understand everything. He's always making suggestions, always wanting to know what is happening. He's very demanding, always on your case. As an example, he drove that great race in Australia to finish second but afterwards he had a list as long as your arm of stuff that he wasn't happy with."
This, for Kubica, is the best. Within the Renault team he's allowed - encouraged - to be who he really is, a man totally besotted with racing and cars. If it's not a racing car, it's a rally car or a kart. You get the feeling sleep just uses up valuable time that could be used to improve his and his car's performance, that he'd stay at the garage all night if someone didn't eventually drag him back to the hotel.
That's the space in his head where he lives and it takes him back to his Italian karting days when he'd sleep on the workshop floor. He's in there, in the weft and weave of the team, in a way that just wasn't possible at BMW. There, he felt always one step removed, like there was this demarcation that, as a driver, an employee, he couldn't cross. He could only turn up and do his job. But his job could have been so much bigger - and at Renault it is. This, for him, is what a proper racing team feels like.
What's even better is that the team is responding to his attitude, taking its lead from him. It hasn't had a driver like this since Fernando Alonso was making his name in 2003-04 - and it's lighting them up. In terms of effort and leadership this is Alonso '04 vintage and more. It's difficult not to feel that in the past couple of years Alonso was just taking shelter from the storm here, waiting for the phone call from Maranello, especially so once he realised the cars were not going to be able to compete at the front.
This year's R30 is not a front-runner either, it's currently over one second adrift, but within that limitation Kubica is on maximum attack. He cannot increase its downforce, but he is pushing the team into getting the car so that he can always extract its maximum.
"He's made a lot of changes to the power steering and the brakes," explains Permane. "Over the winter he's been very clear about what he wants from the steering, with different weighting at different speed corners. This is quite a long lead time item and we've made one iteration but he's still not 100 per cent comfortable with it and we have another new one coming. With the brakes we've been playing around with different-size master cylinders and pedal positions to get him the feel he needs. Again, we're getting closer but he wants more."
Kubica feels the steering is sometimes too abrupt, too sharp in responding to his inputs. He needs consistency above all else and when he has that, his major strength is the ability to take huge momentum into a turn, leaning hard on the outer front tyre. Similarly, braking stability is particularly vital to his aggressive corner-entry style.
"I knew he was quick," says Permane, "but what's surprised me apart from the amazing work ethic is the consistency. He just hasn't put a foot wrong, in winter testing and in the race weekends, not so much as a single spin - other than when he was hit at the first corner in Bahrain. He's totally on it from the word go, yet does not make mistakes. He was brilliant under pressure from a faster car in Australia. In Malaysia fourth was the best result that was achievable - and he got it. Just as second was the maximum in Australia.
"Give any quick driver a quick car and he'll be right there and we're working very hard on giving Robert a quick car. But he's more than just that. His attitude just makes things an awful lot more rewarding for everyone in the team - especially those guys sat at laptops all day. There's no downside with Robert."
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