With just three races left of the Formula One season, Robert Kubica of BMW-Sauber sits in third place, with the Ferrari of the defending champion, Kimi Raikkonen, firmly in his slipstream, seven points back. If Kubica can stay on that notional podium it will count as an outstanding season – not quite the equivalent of Hull City keeping third place in the Premier League, but not so far behind. It will also cement Kubica's place not merely in the pantheon of great Polish sporting figures, but of great Poles, full stop. The first Polish driver to compete in Formula One, he is already a superstar in his homeland, easily as popular there as Lewis Hamilton, exactly a month his junior, is here.
Talking recently to The Independent, Kubica wore his superstardom lightly. "People still don't realise what a team sport this is," he said. "They see the driver getting results, but more than 700 people work here. I'm the employee taking the car round the track, but when we win, we win together, and when we lose, we lose together. And the more people you have, the more chances of things going wrong. In Formula One you can never even predict what will happen in the next 100 metres. So I will be very happy if I go to Brazil [for the season's last race, on 2 November]) still in a position to fight for a top-three place. That would be great. But not everything depends on me."
Whether this was modesty – the 23-year-old not wanting to claim all the credit for some fine driving – or ego – wanting to offload the blame if he fails to stay in the top three – it was hard to tell. Either way, Kubica talked down his and his team's inaugural grand prix win, four months ago in Montreal, a victory made all the more notable by his dramatic crash in the same race a year earlier, from which he was extraordinarily lucky to emerge with only a sprained ankle.
"For sure it was a great moment, one of the highlights of my career, but only one of them. In different categories I have won lots of races, and it is difficult to distinguish which is the most important. Canada was already a long time ago, and I'm not thinking about what I have achieved, but what I will achieve. When you have no win, you just want to win your first race. But once you have that, you just want to win again. And I am the kind of person who is never 100 per cent satisfied even if I win, because I could always do better, and not make the same mistakes."
This perfectionism has already propelled Kubica a long way from a fairly modest upbringing in Krakow, where his father ran a business manufacturing tape cassettes. And his progress is followed intently by the Polish public, with up to four million people, more than 10 per cent of the population, watching his races on television. Ironically, the only race this season for which viewing figures plunged was his triumphant Canadian Grand Prix, which clashed with Poland playing Germany in Euro 2008. But it amuses Kubica that his exploits have kindled such interest in his homeland.
"When I started most people didn't even know how to pronounce it. They used to call it Formula First, not Formula One. And to them it was the same as rally-car driving. Now there is media coverage and people know more. It is good fun how Poland has changed. The journalists knew nearly zero about Formula One, but they couldn't say that. They had to write as though they were experts."
Formula One experts positively abound in Poland now, and one can only imagine what might follow if Kubica is ever in a position to win the drivers' championship. Few in the sport doubt that he has the talent, and he feels himself, his satisfaction with third place notwithstanding, that this season could have been even better. "In Hungary I had a problem with pressure, at Spa there was a problem in the pits, at Hockenheim the safety car came out at the wrong moment. Without those things I would be very close to Hamilton."
The Englishman, he added with what looked like a wry smile, is not one of those in the poker school which travels from circuit to circuit. His close friend Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso, Giancarlo Fisichella, Rubens Barrichello and Nico Rosberg are his fellow regulars. "We meet nearly every grand prix, playing Texas hold'em," he said. "We don't play for a lot of money. The weekend is already very demanding, with a lot of pressure, so this we do for fun. Who is the best? I am probably the most consistent."
And what if, in the high-stakes game that is Formula One, he held all the cards? If he were Bernie Ecclestone, say, what would he want to change? "I could never be Bernie Ecclestone, my brain is too small," he said. "What would I change? You can never make everybody happy. But I would go back to the fastest car possible, with V10 engines and quick tyres, and have a single lap in qualifying. Then there would be more pressure, and you would see more quality. It would be a great challenge."
In even becoming a Formula One driver, Kubica had to overcome more challenges than most, above all the absence of any significant motorsport tradition in Poland. The Polish television sports reporter Tomasz Lorek, who follows him through the season, left The Independent in no doubt about Kubica's status back home.
"I would estimate that he is the fourth most famous Pole of all time in terms of worldwide fame, behind the last Pope, Lech Walesa, and maybe the chemist lady, Marie Sklodowska [better known to the non-Polish world as Marie Curie]. Maybe the astronomer Copernicus is more famous, but I don't think so. Robert has made Formula One a national sport, although it still loses to football and ski-jumping. The biggest sporting hero in Poland is Adam Malysz, the ski-jumper. When he jumps, 11 million people watch on TV. But Robert is No 2, for sure. Not everyone knows yet why cars stop in the pits, for example, but everyone knows about Robert. And they don't mind that he lives in Italy. At least he has a beautiful Polish girlfriend, Ewa, and we know he loves his country. During the Olympics he got very passionate about a Polish girl with only one hand, Natalie Partyka, who played table tennis. He also has a special sense of humour, almost an English-type sense of humour. When Massa won in Barcelona, Robert said it was because the Pope was in Brazil that weekend so nobody was watching the race and there was no pressure."
Friends they may be, but in the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend, Kubica will be intent on closing the gap on Massa, who is second in the table. With the football team's World Cup qualifiers safely out of the way by then, and no jumps for Malysz, Polish sports fans will be rapt.
Winning formula: Robert's roster
Born: 7 December, 1984, Krakow.
First title: Won six titles in three years after entering the Polish Karting Championship.
Formula One debut: Became the first Polish Formula One driver when he drove a BMW Sauber in the 2006 Hungarian GP. He finished seventh but was later disqualified.
First Formula One Podium: Third place in his third race, the 2006 Italian GP.
First Formula One victory: 2008 Canadian GP.Reuse content