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Is Robert Kubica Formula 1's 'lost champion' after missing 2008 title?

RacingNews365.com speaks exclusively to Beat Zehnder, Sauber's longtime Sporting Director, on whether Robert Kubica could have been a Formula 1 world champion after he took the teams sole victory in 2008.

It's easy to forget that Robert Kubica was in the running for the Drivers' Championship during the 2008 Formula 1 season. The Polish driver took Sauber's first victory at Montreal that year, just 12 months on from his big crash at the same track during the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. After title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen collided in the pit lane, Kubica took the lead of the championship with that victory by four points from Felipe Massa. For Sauber's Sporting Director Beat Zehnder, who is celebrating his 30th year in F1 in 2023, this win was the result of 15 years hard graft. "The most glorious event was Montreal 2008, our only race win unfortunately," recalls Zehnder. "I wouldn't say it came by surprise because 2008 was a very good year for us; we finished I think 13 times on the podium. But still we were not prepared, and I had to organise - in a very limited period of time - the winning party. "This was quite demanding and in the end, it did cost a fortune, but it was a good party!"

Despite the win and subsequent podiums, Kubica would fall down to fourth in the standings by the end of the season and finish 23 points shy eventual World Champion Hamilton. Kubica was rated highly by his fellow drivers, including Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, and was one of the many that Zehnder encountered who he believed had the potential to become world champion. "From talent? Yes. Definitely," he replies. "But then the problem is always timing. You have to be in the right car. You can be the biggest talent, but if you're in the wrong car it's difficult to achieve a world championship title. It's a lot about timing. "He was one of the most dedicated drivers I've worked with. For him it was racing day and night; he will not call you to ask you how you are, it was always a question related to racing." At the time Sauber was in the third year of their four-year partnership with BMW, however it ended up being the sole victory in what was ultimately an unfulfilling period. The 2008 season is often seen as a missed opportunity for the outfit, as it switched focus to developing their air-cooled Kinetic Energy Recovery System set to be introduced for the first time in 2009 which proved to be uncompetitive. "There are some people who criticised the team at the time [saying] that we changed focus too early to 2009, but I'm not so convinced," says Zehnder. "Probably it's really that it was the first time we've been in such a situation, it's not easy to handle the pressure for anyone in the team, it's difficult."

Sauber as the Red Bull team?

Red Bull was one of Sauber's early sponsors in 1995 along with Petronas, two of the biggest companies who are now involved with teams at the front of the grid. By the 2004 season Red Bull elected to takeover the old Jaguar team and started the journey to becoming the unstoppable titan that it is today. But it could have been a slightly different story had Sauber elected to give Brazilian driver Enrique Bernoldi a drive over Kimi Raikkonen. The drinks company was pushing to have Bernoldi in the car for the 2001 season, but Sauber wanted Raikkonen based on his pure driving talent according to Zehnder. "Why we parted Red Bull and Sauber was really because we had Kimi [Raikkonen] at the time and had experienced him in a test," he recalled. "So for us it was clear that from a driving potential, there was no question for who to go for. But without that decision, could Sauber have been the Red Bull F1 team we know today? "Obviously I would say yes!" says Zehnder. "Dietrich Mateschitz had a dream and then probably you could say ' yes ' but not with the same management. "And then we parted over that [Raikkonen]. Of course, it's not all about money, but money helps a lot and Sauber was always struggling. On the financial side always, except the four years with BMW. But all the years before and after, we've been always operating on a financial limit."

Operating on a shoe string

When BMW elected to pull out of Formula 1 at the end of the 2009 season amid their uncompetitive form and the global financial crisis. Team founder Peter Sauber - who still retained 33% of the company - had to buy back the remaining shares to keep it alive during the turbulent period. "If you remember in 2010, it was the first year after BMW [backing] with literally no money," recalls Zehnder. "Our car was white and the only logo was a Bridgestone logo because you had to carry the tyre supplier." Sauber's perseverance eventually paid off when they took three podiums during the 2012 season with drivers Sergio Perez at Malaysia and Canada and Kamui Kobayashi at Suzuka, the latter leading to one of F1's iconic moments as the Japanese fans chanted their compatriot's name when taking the trophy. "Not a lot had changed on the financial side [in F1] and in 2012 we was operating on the bare minimum on everything: freight, equipment etc.. And it was quite surprising how good it went. "Checo did a good job, Kamui was excellent as well, and finishing that year on the podium in Suzuka as a Japanese driver was something very special. "There's still shivers down the spines whenever [I think about it] because the whole grandstand was still occupied, fully occupied, until Kamui came after his last media appointment. That was fascinating." Read part one of our interview with Beat Zehnder here .

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