Robert Kubica may not be "the best thing that has happened to Poland since the Pope," as the same fan said. But he is Kraków-born, rather geeky, not afraid to smile, and one of the new generation of F1 stars, along with Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. At a prerace press shindig, Kubica acted loose, even joked about his bad accident here last year. He'd ricocheted off a wall going about 130 mph and rolled the car. "Instead of being on podium, I was in the hospital," he said. As we walked down René Lévesque Boulevard on the way to a BMW team banquet, I asked him a few questions.
There is no racing scene in Poland, Kubica said. And no, he is not a culture hero. "I am racing driver," he said bluntly. "You are hero when you are on top, and when you are not - " His voice trailed off and he smiled, a lanky twenty-three-year-old who knew the ropes. He possessed a certain je ne sais quoi and was hard not to like.
It's sticky hot. Rained some late last night. I come up out of the subway into the human circus, pass scalpers doing well (all tickets are sold out), hawkers waving programs, and join fans flowing toward the noise. Having opted to rejoin the fan base - those without seats - I revisit some former great sight lines along straights and chicanes. Most are boarded up or covered with grandstands. Eventually, I reach the hairpin at the tip of the 2.7-mile circuit. It's still an exciting spot for the rabble, a Ferrari fan hangout (prancing-horse pennants and large Italian flags droop from the top of the stands in the muggy heat), and where Kubica almost bought it last June.
The F1 drivers are shrieking past: Kimi Räikkönen in a Ferrari, Alonso in a Renault, Hamilton in a McLaren. Twenty drivers in all. Between practice sessions, I look around and waylay a few tifosi.
One character in full Ferrari regalia is Alessandro Spaziani, a house painter from Calgary. Here for the tenth time, he's finally brought along his daughter Natasha, 18. "I brainwashed her," he says. "She's been watching F1 since she was five." Shyly, Natasha pulls out a bright yellow Ferrari T-shirt to affirm their allegiance. Then they make two confessions: he wants Kubica to win and she, on first hearing the cars today, burst into tears.