ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Robert Kubica's return to Formula One is something of a relief for world champion Lewis Hamilton.
The 33-year-old Kubica announced on Thursday he will be racing for the Williams team next year, a remarkable comeback considering Kubica almost lost his right hand in a rally accident in 2011.
"Is Robert older than me?" Hamilton joked at a news conference.
When informed Kubica is indeed older than Hamilton, by one month, Hamilton beamed a smile.
"I'm so glad he's coming back. I was going to be the second oldest driver, but now I'm going to be the third," Hamilton said. "I can't tell you how happy I am about that."
Resuming on a serious note, the five-time world champion spoke of his high regard for Kubica, an old rival from way back.
"I raced Robert from karting days. He was one of the most talented drivers I've had the pleasure of racing against," Hamilton said. "He had a really difficult time the last few years and it's great he's got the opportunity. I hope he works hard on his strength and getting his mind back into gear. It's exciting for the sport to see him back in action."
With the 37-year-old Fernando Alonso retiring from F1 after Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Kubica will be the second oldest on the grid next year behind 39-year-old Kimi Raikkonen.
Alonso, a two-time F1 champion, called Kubica "one of the great talents."
He added a note of caution.
"It remains to be seen what will be the performance of the car and his own performance," Alonso said. "But if he's at 100 percent he'll be amazing to watch."
It completes a remarkable comeback for Kubica, rated as one of the quickest in F1 before a gruesome rally accident in 2011 left him needing seven hours of surgery on a partially severed right hand.
"Being back on the F1 grid next season will be one of the greatest achievements of my life," Kubica said. "I cannot wait to get back racing."
Kubica impressed in testing for Williams last year and was a reserve and development driver this year. One of the main questions regarding his return was whether Kubica's fragile right arm could handle the strain of a heavy car.
Those questions were answered when he successfully completed a rigorous rehabilitation program.
"I would like to thank everyone who has helped me during what was a difficult period of my life over these last few years," Kubica said. "It has been a challenging journey to make it back to the Formula One grid, but what seemed almost impossible is now possible."
Kubica earned 12 podium finishes in F1 from 2006-10 — claiming his first pole position and victory in 2008 — and was considered among the series' brightest talents.
Kubica won the Canadian GP driving for BMW Sauber after placing second at the Monaco GP. Those performances moved him reportedly close to joining Ferrari and a better title shot.
Now he's just happy to be back racing in F1.