No More Mister Nice Guy

He has the record for most starts in the sport at 322, and is the eighth-highest points scorer F1 has seen. What Brazilian Rubens Barrichello does not have for 2012 is a drive on the grid, either in a full-time role as a race driver or in a more reserved-capacity as tester. As a driver who has the respect of all in the pitlane, he brings a wealth of experience but it is finances in the form of sponsorship money which has seen his drive being taken and with it, his F1 career. Looking all the way back, it’s quite some time since his debut in 1993.

Like other successful drivers such as Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine, Barrichello gained his debut in Formula One with the Jordan team. His first two races did not see him reach the chequered flag but it was his third which caught the attention of team owner Eddie Jordan. At the 1993 European Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna went from fifth to first on the opening lap and dominated a race which was ran in heavy rain at Donington Park. As Jordan tells it, Barrichello went strongly on his first wet outing:

Barrichello was one of the stars of a chaotic European GP

“People still talk about that amazing performance by Senna when he went from fifth to first on the opening lap. In my book, Rubens did am even more amazing job when he somehow worked his way from twelfth to fourth on that crazy opening lap. The running order was then Senna, Prost, Hill and Barrichello. We were both astounded and mightily impressed. But this was only the first of 73 laps. I could not imagine this continuing.

Rubens maintained his cool and for the first ten laps, the order remained the same. The rain had eased and it was obvious that strategy and changing to the right tyres could change everything. Here was an immediate problem for us. Rubens had never made a pit stop before. In the previous two races, he had retired before needing to make a pit stop. With the sky remaining black and threatening, he would need to pick both the right moment to stop and tyre to go on to. Hill got the stops rolling on lap 17 and along came cars going mad coming in and out of the pits. Among them was Rubens. Anything could have gone wrong, but the stop was perfect,”

With the rain stopping and starting, Barrichello repeatedly stopped for different tyres and this kept him in contention for a strong finish.

“”This was a stunning performance in the most difficult conditions imaginable. The boy was driving like a veteran in such elevated company. With six laps to go, he moved into third position when Hill made a late stop. This was too much to take in. Three laps to go, the pit radio crackled into life. Rubens said the engine had died and he had parked the car on the grass. Third place and a podium finish down the pan.”

A mixture of euphoric highs met by a sudden low, the Grand Prix displayed Barrichello’s conditions in wet weather. After such a strong drive, the season never lived up to such promise for driver or team. Retirements were common, either through car failures or incidents. A finish of 7th at the French Grand Prix was just one place too low for Rubens to earn his first championship point. He had been holding down 6th place but was passed on the final lap by McLaren flop Michael Andretti. He got his best race finish of 1993 and first career points at the Japanese GP, finishing 5th to score two points.

A good first year

The beginning of 1994 was bright, with a fourth and a third place. putting him on the podium for the first time in his career. However, the blackest weekend in the history of the sport was to come into being at the third Grand Prix of the year, hosted at the Imola racetrack. During a practice session on the Friday of the weekend, Barrichello’s Jordan car lost control, hit a barrier and flipped, landing upside down.

It was the beginning of a grim weekend which saw numerous spectators injured and two drivers die,with Barrichello’s idol Ayrton Senna amongst them. Barrichello later told of how Senna came to visit him in the hospital, just two days before his death:

“Senna was the first person to visit me at the hospital. He had tears in his eyes. I had never seen that before.”

On lap six of the San Marino Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna da Silva’s Williams car left the track at over 200mph. Despite his best efforts, the car hit the wall at over 130mph. On-site medical attention came and extracted the Brazilian from his car.He was air-lifted to hospital but was pronounced dead a few hours later. The death of the man seen by many as the greatest racing driver of all time was a devastating shock, something which Barrichello shared:

A state funeral was held for the man seen by many as immortal

“I remember that I was in England when I saw the accident on tv. The procedure to carry someone to the cemetery and everything, I had never done that. I have never lost a family member or anyone where I had to do that. I can talk about it now but in 30, 40, or 50 years from now, we will still remember him as leaving us too early. ”

Barrichello leads the Benetton of Michael Schumacher

The rest of Barrichello’s season was a blur of retirements and fourth places. Wet weather combined with a drying track gave a first pole position for both team and driver  at Spa which hosted the Belgian Grand Prix. Alas, come race day, he was easily passed and later slid off the track and retired from the race.

1995 and 1996 were again, a balance at the wrong end as he finished and retired from races in equal measure. He did record a then-career high race finish of 2nd position at the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix, where Frenchman Jean Alesi scored the sole win of his career for Ferrari. Despite some strong performances over the previous seasons, the Jordan car was dwindling in comparison to rival teams and it was this which lead Rubens to leave the team and join the newly-formed Stewart Grand Prix outfit.

He was all-white for ’97

Headed up by three-time world champion Jackie Stewart, the first season was to prove trying. An excellent second place was the reward in a soaked Monaco Grand Prix for Barrichello.However,  he finished just two other races during the season. The following year had was to be little better, but the Brazilian did manage two fifth-places, his and the team’s only points finishes of the year. Barrichello’s team-mate Jan Magnussen was dropped by the team for his poor performances and in stepped Dutchman Jos Verstappen. A real journeyman of F1, ‘Jos The Boss’ pushed the Brazilian harder than Magnussen had but still finished as second-best to him.

Celebrating second place at the 1997 Monaco Grand Prix

1999 had the Stewart’s suffering different fortunes at the first race in Australia. Both cars over-heated on the grid and while new team-mate Johnny Herbert was out of the race, Rubens was able to start from the pitlane, a consequence of being unable to start from his grid-slot like everyone else. He put in a fine drive and despite his far from perfect start and earning a drive-through penalty, he brought the car home in fifth place. He stood on the podium three times during ’99 and finished in other points-paying positions on three ocassions. Rumours were flying saying that Ferrari boss Jean Todt was interested in signing him and so it came to be. Rubens Barrichello was to partner Michael Schumacher for the 2000 season.

At the wheel of his new Ferrari in 2000

He finished second in race one of the new season, with team-mate Michael Schumacher the victor. It was almost a perfect start to his Ferrari career, but the one-two race finishing positions were to be the start of a trend in a hierarchy at the Scuderia Ferrari team. He was to prove a good team-mate to Schumacher, finishing on the podium a total of nine times in the seventeen-race calender. The highlight was undoubtedly his maiden Grand Prix win at Hockenheim, Germany. Starting the race in eighteenth place and taking a gamble by staying on dry tyres on a track where rain was falling, he again showed his class in tricky wet conditions. It was a tearful man who stood on the first step:

Memories of his late father’s sacrifice brought tears

“It was magic. To see my name on the Ferrari car and to be the first Brazilian to win for Ferrari. It was very very very emotional. I cried my eyes out in the car after I crossed the line to win. When I stepped on to the podium, I looked up into the sky and remembered my dad selling his Fit so that I could continue racing in the karting championship I was in at the time. When I remember it, I feel so emotional.”

2001 saw Rubens finishing the season with less points but one place higher in the driver’s championship in third position. He did not achieve any race victories, though he was close at the team’s home race at Monza, Italy. Were it not for a poor performance by the pitcrew, he may have won but instead trailed in second to the Williams of Colombian firecracker Juan Pablo Montoya.

He finished a career-best of second place in the 2002 driver’s championship and also racked up the most wins in a single season to date for himself with four victories. It could have been five. At the Austrian Grand Prix, race six of seventeen, Barrichello had been leading and looked set to win the race, but was ordered to move over and let Schumacher take the victory for the sake of the championship. The order was given by Ferrari boss Jean Todt, and his tone of voice suggested that it wasn’t the first time he demanded Rubens move over.

Coming out of the final corner, Rubens, on the right, slows in a clear show of who was the favoured son at the red team.

Such a clear show of team orders, coupled with the early stage of the season, was met with boos from the crowd. Stood on the podium with jeers from the crowd, Schumacher stepped down and enabled Rubens to go to the top step, something which did not help the global image of the sport.

Even third-placed Montoya and the prize-giving man look embarrassed

When handed the trophy for first place, the German gave it to the Brazilian and took the second-place prize for himself. The attempted display at damage limitation on the podium was farcical and the team were fined $1M for breaching podium protocol, as per Article 170 of the Formula One Sporting Regulations. Barrichello himself spoke of it, years later:

“It was eight laps of hell, in which I was subjected to intense pressure. In the end I did what I did thinking that I would get some benefits, but I never got them.”

2003 was another strong year for Ferrari where they faced stiff competition from rival teams McLaren and Williams. Rubens took two victories, one at Silverstone at the British Grand Prix, which was subject to a man running on to the track, an incident which passed quickly with no injuries.

Irish priest Neil Horan also sabotaged (and effected) an athletics race at the 2004 Olympics

2004 had the same number of victories bagged by the man from Interlagos, in another year where he had more second places than wins. His final year at the team was a struggle for both him and Schumacher, who had to drive a car which did not adapt well to new rules and scored just one win, taken by Schumacher at the ill-fated United States Grand Prix where only six of twenty cars took part in the race,due to safety concerns over poorly-constructed tyres from the Michelin tyre company.

The six cars on Bridgestone tyres start the strangest race in F1 history

“I decided to leave Ferrari one year early. I went there to have a competitive car. I went there to be world champion. I always felt that I had the talent to win and the fact that Michael was there made it better because then I would be compared to the very best. I underestimated so many things. I could show you my contract and there is nothing in that which says the spare car is Michael’s. But when I got there, that was the case. You don’t know how big he is until you go there. Unfortunately, I had six years of that.

I spent six seasons (at Ferrari) to earn respect. In the end I had to leave the team a year earlier than planned because Michael was everything; he had the spare car, first call on strategy. I would never have left, but I just wasn’t getting the right treatment.”

The Brazilian liked the Honda overalls in 2006

Barrichello made the surprise move to Japanese manufacturer team Honda for 2006. His lucky number was 11, which his kart wore on his first ever race victory in karting. Even though team-mate Jenson Button was officially due to have the number 11 on his car, he allowed the Brazilian to have it. In the first set of races, Button out-paced Barrichello in a car which did not gel with the former Ferrari man. After updates to the car, he was happier but results were sparse. Two fourth places, at Monaco and Hungary, along with a third-place grid slot for the Chinese Grand Prix were highlights in an otherwise disappointing year.

Honda were all dog over the following two seasons

2007 and 2008 were to be years of torment as Honda produced embarrassingly slim returns on such a gross budget.The recruitment of ex-Ferrari man Ross Brawn was done to turn fortunes around, and he was an experienced head who knew Barrichello well. His best finish of ’07 was ninth at the British Grand Prix, one place outside of the points positions. ’08 was a little better, starting the season initially with sixth place in Australia, only to be disqualified from the official results for ignoring a red light at the end of the pitlane. Race five of the season at the Turkish GP was Barrichello’s 257th race. He broke Ricardo Patrese’s long-standing record of the most starts in Formula One of 256. The other glimmer of rare light was at a rain-battered British GP, where he finished in 3rd position, a rare podium for Honda and their first since Jenson Button’s third place at the final round of the 2006 season in Brazil.

Picking up the third-place trophy at the 2008 British GP

On December 4 2008, rumours swirled around the internet of Honda ending their involvement in Formula One. The following day, a press conference was called:

“Honda Motor Co. has come to the conclusion that we will withdraw from all Formula One activities, making 2008 the last season for participation,” said Honda president Takeo Fukui at an emotional press conference.

A continuing lack of success as well as vastly reduced car sales had given the Honda company no option but to end their costly  venture in Formula One. It left both Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello without drives and many members of staff without jobs. Rumours of a takeover by Brazilian billionaire Carlos Slim proved to be untrue and it was in the month preceding the 2009 season’s start when Ross Brawn bought the team for £1, saving the drives of Button and Barrichello, along with the jobs of all. A few years later, he reflected on the moment he learned he would be driving in 2009:

Ready to race in 2009

“My phone was ringing and it was Ross. He said ‘Are you ready?’ and I said that it could be very good or very bad. He asked if I could be there (at the factory) on Friday, and I said ‘I can be there anytime, Ross.’  He said that I had a contract and he wanted me to drive next year. I went into the house, crying, with the gratitude of that moment. That was one of the best days of my life.”

It was to be a dream qualifying session for the Brawn GP team, formerly known as Honda. They locked-out the front row, with Jenson Button starting the race from pole position and Rubens in second. Button got away cleanly at the race start, but it was a different story for Rubens as he bumped and bruised his way through turn one, making contact with the cars of Heiki Kovalainen and Mark Webber. There was no serious damage done however and the Brazilian finished the race in second place, behind Englishman Jenson Button.

Podium joy in Melbourne for both Brawn GP drivers

Barrichello was to be behind Button as the Briton delivered six wins from the season’s first seven races, and finished on the podium in all seven. Rubens got a third-placed podium finish at the British GP, where home hero Button struggled to the line in sixth. From that point in the season, Button was regularly finishing outside of the podium places as was Rubens, whilst Red Bull struck where they could. Race 11 of 2009 was the European GP at Valencia and it was to be a win for Barrichello. His first victory since the 2004 Chinese GP, it was also the 100th win for a Brazilian driver in F1.

Hamilton was probably annoyed at seeing the Brawns on the podium all the damn time

“It has been fantastic. It has been a weekend that I will never forget especially because after five years you don’t forget how to do it, but it is tough. You know that you cannot commit any mistakes and you want to do it for yourself, you want to do it for your country and you want to do it for your family. There was a lot going through my mind but the car has been perfect and I want to thank the team for that because it wasn’t just me. The car was really brilliant.”

Whilst team-mate Button finished well down the order in seventh and scored just two points, there was solace in Red Bull failing to score at all, courtesy of a Vettel engine failure and traffic problems for Webber. The following race in Belgium was not to be as joyous, as problems getting away from the grid were to prove his undoing and he finished the race in seventh. Monza was a return to winning ways in what was looking like an Indian summer in the career of Rubinho, as his native fans called him. It was a strong drive and on Ferrari soil, a sweet win for the man who also won at Monza in his Ferrari days. In his post-race interview, his words seemed to echo the thoughts of many:

“It feels great. I have no words,” he said. “At 37 I’m driving better than I ever have.”

He would not return to the top step or indeed any podium step for the remaining four races. In the face of a team buy-out from Mercedes and Jenson Button jumping ship to form an all-English partnership at McLaren, Rubens moved to Williams.

F1’s elder statesman was joining one of the oldest teams

Williams were not the conquering team they once were and it was a downward step, but Barrichello scored a point on his Williams debut at Bahrain. There were notable high notes in the season, 4th and 5th places at the European and British Grand Prix among them, but he was in machinery which would not be contending near the front of the grid in 2010 or 2011.

In a move which brought former team-mates back under the spotlight at the Hungarian GP, Barrichello’s ex-Ferrari partner Michael Schumacher attempted to block the Brazilian from overtaking him by forcing Barrichello across the racetrack, and in doing so brought the Williams driver just millimetres from hitting the wall, with potentially disastrous consequences. Barrichello’s on-board camera shows the incident from an even more harrowing angle.

The German was widely condemned following the race. He pleaded his case:

“I was making it obvious to him to go on the other side, there was more room there, but he chose not to.”

When Rubens himself heard this, he issued a stark denial whilst also making a less-than-happy reference to the six years they spent together at Ferrari:

“It’s been always my fault for six years. Unbelievable.

“It was the most dangerous manouevre against me in my career, it was.”

Murray was deeply unhappy with Schumacher

‘The Voice Of F1’ Murray Walker was one of many to criticise: the seven-time champion:

“I am a massive Schumacher fan but I have to say he’s gone down a bit in my estimation; his aggressive tactics have been over the top too often,” he said.

“Australia ’94 (collision with Damon Hill), Jerez ’97 (collision with Jacques Villeneuve) and now Hungary in 2010 are just three examples which all exposed a flaw in his character and he more than deserved his 10-place grid penalty for Spa.

“I have to say the one in Hungary was the worst I have ever seen because if it had gone wrong Rubens Barrichello could have been very seriously hurt, maybe even killed, and the same thing applies to a lot of people in the pit lane.”

The race stewards handed down a 10-place grid penalty at the following Grand Prix for Schumacher as punishment, meaning he would start the race ten places lower from where he qualified. The following day, he apologised:

“Immediately after the race yesterday I was still in the heat of it all, but after I looked again at the situation with Rubens I have to say that the stewards were correct with their judgement. The manoeuvre against him was too hard. I didn’t want to endanger him with my manoeuvre. If he had this feeling I am sorry, this was not my intention.”

In what turned out to be has last season in Formula One, he finished in the points twice, at the Monaco and Canadian GPs. In the lead-up to his final Brazilian GP, rumours were rife that he would not have his contract renewed by the Williams team. Some of his fellow drivers, such as countryman Felipe Massa, urged him to retire from the sport and use this chance to say goodbye. On January 17th 2012, it was confirmed that Bruno Senna, nephew of the late Ayrton whom Barrichello idolised, would replace him for the 2012 season.

Two weeks after the announcement, Rubens tested an IndyCar, a leading racing series in America, at the Sebring circuit in Florida. It was confirmed on March 1st that he was to race for KV Racing Technology in the 2012 IndyCar Series, alongside E.J. Viso and long-time friend Tony Kanaan. This was an exciting prospect for Rubens, but one he had not previously anticipated, as he told reporters whilst also revealing a promise he once made to his wife:

Friends for life, team-mates for 2012

“We were watching an oval race and there was a crash,” he said. “She looked at me and said ‘you’re never going to do that, are you?’ I said I didn’t plan to because I hoped that I’d race in Formula 1 for 25 years. My kids wanted to see daddy race on ovals so we had fun together. It was a set-up.

I briefed the boys and they went to Mum. They asked if it was true she didn’t want me to race on ovals and she said ‘I would rather have him race on normal circuits’. Then all three of us said: ‘Luckily, Mum doesn’t tell us what to do!’ It was funny. She knows I’m happy. She can see it in my eyes so she is happy for me. It was kind of funny – my kids helped big time. But she was fine.”

Once he had the ok, he looked further into the team and is sure he is joining a strong outfit:

“They [KV Racing Technology] have been doing very well. Tony [Kanaan, a close friend of Barrichello] brought them to a different level last year, so I hope with my contribution we can build on this and take the team to another level.

“I am extremely happy and have a big smile on my face.”

Despite all his victories, a race he never won was his home race, the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos. He started from pole in 2004 and 2009 but just managed to finish in third on both occasions. His most harrowing home turf moment was in 2003, when whilst leading for Ferrari by over 20 seconds, the car suffered a fuel fault and he retired from his home race for the ninth consecutive season. On a day when it all seemed so sure, he was so dejected that he watched the race from the side of the track.It is not unusual for drivers to under-perform at their home race, but the fabled curse of Interlagos was very much specific to one man.

He’s seen it all, tragedy to triumph, in over 320 GPs

As one of the nearly men of Formula One, Rubinho did very well for himself. Fourteen pole positions, eleven race wins and sixty-eight podiums speaks for itself. He had to contend with being in Michael Schumacher’s shadow at Ferrari, but where Schumacher made enemies, Barrichello made friends. Always cheerful with a smile on his face, he loves driving and even though his preferred place is in F1, as long as it has wheels, he will race it happily. He is one of the true gentlemen of F1 and will be remembered for the happiness, and the heart which he wore on his sleeve.

As the 2011 season  drew to a close, he was interviewed by his former team boss-turned BBC pundit Eddie Jordan in the build-up to what would be Barrichello’s final Brazilian GP. In an interview sure to bring a smile to any face, he discusses Senna, Ferrari, Brawn. It is his career in his own words. Whatever the future holds for Rubinho, he will always smile.


1 Comment

  1. Cracking read Joe, really enjoyed that. Unsurprisingly 🙂

    Forgot how horrific Hungary 2010 was.

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