Saturday 21 January 2012

Rubinho: an appreciation of Rubens Barrichello

One of the final pieces of the 2012 F1 drivers' market fell into place earlier this week. Bruno Senna was confirmed as the one who'd fill the remaining available race seat at Williams.

Credit: Morio / CC
No-one doubts that Bruno Senna is a gracious, charming guy and also has potential as a driver, so it's difficult to begrudge him this first proper chance to prove himself at the sport's top level. But the flip side is that the move almost certainly ends the F1 career of Rubens Barrichello.

Do you remember the 1992 Australian Grand Prix? Gerhard Berger won in his last race for McLaren, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna had the last of their many altercations, putting both out, before Our Nige went off to drive Indycars and play golf. It was also the last race of the pre-Barrichello era of F1. Extraordinary to think, isn't it?

Indeed, Rubinho started a record 322 F1 races over a 19 year career, which works out as not far short of 40% of all of the F1 races since the formula's inception in 1950. His not being on the grid in Melbourne this March will indeed be something of a culture shock.

But it's not merely Rubens's longevity that ensured he left his imprint on the consciousness of the F1 aficionado. Rubens's enthusiasm for the sport and for driving was the stuff of legend. He often gave the impression of a fanatical motor sports devotee who happened to have found himself behind the wheel at the top level. And outwardly his enthusiam appeared undimmed throughout his near two decades in the sport. Allied to this Rubens, despite the odd emotional outburst (reflecting, incidentally, a genuine sensitive streak rather than a deliberately political nature), invariably displayed a ready smile and always a civility and generous nature, attributes far too rare in the F1 bubble. These all ensured that that Rubinho's popularity among the public and those the cynical paddock transcended that of almost anyone else. This was never better demonstrated when he won the 2009 European Grand Prix at Valencia. It was Rubens's first victory in getting on for five years, and as he cruised down the pit lane to parc ferme almost everyone from every team it seemed came out to greet him and applaud like it was their own driver who had won.

And moreover, Rubens left his imprint on us by being a bloody good racing driver. He would likely admit as much as anyone that his was never a talent from the top drawer, such as that of a Michael Schumacher, Alonso or Vettel. But he was firmly towards the top of the 'next tier', well capable of race wins and pole positions (he won 11 and 14 of each respectively) and without significant gaps in his armoury, and he could well have won a drivers' championship with a few cards falling his way.

In 2010, then technical director at Williams Sam Michael said: 'Why was Rubens never world champion? For us he is the best possible driver. He brings the car home, does not make mistakes, takes every opportunity coming his way and is an incredibly good car developer and despite his age is still extremely fast'. And this was from a member of the Williams team, not a collective given to hyperbole or to molly-coddling of their pilots.

Rubens Barrichello on the way to victory at Monza in 2009
Credit: ravas51 / CC
More regularly than any other of his stable mates in his 'first' F1 career Rubens plain beat the great Michael Schumacher in the same car. And just over a couple of years ago he regularly showed Jenson Button the way to go in the same machinery, the same Jenson Button who's just finished second in the drivers' championship, driving brilliantly as he did so.

Rubens also delivered some of the most memorable and mesmerising drives of anyone in his 19 year spell in F1. The 2003 season was probably Rubinho's best, and at Silverstone that year there was possibly his best ever drive. It was one of those days that nothing and no one was going to stop him winning. After qualifying on pole, on race day he passed car after car (following a poor start and an inopportune mid-race safety car) to win, claiming the lead by passing Kimi Raikkonen into Bridge corner with an overtake he'd maneuvered expertly for some corners. And then in the final round that year at Suzuka he ensured that team mate Schumi would win the title by winning the race, and in dominant fashion, on a day that his stable mate seemed determined to drive into everyone.

And in his Indian summer season at Brawn in 2009, Rubens was an outside bet for the title for most of the year and brilliantly executed two decisive wins in Valencia and Monza, putting his strategy to perfect effect in each.

Rubens was also as good as anyone in wet, and wet-to-dry, conditions. It was in such conditions that he announced himself to the F1 firmament, at Donington Park in 1993. It's a race remembered primarily for Ayrton Senna's dominant win, but a 20 year old Rubinho, in only his third ever race, put in an excellent drive in his wake which probably would have been rewarded with a podium but for running out of fuel late on. And similar conditions contributed to his first Grand Prix win, at Hockenheim in 2000, where he leapfrogged the McLarens with a superb and brave slicks in the wet performance late on.

But just as impressive in this race was Rubens's smooth drive up the order in the early laps, having started 18th. Rob Walker once said that Alain Prost's overtaking moves were: 'So graceful and sure, almost like ballet'. Those words applied equally to Rubinho's passes that day. Indeed, throughout his career few bowed to Rubens when it came to skills when wheel-to-wheel.

So, to seek to answer Sam Michael's question, why didn't Rubens Barrichello win a world championship? Well, part of it, as mentioned, is that Rubens's talent, while considerable, was not from the absolute top drawer, so any championship run would have had to involve a certain measure of circumstance and things opening up to him. This never happened, although there were at least a couple of near misses. What if he'd joined Ferrari a year earlier, in 1999, the year that Schumi sat out many races with a leg break and his team mate Eddie Irvine came within three points of the title? Rubens's talent was probably greater than Irvine's and given a Ferrari that year could well have 'sealed the deal'. What if Rubens had hung around at Ferrari a little longer, to witness Schumi's (first) retirement? Would he in a Ferrari in 2007 have beaten Raikkonen to the title? I wouldn't have bet much against it. And at Brawn in 2009, what if he'd driven a whole season like he did the second half? He was 26 points behind team mate and eventual champion Button after seven rounds and he finished the year just 18 behind, so it's clear to see where the damage was done. Indeed, he was quicker than Button in the first two qualifying sessions in the opening round in Melbourne that year, before qualifying second with more fuel on board and then fluffing his race start, which left him to trail home behind his victorious team mate. What if Rubens had won here and established the momentum for a series of early season wins such as his team mate achieved?

Rubens's 'peak years' were at Ferrari
Credit: Jeff Wunrow / CC
But to a large extent Rubens's not winning a championship was an accident of birth. He was unfortunate that his peak years as a driver coincided with the era of extreme dominance by Schumacher and Ferrari. This left Rubens between a rock and a hard place: either go to a rival team who'd be unlikely to provide machinery that could match the Ferrari, or join the team and have to beat Schumi in the same equipment, as well as to an extent subjugate his own personal ambitions in the assistance of his team mate. Rubens chose the latter of the two options, and was present at Ferrari for all of Schumacher's championship years.

The importance of Rubens having to 'move over' for Schumacher, most notably at Austria in 2002, is probably overstated. While no one knows the exact extent that playing field at Ferrari was tilted in Schumi's favour, it has to be said Schumi probably would have beaten him anyway even with the same hand dealt (nevertheless it would have been fun finding out what would have happened). As Alan Henry noted in the 2004 Autocourse, Rubinho's conundrum was: 'no matter how well prepared Barrichello may be at the start of a season, Schumacher will be better prepared. No matter how pumped up, Michael will be more so'.

It's probable that F1 was a little quick to give up on Rubens in the end, even parking any sentiment about allowing him his 20th season in the sport. After all, in 2010 he appeared to be driving as well as ever and put team mate and fast young thing Nico Hulkenberg firmly in his place (and showed the racing fire still burns by his keeping his right foot firmly to the floor as Schumi tried to wipe him out against the Hungary pitwall). And just the year before he showed Button the way a lot of the time, as mentioned.

Rubens's final season was a frustrating one in the FW33
Credit: Morio / CC
In 2011 the Williams FW33 was no machine for Rubens to show his talent, and let's not forget that F1 was all prepared to give up on Rubens at the end of the 2008 season, after a similar competitive situation at Honda (ironically to be replaced by Bruno Senna) only for Rubens to get a last-gap reprieve as Honda pulled the plug and the team was bought out by a Ross Brawn-led consortium (who, given their austerity, were keen to avoid the likely chassis write-offs from hiring a rookie). But then in 2009 Rubens again showed the talent that many in the paddock had forgotten, scoring two fine wins and not being far off winning the drivers' title.

But a few things seemed to do for Rubens ultimately. One is, his public criticisms of the Williams car (as I said, reflective of his emotional nature rather than a deliberately perverse streak) put some noses out of joint in the team at a time he needed people on his side if he was to be retained. Also, the 'new reality' for F1 drivers counted against him. At this moment in time it seems that among F1 decision makers potential is preferred to being a known, safe and dare I say limited quantity. As Mark Hughes recently commented in Autosport, in F1 you're either moving up or you're moving out. And last but not least, this new reality also involves increasingly drivers needing to have developed a briefcase of sponsors' money, given the current world economic situation and that drivers are in many ways better placed than anyone to raise these funds to help the team balance the books and develop technically. It seems by the time Rubens realised this it was too late.

Rubens will probably not go down in F1 history as an all-time great driver, but he was certainly a very good one and there will be very few ever that will be considered with the same level of affection as is reserved for Rubinho. And, classy to the last, shortly after Bruno Senna had been announced as the man to fill the Williams seat for 2012 in his stead, Rubens tweeted that: 'I wish my friend Bruno Senna all the best'. Sums the man up.

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