- Career Legacies: Rubens Barrichello – The Story of F1’s ‘Nearly Man’
I once did a transcription for F1 Racing magazine in which 1996 Formula 1 World Champion Damon Hill explained the psychology behind a sportsman at the percieved ‘peak’ of their career.
It was a truly enlightening experience as the former Williams driver likened competing at the top of his profession to climbing Mount Everest – the further towards the peak you go, the harder it becomes to sustain and eventually, you’ll need to come down again or do yourself lasting damage.
Given most professional racing drivers spend the best part of two decades training and progressing to even reach the metaphorical base camp, imagine the frustration that must stem from being hampered from making that final ascent.
Between the years 2000 and 2005, Brazilian racing driver Rubens Barrichello had unparalleled machinery as part of the Scuderia Ferrari juggernaut that claimed five consecutive Formula 1 titles. The problem? He also had unparalleled shackles, with seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher for a team-mate.
There were several well-publicized flash-points, most notably at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix when race leader Barrichello was ordered to move aside for the sake of Schumacher’s championship bid, and duly did so – by 0.182 seconds.
“I was not going to let him pass,” recalled Barrichello to Brazilian TV station Bandeirantes several years later “but I received information from Ferrari that made me think. So I took my foot off the gas.”
Undeniably at his prime, Schumacher was fully deserving of the praise he receives from the motorsport community, but equally obvious was Barrichello being kept in his shadow by Ferrari.
When asked later if he could have beaten his more decorated former team-mate with an entirely level playing field, he claimed one of the German’s seven championship titles should belong to him.
He then made way for compatriot Felipe Massa at the Prancing Horse in 2006 and moved to the works Honda outfit alongside Jenson Button, but enjoyed a pretty luckless run and claimed only a single podium finish in three years with the team – at a torrentially wet Silverstone in 2008 – whilst team-mate Button enjoyed his first race victory in the same period.
At the end of the 2008 season, disaster struck – Honda were pulling out of all Formula 1 activities, leaving Barrichello and Button without a drive for 2009. Plucky independents Brawn GP rose from the ashes and, equipped with a well-developed car also salvaged from the ruins, claimed both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles against all the odds – though again, Barrichello missed out.
It certainly wasn’t for the lack of trying. Victories in Valencia and at Monza kept his title bid alive to the penultimate race, but in his own back yard Button pipped him to the title. The debate over team orders had risen again mid-season after the two Brawn cars took split strategies at the Nurburgring, but this time Barrichello was resolute in his standpoint, “I’m sure everything is OK but if I get the slightest sniff of the fact that they have favoured Jenson, then I will hang up my helmet tomorrow.”
He left the team regardless at the end of the season as it re-branded into the Mercedes outfit that now dominates the sport with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, and joined established outfit Williams alongside Kazuki Nakajima.
Fourth place at the 2010 European Grand Prix would be his best finish in the final years of his career, and he retired at the end of the following season to make way for Bruno Senna – nephew of three-time World Champion Ayrton.
So, with 326 Grand Prix starts, 11 victories, 68 podium finishes and 14 pole positions, how should Rubens Barrichello be remembered by the sport? As a dutiful team-mate? As a ‘nearly man’? Or as someone who simply did the best they could, with the circumstances they had?
I’m not sure I agree that he would have beaten Schumacher to any of his seven titles. I’m not willing to put a bet against it, though.