The Lifer

Rubens Barrichello, the most experienced Grand Prix driver of all time, talks about Ferrari and his 19 seasons—so far—in Formula 1.

Photo: The Lifer 1
July 2, 2011

Rubens Gonçalves Barrichello spent six seasons racing with Scuderia Ferrari. During that time, he won nine Grands Prix and twice finished second in the World Championship. However, Barrichello is likely best remembered for driving in the shadow of, and being ordered to pull aside for, teammate Michael Schumacher.

Born on May 23, 1972 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Barrichello began his racing career in karts, winning five youth championships. In 1990, he moved to Europe to compete in the Formula Vauxhall Lotus series; he won the championship in his first season. In ’91, he stepped up to British Formula 3, and again won the title in his maiden year.

Barrichello moved up again in ’92, this time to Formula 3000. While he didn’t score the hat trick of three championships in three seasons, he won something better: a seat at Jordan F1 for the 1993 Formula 1 season.

Barrichello’s first year in F1 was relatively uneventful, largely due to the car’s poor reliability. In 1994, he scored his first podium and began to score points regularly. He continued to rack up the points in ’95 and ’96, at least when reliability wasn’t an issue.

In 1997, Barrichello moved to Stewart Grand Prix, but the attrition rate there turned out to be even worse than at Jordan. Although he scored a second-place finish at the Monaco Grand Prix, he failed to finish 15 of the year’s 18 races. Barrichello stayed with Stewart in ’98 and ’99, and began to score points as the cars’ reliability gradually improved. By this time, the big teams had noticed him.

In 2000, Barrichello joined Ferrari. He scored his first Grand Prix victory at that year’s German GP and finished on the podium nine times. However, Schumacher won nine races and the championship. The situation was much the same in 2001, and Barrichello was slowly relegated to playing second fiddle. This was never clearer than at the 2002 Austrian GP, when Brazilian was ordered by the team to pull aside and allow his teammate to win the race. He complied, blatantly, setting off a small firestorm surrounding team orders, which were soon banned (officially, anyway) by the FIA.

Barrichello stayed at Ferrari until 2006, when he left with a year remaining on his contract to drive for Honda. When Honda announced it was leaving F1 at the end of the 2008 season, many believed that Barrichello’s career was over. However, Honda team principal Ross Brawn, formerly Ferrari’s technical director, bought the team, renamed it Brawn GP and kept on racing.

In 2009, driving for Brawn, Barrichello scored two wins and finished third in the World Championship, which was won by teammate Jenson Button. At the end of the season, Brawn GP was purchased by Mercedes-Benz, and Barrichello moved to Williams F1.

Barrichello later said that Frank Williams chose him because his experience gave him an advantage over younger drivers given the current restrictions on testing. But Barrichello doesn’t just have a lot of experience; he is the most experienced F1 driver ever, having started his 300th Grand Prix at Spa in 2010. The 2011 season marks his 19th season in Formula 1. He has won 11 races, and has accumulated the fourth-highest points total in F1 history.

Photo: The Lifer 2

Arranging to interview Barrichello turned out to be very tricky; time is a very scarce commodity for an active F1 driver. Instead of asking questions during one or two conversations, they were delivered a few at a time over the course of several race weekends in the latter half of 2010 and during testing in early 2011.

Barrichello himself is sincere and good-natured, optimistic about Williams and humbled by breaching the 300-Grand-Prix milestone. However, when asked questions about Ferrari, his mood changes slightly, and restrained frustration can be heard in his voice.

At Austria in 2002, you were instructed to pull aside from the lead and let Michael Schumacher pass you for the win….

It’s a situation from the past. You know how much I hate it. I hated it in the past and I hate it in the present. I think the drivers should be allowed to race. That’s all I ever wanted from the sport.

What are your thoughts on the legalization of team orders for 2011?

It is not my decision, but I am all in favor of equality and being fair. There are days you should win and there are days when someone is better than you.

Do you regret staying at Ferrari for so long with team orders in effect?

I regret nothing, honestly. It has been a part of making me better. Some say, ‘You haven’t won a championship yet.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I didn’t. But I’ve become better because of it.’

I think in life, you’ve got to become better all the time. The reason I am working and still in Formula 1 is because I still aim to be World Champion. Of course, some may think I am crazy or something, but you would have never imagined I would have finished on the podium for Honda in 2008. But I did. I think we have to dream of the impossible and become that reality. I don’t regret anything.

Photo: The Lifer 3

What ultimately led you to leave Ferrari after the 2005 season?

A lot of people say, ‘You had a really bad time at Ferrari,’ but I didn’t! I had a great time at Ferrari with everyone. Obviously, I fought all the way to have the same treatment. The day that I felt I didn’t was the day I decided to find something else. That’s why I left the team one year early.

But even in those years, the Ferrari was better than all the other cars. I had the chance to win races, even though Michael was there. I was once on the other pages when I drove for Jordan and Stewart. They were fun and a pleasure to drive for, but those cars were not good to win races with. So, I still had a great time at Ferrari.

It’s like having a girlfriend and then breaking up with her. You forget about it. You have to. Life goes on.

How did Ferrari compare with other teams you’ve driven for?

At Ferrari, I didn’t have the freedom I wish I could have had. If people had believed in me as much as I feel they do at Williams, I think I would have had a different life with them. But as a team they were awesome, and I enjoyed my six years there.

You’ve always been known as a driver that likes wet weather; you won your first F1 race, the 2000 German Grand Prix, by staying out on slicks when it rained. Do you have a secret for wet-weather driving?

I enjoy driving in the rain very much. Every time I see it, I smile. I don’t see it as much of an advantage as much as I see it as an opportunity. Rain always brings an opportunity. I just smile and go for it.

My first pole was in 1994 at Spa in the rain. I remember the decision we had, as to which tire to run, was tough. Eddie Irvine went out on wets, so I said, ‘Well, then, I’ll go out on slicks.’ Eddie put in a good lap time; I believe he was fourth. But at the last minute, I was able to get the car to run the way I wanted and I went past everyone.

Photo: The Lifer 4

Much was made of an incident at the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix, where it appeared Michael Schumacher tried to run you into the wall on the front straight. Did he speak to you about the incident?

I received a text message from him just saying he’s sorry. Someone told him I was under the impression that he tried to push me into the wall. He said that wasn’t the case and he apologized for that. I just said, ‘Thank you, no problem.’ Life goes on.

In late 2010, you became the president of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. How does this change your approach to drivers’ meetings?

The only thing that changes is that instead of sitting in the back row, you sit at the front and take notes. To be honest, I have always been a talker. The ideas don’t only come from the president, they come from everyone. People like Mark Webber and Pedro de la Rosa have great ideas and a great approach. My involvement is to talk to the FIA and Jean Todt. I am very happy to do that.

Tell us about Jean Todt, who was your team manager at Ferrari.

He was great at what he did. He had the ability to contract the best people and put together the best team. I’m pretty sure he is going to do a really good job for the FIA.

What was Ross Brawn, formerly the technical director at Ferrari, like as a team principal at Honda and Brawn GP?

He was a good boss. He would get straight to the point, and I think one of the best things he did for his team and himself was to go through everything at the end of each day in detail to be clear and to know exactly what needed to be done. He was very well organized.

You drove your 300th Grand Prix at Spa in 2010. What does it feel like to have participated in roughly one-third of all Grands Prix ever run?

Photo: The Lifer 5

The thing that touched me is how competitive I am at 300. I think Riccardo Patrese made it to 257 and started to drop down. I’m sure he could have raced longer if he hadn’t. I feel powerful. I just said to one of my friends when I was home in Brazil, ‘When I was in Formula 1 after about five years, I always felt the holidays were not long enough.’ When we came back from a break, I still wanted more time. But now it feels different. After one week off, I want to be driving the car again.

What have been your favorite F1 races so far?

Apart from the ones I have won, I have had some great races in Australia and Canada. I have to say my favorite is always Brazil. It is my home event, and I always feel good back there.

You have experienced a lot of changes over the years in F1. Which set of rules or type of car do you think worked best for you?

The best thing is that I got used to every change without feeling like some were good and some things weren’t good. The better Formula 1 is now, only because of safety. Of course, I used to work a lot less. In 1993, after qualifying, you could go out and play golf—if I had golfed then—like Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. Nowadays, there is no time whatsoever. Today, the sponsors pay more money, so they want more. That’s the way Formula 1 is. I think I’ve accepted that quite well. But I think I came into Formula 1 at the right time. I was prepared for it. I had the speed.

How do you feel physically after a Grand Prix now compared to when you started your career?

I am in better shape today than I was when I was 18. When I was 18, I had a lot of back pain. By now, my body has gotten used to the car. I obviously do more precise training now. I used to run for two hours. After a while, it became: What is the need for two hours of running when a more concentrated 50-minute workout is better?

What do you think is the key to your F1 longevity?

The biggest secret is the fact that you never enjoy the difficulties, but you smile from it and you learn from it. The good thing in life is that we have difficulties to overcome and learn from and become better. I made steps every year, making myself better as a person and definitely as a driver. I’ve been honest to myself, always. I think when you make a mistake, you say you’ve made a mistake. The teams appreciated that. I think that’s possibly why I’ve enjoyed this longevity.

The 2011 season marks your 19th year of Formula 1 racing. What will you do when your career finally ends?

It’s never been on my mind. I’ve never thought of it. My wife isn’t worried. Or, at least she’s never mentioned anything that made me think she wanted me to stop. My kids definitely think I’m going to race forever. I feel that it’s going to be a hard decision to say I’m going to stop. But I think it is going to be easy in the fact that I have always been honest with myself. I know that the day when it is no longer a pleasure for me to take a corner will be the day to shut down.

The most difficult time in my career was back in 1996, when I didn’t have a contract with Jordan. Then I landed a contract with Stewart. That was the only time I ever talked about driving an Indy Car, between when I left Jordan and signed with Stewart. Apart from that, my mind has been on Formula 1 all the time.

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