No wonder Rubens Barrichello is happy. Finally, after two decades in the top flight, he is a team leader at Williams, although a certain Mr Schumacher is still testing his patience…
No one got hurt in the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2005, but otherwise it was one of the most disastrous days in the history of Formula 1. Michelin, otherwise supreme at the time, for once got its calculations wrong and turned up at the Speedway with tyres incapable of coping with the long ‘oval’ turn at the end of the lap.
How this could have happened seemed incomprehensible — the track hadn’t changed, after all — but facts were facts: the tyres were incapable of more than about 10 safe laps — and this was the year, of course, in which tyre changes were banned.
Various options to allow a normal Grand Prix to be run were considered, including the insertion of a chicane before the problematic corner. All the drivers — save Michael Schumacher — agreed to this solution, but back in Paris Max Mosley was immovable. Hence, precisely six cars — the Bridgestone runners — went to the grid, and 120,000 fans swiftly became restive.
Michelin behaved entirely honourably, handing over millions for ticket refunds and the like, but the spectators were angry as they left that afternoon, and many took a decision never to come back.
Angry, too, were the drivers who had been unable to compete — and even one who had taken part, for that day Rubens Barrichello concluded that he had had enough of Ferrari, and wanted out.
We had known for some time that Barrichello was less than content. This was his sixth season of partnering Schumacher, and while the statistics of his spell at Maranello — nine wins, 11 pole positions, 56 podiums, 412 World Championship points — are impressive, over time Rubens became ever more unsettled by the strictures imposed on him. If you were ‘the other Ferrari driver’, you were absolutely not to rain on Michael’s parade. In each of Barrichello’s first five seasons with Ferrari, Schumacher was World Champion.
The sixth was different, though. In 2005 the ban on tyre changes put Ferrari on the back foot, for Bridgestone proved far less adept than Michelin at building a 200-mile tyre — save at Indianapolis, where the grid comprised two Ferraris, two Jordans and two Minardis.
This looked like Ferrari’s only shot at winning a Grand Prix that year, and pretty silly it would have looked had it contrived to lose against such negligible opposition. The red cars were on a cruise until the first fuel stops, when Rubens moved into the lead. At the second stops he came in first — while Schumacher set the fastest lap. Michael emerged from his stop as Rubens rushed down the straight, and brushed him out of the way into the first turn.
Amazing, we thought — even on a day like this, Schumacher can’t help himself. On the podium Barrichello declined even to look at him.
Presumably, I said when we sat down together recently, it was that incident that made you decide to leave Ferrari, but Rubens said not. “No, it wasn’t the way Michael overtook me — that was hard, but fair. No, it was something else… At Indy I decided right then that I should quit Ferrari — that the human side was more important than anything else.”
I interviewed Barrichello several times through the Ferrari years, and always he was adamant that there was no clause in his contract obliging him to give way to Schumacher. “That was true,” he said again now. “There never was anything in the contract…”
David Coulthard, I mentioned, recently said that when he talked to Ferrari, it was made clear that if he went there he would be working for Schumacher; on that basis he declined to take it any further.
“Well,” said Rubens, “no one at Ferrari said anything before I signed the contract, never said anything up to the moment — halfway through 2000, my first year there — that Michael and I actually ‘met’ on the race track, and then they said, ‘Oh, you know how it works, Rubens…’ I said no, I don’t know how it works.
“I’d always thought that I could overcome problems with my natural talent, but… The pressure starts to mount when you finish second, and people on the outside start to believe that you just got beaten…”
Emphatically that wasn’t the case in Austria in 2002, when Barrichello, having dominated, was patently ordered to let Schumacher through immediately before the finish line.
“No,” Rubens agreed. “Austria was a ‘visible’ one — but there were plenty of invisible ones. Over time there were many things I heard on the radio that made me say, What?!’
“Still,” he shrugged, “I hate people who seek revenge. Sometimes it feels as though half the people in the paddock are waiting for my book, in which I tell all the secrets and so on — but, you know, I’m not even sure I would do that.”
Barrichello is indeed writing his autobiography, a work in progress for more than a year. “I do it on the plane,” he said. “I’m doing it chronologically, and my memory is quite good, fortunately — the only time where it isn’t sharp is Imola ’94, where Ayrton died. When I had my accident on the Friday, I had a hard bang on the head and lost a little bit of my memory — which probably is good…”
While his situation as Schumacher’s teammate may have been less than ideal, in those years — as Rubens points out — the second Ferrari was invariably a more competitive proposition than the first anything else. “I never doubted that I had the same equipment as Michael. It was the treatment I got that was so different.”
As it was, when enough had become enough, he requested that he be allowed to leave a year before the end of his contract. Did Ferrari understand his decision — even sympathise with it?
“Oh, I don’t think it changed anything for them. At the end of the day they still had Michael, and they kept winning, so…”
Barrichello, though, did not keep winning, for he moved to Honda, whose disastrous F1 programme has been well chronicled. There were no podiums for him in ’06, and the following year no points.
“The most frustrating thing about F1,” said Barrichello. “is that, if you haven’t got the car, you can do nothing about it — it’s not like tennis where you just have a racquet, and OK, sometimes you have a bad phase, and then you come out of it. I had success at Ferrari, none at Honda, then success again with Brawn, and it was nothing to do with talent — my mind has changed over the years, but I don’t think my actual talent has ever changed.”
At the time, though, moving to Honda seemed a sound idea, and Rubens admits that his close friendship with Gil de Ferran — at that time working with the F1 team — played a part in his decision.
“Gil told me that Honda was very committed, that money was not a problem, and everything was looking good. The problem was, it didn’t turn out the way he thought it would! It was the wrong decision to fire [technical director] Geoff Willis — after he left, the team went downhill.”
By 2008 Jenson Button had effectively given up on Honda, and the team looked mainly to Barrichello to keep its motivation alive. Ross Brawn was aboard by now, but he had arrived too late to have any influence in the design of the latest car, another dog.
“It was always in my mind,” Rubens said, “that I’d just keep working, and my better days would come back…” When he finished third in the rains of his beloved Silverstone, it was as if Honda had won the championship.
Even worse was to come, though, for at the end of ’08 the company announced that it was out of F1. Immediately Brawn set about the task of somehow keeping the team alive, but for Button and Barrichello the future seemed bleak. “I was very frightened,” said Rubens. “Honda made their decision very late, and if Ross didn’t save the team, I had nothing. That was the worst time of my life, and yet also the best, oddly enough — believe me, I really was in contact with my soul at that point! I kept telling myself that everything would be OK, even though people were telling me the opposite. I remember a Brazilian journalist phoning me — he said, ‘I’m not calling to interview you, but just to tell you that for sure Bruno Senna has signed for the team. I’m just trying to be a friend…’ Yeah, right.
“My head was all over the place, but I stayed positive. I trained hard — even harder than usual — and when it was settled, I was very emotional. I was at our house in the country, and my European mobile rang for the first time in a long time. I’d been calling Ross, and he’d say, ‘Rubens, I’m sorry, I cannot do anything for you at the moment’, but now he was offering me the drive. I went to tell my wife, and I had tears in my eyes. And then, when I first drove the car, it was magic… Just a dream coming true…”
The Mercedes-powered Brawn BGP001 appeared late in winter testing, but at once proved sensationally quick. For Barrichello and Button, after so long in the Honda wilderness, then fearing they were on the street, it was indeed a dream coming true.
For all that, it was Jenson who took over the first half of the 2009 season, winning six of the first seven races, and building a points lead which would see him to the World Championship. Thereafter, though, he never won again, and in the second half of the year Barrichello — victorious at Valencia and Monza — was Brawn’s front-runner.
“When I look back on that year, I think it was a championship I basically threw away because of the brakes at the start of the season. I had the brakes that I’d used with Honda, but now for some reason the rear calipers got too hot, and the balance shift was wrong. We reached a point where there was nothing else to try — so let’s try Jenson’s brakes. I’d tried them in the past, and never liked them, but we put them on my car — and the problem was solved! This was after six races, and after that I was usually ahead of him, but already he’d had all these wins. And by then, too, Red Bull were really coming up — their car was the fastest, for sure.
“After three years of being nowhere, it was great to have a competitive car, and to win again. I think Monza was as good as any race I ever drove — I was on the edge the whole time, and although I’d won there before, it was so good to do it in something other than a Ferrari.”
Through the year, though, Barrichello wondered about his future. In July he asked Brawn about 2010, and Ross said it could be the end of the season before anything was decided.
A couple of months earlier, Sam Michael of Williams began talking to Barrichello, and although Frank’s team had been through a very lean spell — not since 2004, when Juan Pablo Montoya won in Brazil, had there been a victory — Rubens was interested.
“If you look back to interviews I did when I was racing go-karts in Brazil, you’ll see that when I was asked which team I wanted to drive for in F1, I always said Williams. Over time I talked to Frank — every two years or so — about driving for him, but for one reason and another it never happened until now. And I think this is the right moment for the team to get me — they’re getting all my experience and enthusiasm and love and passion for driving.
“I didn’t know where it was going with Brawn. Finally, in Brazil, I had the offer from Ross — and also from McLaren — but by then I’d signed for Williams, and I was a happy man.
“McLaren were looking for someone to partner Lewis [Hamilton], and they realised that things were changing at Brawn. Actually we didn’t go too far because I would only have gone there if there had been absolutely no sign of any… rules or anything like that. I like Martin [Whitmarsh] — he seems to be a nice guy, and very correct. I would have loved to talk to him a bit more, but I had to tell him that I already had a contract. It was the same with Ross: it was too late.
“When Brawn talked to me, I think they’d already signed Nico [Rosberg], but they might have been getting the impression that it was going to be difficult to sign Jenson — the discussions were taking longer than expected because of the money. As far as I know, McLaren only talked to Jenson later. Actually, I think it was a big loss for Brawn (now Mercedes) to lose both drivers at the same time. We were settling quite well, and that would have made a difference this year.”
If Barrichello has had a less competitive car this year at Williams, he has looked like a man happy in his work — not least perhaps because for the first time in his life he is regarded unequivocally as a team leader. At Hockenheim I asked technical director Sam Michael how the partnership was working out, and his response was immediate: “Rubens is the best racing driver I have ever worked with in F1 — how he hasn’t been World Champion three or four times I don’t understand…”
It was Barrichello’s absolute commitment to the team that meant so much, Michael went on — that, and the fact that his technical input is of a quality no one at Williams can remember.
“Well, that’s nice to hear,” Rubens said, “but, you know, information is nothing if you don’t have passion and enthusiasm, and I think that’s why they’re happy with me. Everything I’m trying to do is for our benefit.
“Sam was my telemetry guy at Jordan years ago, and we’ve always worked together extremely well. Communication between us is very pure — I can go to the line in my feelings about the car, and he will go to the line to make sure I get things I’m asking for. He was quite surprised when I said, ‘Sam, I don’t think the car is aggressive enough, in the way that it’s made…’ I think he’s building something more special for next year.
“The Williams team has everything I enjoy — the right spirit, the fighting mentality, the good personnel, everything. The reason why I smile, even with a car not competitive with the best, is that I know that the future can be bright — we just need to work to make it happen. I work like hell on the car, and that’s the way it should be — for the rest, we need to be patient, and to be good to each other.
“My relationship with Frank and Patrick [Head] is unique in my experience. People think Patrick isn’t very involved any more, but he’s working well with Cosworth — any enginerelated problem, and I go straight to him. As for Frank, I’ve never seen anyone with so much passion for motor racing — it’s truly amazing.
“I guess the view of Williams — from the outside — is like ‘the Alan Jones years’, isn’t it? Well, I’m quite tough when I’m working — but I can also be quite soft, and actually Williams is like that, too. They work very, very hard, and they want a result — just the same as me.”
As I write, Barrichello has scored 47 World Championship points, but the one — for 10th place — which says most about the man was that scored in Hungary, when he passed Schumacher.
Fifteen or so seconds earlier Rubens had been on the radio to say that Michael was up to his old tricks — leaving the door open, inviting him into the gap, then chopping across, obliging him to back off. Now, out of the last corner, the Mercedes bobbled, and Barrichello clearly had a run. At that moment, F1’s doctor Gary Hartstein says he began to reach for his gloves…
“Actually,” Rubens said, “I must say that the incident was much more spectacular on TV than it was in real life!”
It wasn’t the TV footage that registered with me, I said, as much as a still photo — freezing that 190mph split-second when the Williams was between Schumacher’s car and the pitwall.
“Yeah, I know — you’re right. The thing is, you don’t see it coming. My kids said, ‘Daddy, you were awesome! How did you overtake?’ I said, ‘I just closed my eyes, and went through…’ I really didn’t see the wall coming — I just saw him coming on my left. As I say, it looked more spectacular on TV. You see it later on, and you say, ‘Wow! You must have three balls…”
It was a moment of acute risk, not only for Barrichello, but also for Schumacher himself. Does it not enter Michael’s head, when he pulls a stunt of this kind, that he might be involved, might get hurt? “No, I don’t think it does,” said Rubens. “It can’t.” A point made by not a few at the time was that this was a fine way for Schumacher to behave towards a man who had been his teammate — loyal above and beyond — for six years. “Oh, it means nothing to him. Nothing. Actually, I thought the worst thing he did was to get out of the car and be arrogant about it — that line about, ‘Everyone knows I don’t give presents…’ I guess if he’d had any coaching from the team before he spoke to the press he would have given a different impression. Michael has been one of the greatest champions — but as a human being he has a lot to learn.”
The general consensus is that Schumacher’s performances this season have been underwhelming. As one so familiar with the man before his retirement at the end of 2006, had Barrichello expected more of him?
“Well, after stopping for three years… I didn’t expect him to come back and win, no. For one thing, I drove for that team, and from the middle of last year we didn’t get much new stuff. For another, winter testing tells you nothing, because a team’s two drivers are never in the car at the same time. I was open-minded about him coming back, but…
“Look at it like this. I’m Rubens Barrichello, I stop for three years, I’ve never been World Champion, Mercedes call to offer me a drive. Would I accept? Of course I would — because it’s offering me another chance to win the title.
“Now. I’m Michael Schumacher, I’ve been World Champion seven times, Mercedes make me an offer… but what is my motivation? I’ve got everything to lose. Well, I’m doing it for the pleasure. OK, go and drive something — go-karts or whatever — that still gives you a buzz, but lower down the scale. Here, in F1, there’s no way to drive just for pleasure: you’re here to compete.”
This year’s Belgian Grand Prix was Barrichello’s 300th, and Williams hosted an informal ceremony in celebration. The turnout said everything about the affection in which Rubens is held. Bernie Ecclestone — selective in the paddock events he attends — was there, and so was virtually every driver.
Schumacher, however, was conspicuous by his absence. Barrichello shrugged. It meant a lot, this evidence of his fellows’ esteem for him: statistically, Michael’s record of achievement may never be equalled, but universally loved he is not.
“Well,” Rubens sighed, “some people value the material side — such as the championship — more than others. I would die to win the championship — but in a fair way.
“I’ve always wondered why, in this mysterious world, I am made like this: within a team, if you give me something more than the other guy, I will feel sorry — I’d rather split everything we have, and have equality, and then we fight it out. Why am I like this — and he is like that? I probably spent too much time thinking about that — and it was bad for me. It’s the way it is…”
So here is Barrichello, 38 years old, with way more Grands Prix behind him than any other driver, yet still utterly in love with F1 — indeed, his passion for it, he said, is even greater than it used to be.
“Why? I have no idea. I just love what I do. I think when you’re young you have this thing that you love the driving but you hate the PR or whatever — you love this, hate that. Right now I just love everything! When I came to Williams I said, ‘I know what I’ve got to do, but you need to treat me in a way that will make me happy’, and I think we’ve been good for each other.
“The way I feel, I’ll go on as long as I still have this passion for it. I’m in better shape physically than I used to be, so I could go on as long as I’m physically capable of doing it. When I start to feel that the travelling is too much, or the passion isn’t quite what it was, that will be the time to stop. Of course I get tired of the travel — we all do — but that’s the only thing.
“I’m not scared of anything in life — apart from not feeling the passion for racing that I feel right now. I don’t want to go home to Brazil before my time in F1 is over — I don’t want to be there, thinking I should be here…”