Rubens Barrichello scored his ninth Grand Prix victory in China in 2004, and so often since he must have doubted that he would ever win another. A poor season with Ferrari in 2005 (when Bridgestone were utterly unable to compete with Michelin), and dissatisfaction with dancing to Michael Schumacher’s tune, led him to leave the team a year ahead of time, and to go instead to Honda, where he would have carte blanche to race as he wished.
Alas, he rarely had the opportunity to race at all, for Honda produced a series of diabolical racing cars, an insult to the company’s great name, and Barrichello must have doubted the wisdom of what he had done.
He never gave up, though, that was the point. “In fact, “ he grinned on Sunday afternoon, “I had a very good season in 2008 – with a very bad car. By that, I mean that I had a better season than Jenson (Button), and I never gave up…”
So now we find Rubens in his 37th year, in his 17th season as an F1 driver – and in Valencia he drove a literally perfect race, and took that 10th Grand Prix victory.
You can say that it owed something to luck – McLaren goofed at Lewis Hamilton’s last stop, costing him several seconds – but you can also say that had Barrichello not driven flat out from the start of the race, he would not have been in a position to capitalise on the opportunity.
KERS is at last beginning – very definitely – to make its presence felt in Formula 1. While McLaren and Ferrari – the two teams to persist with it – were in trouble with their cars in the first half of the season an additional 80 horsepower for six seconds of every lap merely served to offset some of the shortcomings in grip and handling, but once the cars began to improve, KERS started to look, in certain circumstances, like a very significant advantage.
McLaren have now got the weight of their system down to 25 kilos, and they believe that’s a penalty worth paying for the luxury of that extra power. In a straight line the advantage is very discernible, and nowhere more apparent than away from the grid.
After qualifying Hamilton was on pole position, with McLaren team mate Heikki Kovalainen alongside him. Next up was Barrichello, delighted to find, after three disappointing races on coolish days, that his Brawn’s tyres were working perfectly again in the oppressive heat of Valencia.
Rubens out-qualified Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull and also team-mate Jenson Button, and he had good reason to be optimistic for the race, for he had set his time with significantly more fuel than all the cars around him, including the two McLarens.
Away from the start it looked as though Hamilton and Kovalainen would have an easy run, but if Lewis pulled clear, at more than half a second a lap, his team-mate was not able to shake off Barrichello, who may have lacked KERS, but was obviously giving away nothing at all through Valencia’s many quick turns. After the race, indeed, Hamilton would say that Brawn had a definite advantage in this area.
The McLarens made their first stops (Hamilton first) on laps 16 and 17, but Barrichello stayed out until lap 20 before coming in, and in that time he really made hay. When he rejoined the race, he was again behind Hamilton – but ahead, crucially, of Kovalainen.
Crucially, too, in this second segment of the race, he was able to keep pace with the leading McLaren, for Lewis was less happy with this set of tyres. Kovalainen, meantime, was unable to stay with the leading pair, and began to fall back into the clutches of Raikkonen’s Ferrari.
The pivotal point of the race came on lap 37, when Hamilton came in for his second stop. “I was told to come in on that lap – but then the team changed their mind, hoping we could squeeze another lap out of the fuel, because Rubens was getting close. By the time they told me to stay out, it was too late – I was committed to coming in, and staying out would have cost too much time…”
In came the car, and plainly the mechanics weren’t ready for it. Tyres – still their blankets – were rushed over, and by the time the lollipop went up Lewis had been stationary for 13.4s. Three laps later Barrichello was in, and his stop – executed perfectly – required only 6.8 seconds. When he took to the track again, Rubens led by a little over six seconds.
He was also on Bridgestone’s super-soft compound tyres, whereas Hamilton and Raikkonen, his nearest rivals, were on the merely soft. There was some slight concern in the Brawn camp that Rubens would start to lose grip before the end of the race, but he had no such problems, saying that the tyres – indeed the whole car – had been perfect throughout.
Through the last segment of the Grand Prix Hamilton drove every lap like a qualifying lap, he said, but there was nothing to be done about Barrichello, who was content to pay out a little line towards the end.
Afterwards there was something of an impression of a David and Goliath act, with Rubens taking on the extra power of McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari, and winning through, but McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh said he had his suspicions that, even without the botched pitstop, Rubens might have won, anyway.
“It’s been five years since I won a race,” he said. “It’s not that you forget after five years, but…this is something really special. My first Grand Prix victory not in a Ferrari, for one thing! For another, I want to dedicate this win to the whole of Brazil – but particularly to Felipe (Massa). Ever since the accident, I have wanted two things for him – first, that he is the same man he was, and he is; second, that he is the same driver he was – and I’m sure he will be…”
Barrichello is an emotional man, as we know, but this was a singularly emotional victory, a hugely popular one not only in the grandstands, but in the paddock, too. When Rubens drove into pitlane, indeed, at the end of his slowing-down lap, all the teams lined up to greet him. You don’t see that sort of thing too often.
For all Barrichello’s rivals in the World Championship, it was a pretty poor day. Team-mate Button finished seventh, well aware that a poor performance in qualifying had cost him dear – and for Red Bull there was nothing at all on this day, Vettel retiring with a blown engine, and Mark Webber trailing in ninth after a variety of problems.
“I really can’t express how happy I feel,” said Rubens, the man with the sad smile. “I wish this moment could be for ever…”