Monday, February 27, 2012

Thanks for the Memories Part One: Rubens Barrichello

Last week Caterham announced that they would be replacing veteran driver Jarno Trulli with Vitaly Petrov for the 2012 racing season. Although rumours had been circulating for several months regarding the popular Italian’s seat, the news still came as a shock to many who have since questioned if Formula 1 is becoming a sport where money always speaks louder than talent and experience. Trulli’s departure from the grid makes him the second elder statesman to be forced out of the formula in less than two months. He now joins Rubens Barrichello in exile, although seems to be handling the news a lot more gracefully than the disgruntled Brazilian. Whether both Williams and Caterham are lining their wallets or simply opting for fresh blood is something that none of us can say for certain and yet as the dust settles one thing is clear, it is the end of an era.

I remember when I first became interested in Formula 1 as girl. Rubens Barrichello had already been in the sport for several years. At that time he was best known for his horrific crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The incident almost claimed Barrichello’s life and in the days that followed both Roland Ratzenberger as well as Rubens’s mentor and countryman, Ayrton Senna, sustained fatal injuries at the Imola circuit. The death of Senna was a tragedy that shook Barrichello to his core and with the expectations of a mourning nation weighing on his shoulders the young man, whose fans called him Rubinho, struggled and began to develop a reputation for being fast but inconsistent.

Things began to look up for Barrichello in 1997 when he joined the Stewart Ford team which was run by Formula 1 legend Sir Jackie Stewart and his son Paul Stewart. The tight knit squad had a friendly family atmosphere and they adopted Rubens instantly, nurturing his talent and providing him with the support system that he needed to produce results. Although the Stewart SF01 was a midfield car at best, Barrichello drove it to a plucky second place finish at the Monaco Grand Prix. The television pictures were emotional. Sir Jackie Stewart hugged his son with tears in his eyes and the team’s mechanics cheered ecstatically. At the centre of the jubilation was a vindicated Rubens Barrichello, lapping up the attention with a massive grin plastered across his face. I recall that being the moment when I first took real notice of the future Ferrari driver. He had driven with passion and courage and in my mind seemed to be the perfect fit for the Maranello-based squad. Ferrari’s Jean Todt agreed and less than three years later, Rubens stood waving outside the historic front gates of the Ferrari factory, wearing a cream turtleneck sweater and an innocent smile. Little did he know, he was about to enter what some have referred to as the serpent’s lair.

Statistically Barrichello’s time at Ferrari was extremely successful. Driving what were amongst the most competitive cars on the Formula 1 grid, the cheerful Brazilian racked up an impressive range of victories and podium finishes that any driver would be immensely proud of. The first of his victories with Ferrari came at the 2000 German Grand Prix. The race was littered with unexpected events, including the strange case of a former Mercedes employee running out onto the track and forcing the deployment of the safety car. In the end it was Rubens’s talent for wet weather driving which saw him turn eighteenth place on the starting grid into the first win of his career. The podium ceremony was one of those celebrations that few enthusiasts will likely forget. Indeed it seemed as though everyone present in the Hockenheim pit lane that day were shedding tears of joy for the likeable driver. As Rubens took the top step of the podium, he wept emotionally while clutching a Brazilian flag. Throughout my many years as a tifosa, I have often revisited an old VHS tape that I have of the event and remember it as one of my favourite Ferrari triumphs. To this day whenever I watch it I can feel my eyes well up and my heart remembers the feelings of hope and possibility that the result inspired within me. On that day Rubinho was on top of the world and it seemed as though all of his struggles had been worthwhile.

Being a tifosa, I do not usually develop great attachments to drivers. Of course, they grow on me and I come to admire many of them but usually after they leave, I do not mourn the loss of them. During his time at Ferrari, Rubens quickly became the exception to this pattern. I absolutely adored the fiery Brazilian, who I truly believed could challenge Michael Schumacher for victories and ultimately the Championship itself. Unfortunately for Rubens, Ferrari had other plans for him and he was quickly slotted into the unofficial number two position within the team. At first Barrichello’s role did not draw major attention but Ferrari’s decision to allow Michael Schumacher to overtake Rubens on the final lap of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix created international outrage. The incident, which drew boos and jeers from the attending crowd, lead the FIA to issue a ban on team orders.

Although manipulation is nothing new in the world of Formula 1 and indeed Ferrari has practiced it throughout the team’s existence, this particular instance seemed unnecessary at a point in the season when Rubens was still mathematically in contention for a Championship that Schumacher was already leading quite comfortably. In the aftermath of the race Barrichello’s relationship with Ferrari began to sour, indeed you could visibly see the hurt on his face in Austria on that May afternoon. Although he remained with the Italian team until the end of the 2005 season, a part of Rubens’s passion and faith in both the team and sport seemed to die after that race.

I often wonder what could have been had Rubinho joined Ferrari at another point in his career or even what he could have achieved if Michael Schumacher had not been the squad’s unofficial number one. I guess there is really no point wondering what might have been. In the end Rubens became bitter about the team that he had once so adored and went on to speak negatively about Ferrari to the media and anyone else who would listen. The fact that I am able to forgive him for this indiscretion only highlights exactly how much Barrichello meant to me.

After his departure from Ferrari, Rubens spent several unproductive years at Honda before the team was rebadged as Brawn Grand Prix in 2009. As unlikely as it would seem the underdog team produced a dominant car which saw Barrichello and Jenson Button win eight of the seventeen races during the season. Ultimately Button’s youth and consistency claimed him the World Championship and Rubens moved to Williams the following year where he stayed until it was announced that he would be replaced by Bruno Senna this season.

Many of Rubens’s critics are quick to point out that the Brazilian veteran was well past the peak of his career in the last several years. Indeed the only person who refused to read the writing on the wall up until the very end was Rubens himself. He maintained that he had a good chance of retaining his drive up until Senna was announced as his replacement and had to be figuratively dragged out of his cockpit kicking and screaming. Rather than see this in a negative light, however, I prefer to see it as a testament to a man who was used to being the underdog throughout his career and whose will to carry on and push himself has made him the most experienced Formula 1 driver of all time. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that this feat alone deserves a great deal of respect.

When I think of Rubens, I envision him on the podium. He is beaming widely and grasping a winner’s trophy in his hands. All of a sudden he pretends to fall down, twitching violently from side to side in a comedic manner. The entire crowd laughs and are instantly enamoured. Thanks for the memories Rubens, I will miss you.

To be continued…

Be sure to check out part two when I talk about Jarno Trulli!

No comments:

Post a Comment