He is nicknamed “Little Rubens” because he and his father share the same first name, and the same birthday. His decision to join the IndyCar Series this year was anything but little.
After his departure from Formula One, he had a phone conversation with his childhood friend, Tony Kanaan. In February, Tony joked that he should come drive his car. Rubens smiled and said “okay”. Rumors began to fly, and the anticipation of him joining the Series mounted.
The speculation during testing with Kanaan came to an end on March 1. He, Tony, and Jimmy Vasser announced in a press conference in Brazil that he would be driving for KV Racing this year.
This was major news, a 19-year Formula One driver switching gears to drive in IndyCar? It had been done before though, with World Champions Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi. Rubens came close to adding that title to his name in 2002 and 2004, when he finished runner-up in the standings to his legendary teammate Michael Schumacher.
We know his statistics; 322 starts, 326 races, 11 wins and 14 poles to go along with 68 podium finishes. He won his first race in 2000 at the German Grand Prix, and his last came in 2009 in the Italian Grand Prix. He had one of the greatest runs in Formula One, driving for Ferrari. Things weren’t always great for the Brazilian driver.
In 1994 he experienced a nightmare weekend that sadly, no one will ever forget.
It was the San Marino Grand Prix, just a few races into his second year in F1. During Friday practice, he got airborne after hitting a curb, sending him into the wall at 140 mph. His car rolled several times after landing, then rested upside down. The accident knocked him unconscious and threatened his life, as his tongue was blocking his airway. The medical teams acted quickly, saving his life.
The next day, Australian driver Roland Ratzenberger lost his life in a qualifying crash. If that wasn’t bad enough, three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna died the next day during the race. BBC TV commentator Murray Walker called it “the blackest day for Grand Prix racing that I can remember”.
Rubens looked up to Senna, as did every young up-and-coming driver. When Rubens finally joined the Formula One series, Senna considered him to be his protégé, which meant a lot to him.
Much of the talk during Rubens’ transition to IndyCar surrounded the topic of oval races. It was well-known that he once promised his wife he wouldn’t race on ovals. He said this was because, at the time, he didn’t expect for his driving career to extend beyond Formula One.
Rubens says he and his wife were watching an oval race one day, and she turned to him and said “You’re never going to do this, are you?” He told her he planned to spend the rest of his career in Formula One. He said in the back of his mind though, he always wanted to know what the experience was like. He wanted to know what goes through the drivers minds at those speeds.
He now knows the feeling, with his first taste of it coming at the Greatest Race Course in the World.
Rubens is currently sitting in 15th place in the championship standings. He finished 17th in his first race at St. Petersburg, then finished eighth in Alabama, ninth in Long Beach, and tenth in his hometown race in Sao Paulo. After that, it was on to the big one – Indianapolis.
Just missing the Firestone Fast Nine in qualifying, he started tenth at Indy and finished just one spot back in 11th. For a 40-year old driver to race on the first oval of his life, at Indianapolis of all places, he did a phenomenal job. A job well done, leading two laps and earning Rookie of the Year in the biggest race in the world.
The next two events didn’t go so well for Rubens, finishing 25th at the Detroit Grand Prix, and not being able to start the race at Texas. Both problems were mechanical issues that cost him valuable points. He bounced back quickly though, finishing tenth at Milwaukee and a season-best seventh in the last race at Iowa Speedway.
In the nine races we have run this year, he has finished in the top ten five times. There are just six races left in the season, and five of them will be on road/street circuits. If he is going to capture his first IndyCar podium this year, it will likely come before the 500-mile season finale in Fontana.
When it was first announced he would be running the full season this year, most everyone expected him to lay back on the ovals and just concentrate on the road/street courses. Rubens has gone full throttle though, finishing in the top 11 in every oval race he has started.
What happens after these next six races should be interesting. In April, he said that he would be open to returning to Formula One if there was a seat for him. It would be huge for IndyCar if he stayed another year, but if he decides to go in that direction, you can’t blame him at all.
Even if he finishes his IndyCar career without a win, you could call this season a success. How many other drivers could transition the way he has? Take away his very first career start and his two mechanical failures, and his worst finish is 11th at Indy.
There are those that don’t care for the Andretti family, those that will always dislike Paul Tracy and those that now boo Dario Franchitti routinely. Barrichello though, is a guy that everyone likes, everyone should root for, and that everyone should appreciate.