Of ten referred to as the most tenured driver in Formula One, after 19 years in the elite open wheel series, Rubens Barrichello is starting over as a rookie in IndyCar. Enticed by his countryman and best friend, Tony Kanaan, to do some off-season testing in TK's KV Racing Technology Dallara, the Formula One veteran was promptly encouraged to consider a full-time ride alongside the man he fondly calls his brother.
Having found speed in the new car during early tests, his decision appeared to come almost as quickly. "I enjoy being in America, so that was going to make it easy anyway," he explains. "I don't know America very well, and that's something that I've always had in my mind: I would love to get to know [it]. I actually find myself renting motor homes and just traveling all over because I love the country."
Since signing a one-year contract with KVRT, Barrichello has been warmly welcomed. "The fans have been great," he says, "I had a lot of followers on Twitter from Brazil, but since signing, everyday there are 2,000-3,000 new followers and they are Americans for sure."
Expressing a reciprocal enthusiasm and appreciation for this new start, the Brazilian says, "I'm as excited as ever to go racing. It's an exciting time for the series as it moves into a new era and an exciting time for me as I begin a new chapter in my career. I can't tell you how much I love and appreciate this opportunity. At 39, I still have the fire to keep racing. The speed and desire are there as much as ever. I'm feeling so optimistic. I'm very grateful for this chance — to my team, my teammates and the fans."
Like many Brazilian drivers, Barrichello got his racing start in go-karts, winning five karting titles in Brazil before moving to Europe to race in the Formula Vauxhall Lotus series in 1990. After winning that championship in his first year, he did the same thing the following year in the British Formula 3 Championship before moving on to Formula 3000 in 1992, where he finished third. In 1993 the aspiring young driver, aprotégé of the late Ayrton Senna, joined the Jordan Formula One team.
In a record 322 starts for six teams – including Ferrari and Williams – he earned 14 poles and scored 11 victories, including the 2002 U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis. His first victory was at the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim in 2000, where he demonstrated why he's considered one of the best wet weather drivers.
Expectations are naturally high of such an experienced and successful driver. IndyCar Race Director Beaux Barfield initially stripped Barrichello of rookie status, based on his resume. As a result, Rubens didn't get the extra track time allotted to drivers at each track, a decision he protested. "I am finding it difficult to learn the circuits quickly," he explains. "There isn't much time to learn it – plus the fact that we do not have many new sets [of tires] for the weekend, so every time I go to qualify the car I will try a new set of red tires that I did not try before. The feeling is completely different, and so I have a racing track that I don't know very well plus a tire that I had not tried before. One plus the other is a big, big challenge."
Learning the tracks has been only one of the challenges facing this IndyCar "rookie." Making the transition from Formula One after 19 years hasn't always been easy. "Oh, it is very different," Barrichello says, with a hint of his trademark self-effacing smile. Explaining that F1 cars use naturally aspirated engines, he says, "The power is quite similar, but the weight is not. Indy cars are a little bit heavier, so the way you drive the cars is distinctively different."
Not only is the driving style different, but it's a different type of racing altogether. Barrichello realized right away that "it's going to be an up-and-down learning process. This is a new thing for me. It's a new set of circumstances and a new challenge. It's about getting used to the new car, new rules, new tracks and new competition."
Struggling to learn so many new elements, including a style of racing that involves rolling starts, yellow flags and a completely different strategy, Barrichello remains upbeat. "The rolling starts are the least of my problems," he says. "I'll have to adapt to ovals and get used to saving fuel. It's very competitive and you cannot just go fast, you've got to get it right on the strategy, really. In F1 the term 'save fuel' is not very used, so I am having to learn this part too."
That lesson began at the first race of the season in St. Pete, where Barrichello was forced into fuel-saving mode throughout most of the race – something he's not accustomed to doing. "I wasn't allowed to push all the way through the race," he reports. "I'm the type of driver who wants to push. I want to go flat-out at all times, but this race was save, save, save all the way. I wasn't really allowed to push the car as hard as I could, and that was frustrating."
Realizing that patience is part of his learning curve, Barrichello understands that fuel strategy is key to winning IndyCar races. "I feel like strategy is going to be a much greater part of this form of racing than it was for me in Formula One. The strategy in F1 is to just fill up the car and go. In IndyCar racing, there are so many elements of strategy in relation to the yellow flags and fuel. It's something I'm going to have to learn."
He's a quick study, learning every time he's in the car. "I'm getting more comfortable with each bit of experience I gain," he says, setting a personal goal to "improve at every race. You've got to have goals; you've got to have dreams. I dream to do very well in the series this year."
Although he says he didn't come with any expectations, perhaps no one puts more pressure on Barrichello than Rubens himself. "I put so much pressure on myself. I want to do so well. My goal is to be happy with myself, but I've got to give it my 100 percent commitment. That's what makes me happy"
"If Rubens didn't believe that he could win, he wouldn't have come," Kanaan says of his friend. "We've got to be realistic about the experience that he's going to have on the ovals, but with his experience and talent, I believe he has very good chances to be fighting for wins and a championship this year."
His easy-going and affable nature belies an intense focus in the cockpit and a fierce competitiveness on the track. Calm and precise behind the wheel, Barrichello says he "can adapt to anything, really," as he looks forward to his first Indianapolis 500. "I am so excited. I can't wait, really."
In preparation, he's been watching videos and talking to many drivers, including Dario Franchitti, Felipe Giaffone, Gil de Ferran and, of course, Kanaan and team owner Jimmy Vasser. "I have no idea what to expect, [so] the more info I can get, the better it is."
This 40-year-old "rookie" – one of the oldest drivers in the field – hopes to enjoy himself this month, with his family onsite to support him. "It is my birthday on the 23rd, so I want them to be with me." A third-generation "Rubens" who shares a birthday with his father, the famous driver is known by the affectionate nickname of Rubinho to his family — and now to his many new fans.