Reality bites for Barrichello 19 Apr 2006
Even so soon into the 2006 season it's already clear that there have been winners and losers - with Hondas Rubens Barrichello currently languishing somewhere near the bottom of the pile.
When it was announced that the Brazilian would be leaving Ferrari to join Honda, many predicted it would be new team mate, Jenson Button, who would be struggling to keep up. During six years as Michael Schumacher's number two, Barrichello demonstrated impressive consistency and sometimes awesome pace - out-shining the seven-times champion on a number of occasions.
In reality the opposite has turned out to be true. While Button has been resurgent, his flying form evident in some amazing qualifying performances, Barrichello has struggled for pace and/or reliability pretty much all of the time.
He arguably looked strongest during qualifying at the season opener in Bahrain, ending the session in sixth place to Button's third. By the end of the race the relative performance gulf between the two drivers was cruelly exposed, though. The Englishman put in a brave performance to end up fourth - while a missing gear and an ineffective pit-stop strategy saw Barrichello languishing all the way down in 15th.
Things didnt get much better in Malaysia. While Button qualified second, Barrichello could only manage 12th - and that translated into a lowly 20th on the grid once his and others engine-change penalties were taken into account. By the end of the race - which included a stop-go penalty for speeding in the pit lane - he was tenth, with only Liuzzi's Red Bull, the Midlands of Albers and Monteiro and Sato's Super Aguri classified behind him. Button made the podium in third.
According to Barrichello, his problems stem from the handling characteristics of the Honda RA106, which are reportedly very different to those of the Ferrari he was driving last year. He has also been struggling to come to terms with the Honda's brakes and traction control systems, being used to car that responds to more aggressive treatment than it will allow. Not only did he report that his rear brakes were locking far more than in the Ferrari, causing him to imbalance on corner entry, but that the throttle also needed a far gentler touch than he was used to delivering. The implication was that the car was pretty much set up around Button's ultra-gentle driving style, and therefore less than ideally suited to Barrichello's more forceful manner.
It was something that he was clearly still struggling with in the Australian Grand Prix. On the plus side he managed to salvage seventh place and two world championship points after a gutsy drive - and Button's expiry on the final corner. On the down side, his pace in qualifying remained clear by its absence - while Button took pole position, the Brazilian ended up down in 17th. Barrichellos only consolation was that his fastest race lap was marginally quicker than Buttons.
"I am trying," he wrote on his personal website after the race, "but it is not easy."
So will things improve as the season progresses? The majority of the paddock certainly hope so. Not only is Barrichello well-liked by friends and rivals alike, but there's no doubting that, if he can adapt to the Honda - or the Honda can adapt to him - then he has the ability to deploy devastating pace. Who can forget the way he reigned supreme at the rain-sodden 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix - retiring from the lead only when his Ferrari ran out of fuel?
And people would be well advised not to write off Barrichello's prospects at Honda just yet. He has already proved he has the inner reserves necessary to rise above problems, surviving a huge accident in practice for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix - and the psychological shock that followed when his countryman and mentor, Ayrton Senna, was killed in the race two days later. He also successfully moved from right-foot to left-foot braking after he joined Ferrari, demonstrating that he does have the ability to evolve his driving style.
Nevertheless, Barrichello knows that, in the ultra-fast world of Formula One racing, he may only have limited time to prove he's got what it takes at Honda - and that if results are going to come, sooner is far preferable to later.