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Elusive home glory essential for Barrichello 13 Oct 2009

Rubens Barrichello (BRA), Brawn GP, Brawn BGP001, Spanish Grand Prix 2009, Barcelona, Sunday, 10 May 2009. © Martin Trenkler Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Brawn Grand Prix BGP 001.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Japanese Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Suzuka, Japan, Saturday, 3 October 2009 Rubens Barrichello (BRA), Brawn GP, Brawn BGP001, European Grand Prix 2009, Valencia, Sunday, 23 August 2009. © Martin Trenkler (L to R): Ross Brawn (GBR) Brawn Grand Prix Team Principal with Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Brawn Grand Prix.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Japanese Grand Prix, Race Day, Suzuka, Japan, Sunday, 4 October 2009 Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Ferrari on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race Day, Interlagos, Brazil, 24 October 2004

This weekend Brawn GP’s Rubens Barrichello faces arguably the most important race of his 17-year Formula One career. If he performs anything less than brilliantly at the Brazilian Grand Prix his team mate Jenson Button, who has a 14-point lead in the standings, could well wrap up the drivers’ title. Hence a win is all but essential if Barrichello is to keep his long-held hopes alive ahead of the season finale in Abu Dhabi.

Adding to the pressure is the fact that the Interlagos race is the 37 year-old’s home event. With Nelson Piquet ousted from his Renault drive and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa still recovering from Hungary crash, Sao Paulo native Barrichello is the sole Brazilian runner and will thus have the hopes of an entire nation resting on his shoulders as he races off the line on Sunday.

The passionate Paulista fans are famously hard. Last year they were robbed at the death when Lewis Hamilton’s last-lap pass on Timo Glock stole the title from under Massa’s nose. This season they are again in with a chance of celebrating their first champion since Ayrton Senna in 1991, so the weight of expectation will be particularly heavy. It will be Barrichello’s 17th Formula One outing at Interlagos, so if he’s not used to the pressure now, he never will be.

Barrichello was actually born within earshot of the legendary track, and after growing tired of sneaking into the circuit to watch races for free, he started to compete. He finished third in his first karting event, second in his second and first in his third, and hasn’t looked back since. But despite this affinity with the venue, the veteran of 286 Grands Prix and winner of 11 has actually never scored an F1 win at Interlagos.

That’s not to say he hasn’t come close. In 1994 he took a well-deserved fourth place for Jordan, while two years later he took a spectacular P2 on the grid and looked set for a podium before he spun off with brake problems. After that 1996 outing, Barrichello couldn’t shake off a run of bad luck and from 1997 to 2002 he racked up six consecutive retirements. Gearboxes, engines, penalties and mistakes were all to blame over the years.

Then, in 2003, prospects for his home race suddenly looked brighter than ever. He took a dominant pole position in the Ferrari and, despite chaotically rainy conditions, led for most of the race. Then, just eight laps from home, he stopped out on track. A fuel feed problem was blamed, although some suspected he simply ran out of fuel. A year later he took pole again and this time finished third to take his very first Interlagos podium. It remains Barrichello’s best finish at the track.

Since then he’s finished no higher than sixth, but given his recent successes with Brawn, Barrichello has every right to expect a reversal in fortunes this weekend. Of course team mate, and standing’s leader, Button has exactly the same car under him, and so to evaluate Barrichello’s chances one must also look back at the British driver’s record at Interlagos.

Interestingly, Button has also recorded just one third-place finish, back in 2006 for Honda. Perhaps more tellingly, however, Button has never taken pole in Brazil and since becoming Barrichello’s team mate in 2006, has never come close to out-qualifying the local hero.

With his intimate knowledge of the track, his incomparable set-up skills, and the boost provided by an adoring home crowd, 2009 could be Barrichello’s best chance yet of banishing his Interlagos demons once and for all - and with a title at stake, it couldn’t come at a better time.