Feature F1 Unlocked
LIGHTS TO FLAG: Rubens Barrichello on Schumacher, Ferrari, the Brawn adventure – and his racing exploits after F1
Rubens Barrichello rose from humble beginnings in Interlagos to emerge as a staple of Formula 1’s grid for almost two decades, taking 11 race victories and earning a legion of fans thanks to his endearing personality and his emotional, heart-on-the-sleeve approach to racing.
In our latest Lights To Flag feature, ‘Rubinho’ reflects on the avenues he navigated in his 19-year F1 career, his relationship with his various team bosses, and on still going strong in Stock Cars as a 51-year-old…
The boy from Brazil…
Barrichello grew up in the shadows of the Interlagos circuit famed for Formula 1’s Brazilian Grand Prix. Aged six he was bitten by the motorsport bug when his grandfather gave him a go-kart, though he remained grounded given his family’s background.
“I remember my father saying that he had no money whatsoever to help,” says Barrichello. “He said ‘look, people say you’ve got talent, I’m doing my best to keep you going, meanwhile I want you to go to school and give your best’.
“That’s what I did all my childhood – I loved racing so much that I did whatever I could to keep going. We were based in Interlagos, so drivers would come along and buy stuff from him, and they’d say ‘little Rubens has talent’, so they’d lend me an engine, they’d lend me an exhaust or a carburettor, so in that way I’ve been helped by others all the way through my career.”
Barrichello’s success in karting in his native Brazil and across South America convinced his family that he had the potential to embark on a career in motorsport.
“I was 16 when I moved to Italy, and I probably cried the whole first week,” he recalls. “I used to call my father once a week on a connect call to Brazil, and we couldn’t afford many of those calls.”
Those early days were nonetheless crucial for Barrichello. He had to be self-reliant, and he spent time learning languages, building connections, and taking in the bigger picture.
“I knew when I drove for the first time in Europe that it was what I wanted,” he says. “I had no questions any more about the hard feelings of not being with my family. I learned languages – today I speak five languages because of the time I was by myself.
“I had the time to do stuff and learn about the cars, people say I am a good guy for car set-ups, and I did most of my learning in that period where I used to watch so much, I would see people building all the parts of the car, so it made me have a feeling for that, it helped a big way.”
Getting a chance with Jordan
Barrichello won Formula Opel in 1990 and beat David Coulthard to the prestigious British F3 title, succeeding Mika Hakkinen as the 1991 champion. After finishing third in International F3000 in 1992 Barrichello was on the radar of F1 teams.
“I had talks with Tyrrell and Jordan, and Jordan offered me a test at Silverstone. It was wet, it was tough, I had a brief run in the ’92 car with the Yamaha engine, then a brief run in the ’93 car with the Hart engine. After the first proper run Gary Anderson said I was okay to keep on testing the car, and then we signed the contract.”
Barrichello, aged just 20, was thrust onto the grid full-time for 1993.
“In South Africa, at the first race, I was sat in the car in the garage, with the TV and the times in front of me,” he says. “Then I saw on TV that Ayrton Senna left his pit box, then for a couple of seconds I didn’t know if I was watching with my eyes or if I watched the TV!
“I remember watching one eye on the TV to make sure I was still a fan, then with my proper eyes Senna going through my pit box with his car. It was a dream, but it was also something I’d dreamed all my life to be there, so I couldn’t not have the focus on what I needed to do!”
Jordan’s 193 had its limitations but in only his third race Barrichello starred at a wet Donington Park, rising from 12th to fourth on the first lap, before holding third until the closing stages.
“We didn’t have enough fuel on the car as the team thought they didn’t need it because of the wet weather,” Barrichello says. “We stopped three laps from the podium because of a lack of fuel.”
Barrichello had to wait until the penultimate race, at Suzuka, to finally collect his maiden points, though a 1994 season marred by the tragic events at Imola – in which Barrichello sustained relatively minor injuries in a practice accident – was more fruitful. He took his maiden podium at Aida before a surprise first pole at a wet-but-drying Spa-Francorchamps, going on to finish sixth in the standings.
Jordan remained in a similar competitive position in 1995, with Barrichello and team-mate Eddie Irvine scoring a 2-3 in Canada, but by 1996 the outfit was looking towards the future, and so was Barrichello.
Joining Sir Jackie’s new team
In early 1996, triple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart secured backing from Ford to establish a new F1 team. Stewart’s son, Paul, already had a successful team competing in junior categories and for 1997 it would graduate to Formula 1.
“Through my four-year career in Jordan I had the chance to go to other teams, but I didn’t because I felt that because Eddie had given me the opportunity I had to stick with him and be loyal,” says Barrichello. “Through ’96 I could see that Eddie had a big sponsor, and he was able to contract two young drivers – Giancarlo Fisichella, who had good speed, and Ralf Schumacher.
“I had conversations with Sauber, Tyrrell, but I went to Stewart because I could see in Jackie and Paul and all the family that they were talking very seriously about becoming a very high standard team. They had the programme, with Alan Jenkins, Eghbal Hamidy, the Bridgestone tyres. The best contracts are the ones where there’s not much conversation, it’s just ‘okay, we want to do it’, boom, done.
“At first it was like going one step back because the team was starting from zero, but it was like starting all over again with four years of experience, so I gave myself the opportunity to do that. Sir Jackie was obviously a very competent boss.”
Stewart’s SF01 was a dreadfully unreliable car, with Barrichello failing to finish 15 of the 17 races, but all was not completely lost – and astonishingly one of the two finishes Barrichello achieved was a runner-up position in a rain-lashed race in Monaco.
“The tyres were performing well, I love the wet conditions, plus the fact the rain helped the reliability because we didn’t have to force the car so much – and we put the car on the podium. It was really a fantastic feeling.”
Stewart’s 1998 offering was less competitive, limiting Barrichello to just two points finishes, but the team took a step forward in 1999.
“It was a super year, the third year for Stewart, the car was performing so well,” says Barrichello. “I had so many good races, I put it on pole [in France], and honestly I think if it wasn’t for a fire [Barrichello took the spare car after a formation lap fire] and a penalty we would have won in Melbourne. I was flying in that car.”
Stewart finished fourth in the constructors’ championship, peaking with a shock victory at the Nurburgring, where Johnny Herbert secured a win, while third-placed Barrichello joined him and team boss Stewart on a popular podium.
Six years in red
Barrichello was sat in Monaco with his then wife in 1999 when he was handed a letter from a stranger, initially reckoning it to be something from a fan. It was actually a message from Ferrari Team Principal Jean Todt, who requested a meeting with Barrichello.
Despite the strong bond with Stewart and his loyalty to the Scot, both parties recognised it was an opportunity Barrichello had to take, and come 2000 he was nestled within Ferrari, as team-mate to Michael Schumacher. He finally had his seat at a bona fide front-running team.
Barrichello’s long overdue maiden victory came in enthralling fashion, mastering a dry/wet race at Hockenheim, having risen from 18th on the grid. There were floods of tears on the podium as he clutched a Brazilian flag.
“It took seven years for me to win the first race, but when it came, it came in a magical way,” he recounts. “One of the best feelings I have up to now is when people stop me on the road to tell me what they were doing when I first won the race in Hockenheim.
“People remember ‘I was with my father’, ‘I was as the gas station, people were screaming inside’. I love that, because honestly, whenever important situations happen, we know exactly where we were that day because it was such an important event – especially in Brazil, whenever they stop me and tell me what they were doing, it makes me feel magic.”
Barrichello became a fundamental part of a Ferrari dream team that dominated Formula 1 in the early 2000s. “The car was super, the team worked well, it was a good relationship between everyone and there was harmony in terms of performance. We were able to go and conquer the world,” he says.
Schumacher scored five successive world titles from 2000 to 2004 and Barrichello was dutifully left to play second fiddle on several occasions.
“I always say he was better than me, no doubt,” says Barrichello. “But because he was already there from ’96, he had four years [in the team], he had gone through the injury, and obviously Jean considered him like a son, so it was tough for someone new to come in and say ‘ok give me the freedom'.
“I told Ferrari if it was written in my contract to let Michael go [ahead], I didn’t want to sign. My contract said nothing about that. For my benefit I accepted so many things, there were many things I did not accept, but some I did because I saw I was growing there. For six years I saw I was going forward and my time was coming.”
Leaving Ferrari for Honda
After a streak of dominance Ferrari’s golden spell ended in 2005, though Barrichello remained under contract for 2006. Yet behind-the-scenes there were decisions that left the Brazilian seeking a premature exit.
“Honda approached me in 2005 and I said I can’t [join] because I have a contract with Ferrari for 2006,” he explains. “But something happened [at Ferrari] in the middle of that year – I’ll put it in my book one day! – and I didn’t like it. I said ‘I can see you guys are not giving me the freedom to race, I waited six years, and I thank you guys very much but I want you to sign me off and I want to leave the contract’.
Barrichello duly switched to Honda for 2006, adapting to a different culture and environment, but after a promising first year lacklustre machinery thwarted his prospects in 2007 and 2008 – though there was still one shining moment.
“I kept on telling them we need driveability more than power, we possibly had the biggest power [output], but we had very difficult driveability, but I had a good time,” he says. “One of the toughest years was 2008, we didn’t have a competitive car, but with a good choice of tyres we got the podium at Silverstone, at a track I love.”
That season Barrichello also became the most experienced driver in Formula 1’s history at the time, starting his 257th Grand Prix, but his journey threatened to come to an end when Honda pulled the plug on its team after the season had wrapped.
Reborn at Brawn
“It was the hardest time of my career because I had no contract after 2008 for three-and-a-half months,” says Barrichello.
After Honda’s withdrawal, Ross Brawn and Nick Fry were among a group of senior ex-Honda figures striving to rescue the operation.
“I called Ross every week and he told me ‘Okay Rubens I know your value but I have no money now, please hang tight, keep going to the gym, and I’ll call you.’ My family and friends thought I was crazy, there was a lot of gossip about people trying and testing and doing stuff, but I kept on thinking that it would happen, then the call really happened.
“I was in Brazil when Ross called me and said ‘can you get here on Friday?’ and I said ‘even if I swim there I’ll be there on Friday!’ I signed the contract – I signed only a four by four race deal because if someone came with a lot of money Ross might have had to move me out.”
Brawn knew the potential of the renamed BGP001, on which Honda had been working for some time with a view to the overhauled 2009 regulations, and he was soon proved right.
“Jenson [Button] drove for the first time and I went to his cockpit and I said ‘how is it?’ He said, ‘team-mate, we are going to have fun this year,’ and I remember like it was today. I really, really enjoyed driving that car.”
Brawn shocked the field by emerging as fastest though it was Button who stole the headlines, winning six of the opening seven races, to build an ultimately insurmountable advantage.
“The car was flying, we had reliability, which was amazing, and we finished 1-2,” says Barrichello.
“On the winter testing I was flying, but then we went on to the hot races and I had to take an aerodynamic device because of the brakes being so hot, and that for me it made the balance of the car worse… I lost too many points in the championship.”
Barrichello nonetheless had a strong second half of the year despite the fading Brawn’s limitations, winning in Valencia and at Monza, which turned out to be the last of his 11 career wins.
“I really enjoyed that time, those two races, Valencia and Monza, they were very difficult to win and we had different strategies to be able to win. They were important for me. To win at Monza, without a red car, and to see all the people in red under the podium, made me feel very proud.”
An emotional Williams call
Barrichello signed for Williams for 2010 as he “had a passion for the team and for what they had done for Formula 1 – from the time of [Alan] Jones and [Carlos] Reutemann to the perfect active cars” and stayed loyal to his commitment despite a subsequent offer from McLaren to become Lewis Hamilton’s team-mate.
“In hindsight it’s kind of tough, as I obviously signed for Williams for my emotional connection to the team. That 2009 year, they had a good season, so I was led to believe the car was going to be competitive, when I got there Frank already wasn’t really leading the team and it was different to what I thought, and the car was not competitive at all, and I felt sorry for that.”
Williams was entrenched within the midfield in 2010 but the 2011 offering, the FW33, was poor, limiting Barrichello to just two top 10 finishes. In 2011 he became the first driver to reach 300 starts, and had a verbal agreement for 2012 but “because of drivers with money” he was not retained.
“It was already January, Sir Frank just called me and said ‘unfortunately we need to go this different way,’ and that was it. It was very disappointing. It wasn’t much of a conversation. By that time everyone [else] had contracts signed.”
Barrichello was contacted by the ailing Caterham team towards the end of 2014 “and we almost did a deal to race but it fell apart because actually they didn’t come to Brazil.
“I wish I had a time where I said goodbye, because I never did,” he says.
Success in stock cars
After his Williams exit Barrichello turned to IndyCar for 2012, joining K. V. Racing in a third entry, where he teamed up with close friend Tony Kanaan.
“I set up something with him, we had to go after engineers, strategists, and I had to learn all the way through again! I wish I had learned with probably a more competitive team, but I had a lot of fun that year.”
Barrichello’s IndyCar foray lasted only one season, and he was top rookie at the Indianapolis 500 a few days after turning 40, before he returned to his native Brazil. He then joined the highly competitive Stock Car Pro Series, where he still races full-time, and was champion in 2014 and 2022.
“A lot of people in Europe don’t know that I’m still racing full time! Stock Cars brought me so much passion and my heart is flying. I’ve loved what I do, and I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and my son [Eduardo] is driving with me right now. I don’t see myself stopping.
“I still want to do long races with my two kids – maybe Le Mans, or the whole championship.
Fernando is 17, and he’s racing Formula 4 in Spain, Eduardo is 21, he finished third in FRECA last year, but because of lack of budget we brought him to stock car and he won his first race. I definitely want to be racing with them while I’m still feeling competitive.”
It’s clear that, despite now being in his sixth decade, the gregarious Barrichello still possesses a huge passion for motorsport. The kid handed a go-kart as a six-year-old not only reached the pinnacle of motorsport but remained there for almost two decades, and cemented his status in the championship’s history books.
“My style has been to always make friends,” says Barrichello. “My kids still think how amazing it is that when F1 comes to Interlagos and I go into any garage, I probably worked with everyone and I’m good friends with almost everyone there!
I have this amazing feeling of having created a path with no money whatsoever. I got there on help from so many people, and it was a very proud career, 19 years.
“I just think that it was a wonderful career, and even if I had some sad moments, I’m a positive guy, I’ve always been positive. It’s why I kept on going for such a long time in Formula 1. How am I going to be remembered? The boy from Interlagos that had a wonderful career.”