Rubens Barrichello gave a lot to Formula One during his record-breaking 322 Grands Prix career, and in turn the sport gave him a lot back.
Might it be that the Brazilian will extend that record in 2014?
Barrichello has been linked with Sauber for next year, as per Yahoo/Reuters, and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn has admitted he is in the frame. In one regard, it makes sense. F1 is entering its biggest regulation shake-up in some time, and it’s almost certain that one of the team’s drivers will be 18-year-old Sergey Sirotkin.
With the high risk that comes with promoting a driver so young, one sees the appeal of partnering him with the sport’s most experienced driver. It’s not fool-proof, but it’s also not the worst logic in the world.
Experience Is Key
Between graduating to F1 with Jordan in 1993 and finishing with Williams in 2011, Barrichello amassed 11 wins and 68 podiums, claiming 14 pole positions and 17 fastest laps. The Brazilian was twice a runner-up, to Ferrari teammate Michael Schumacher in 2002 and 2004, and challenged for the title with Brawn in 2009, finishing third.
Barrichello has the sort of CV that would make him appealing to a lot of teams, despite being 41 now. Interestingly, after challenging for the world title in '09, he was unwilling to leave the sport. Then aged 37, he moved to Williams and proved his worth once more, finishing a credible 10th in a difficult car.
That’s when he should have retired. He had given something back to the sport that had provided him with a near-20-year career, made him a very wealthy man and provided him with a berth in its most iconic of teams. But he did not retire. He stayed with Williams, which endured its worst season for 30 years, and Barrichello scored four points.
Only the torrid 2007 year with Honda yielded a worse score; even without factoring in the different points systems. Barrichello bowed out of F1 with a whimper a driver of his calibre did not deserve. He spent a year in IndyCar before returning to his homeland to race Brazilian StockCar.
The reason I refer to Barrichello’s past is because that’s where his F1 career should be – in the past. He was a fine driver, the key word there being “was.” His return to the sport would take away a seat at a solid team with a great record for nurturing young talent. The likes of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa and Sergio Perez are a testimony to that.
I like Barrichello. He's intelligent, quick and was one of the paddock's most popular characters. But are they enough reasons to warrant a return after two years away and aged 41?
F1's Big Problem
How likely is a comeback? It’s impossible to accurately measure, so hurriedly can F1’s landscape change. But if they are considering him, and their new Russian backers are stumping up a considerable budget, then Barrichello’s own funds could act merely as a topper. His experience is a huge asset, even if it brings with it concerns over his age.
But what does that mean for F1? It’s actually of much greater concern than simply an older driver making a return which would split opinion. Even the potential of a Barrichello/Sirotkin partnership would be indicative of a great problem in the sport, in which there is both little opportunity for young drivers to properly prepare for F1, little space to accommodate those who are prepared and little time for rookies who are racing there already.
Autosport's F1 editor Edd Straw made a superb point earlier in the week regarding F1 and its attitude to young drivers. If the sport does not do something to help the next generation, there is a very real problem developing as we speak—a long-term driver shortage.
Those two Sauber seats next year should be occupied by Felipe Massa and Esteban Gutierrez, with Robin Frijns as test and reserve driver. That's how it should be. But it isn't going to be, as the cash-strapped Frijns is out of the picture. So, a potential scenario is Massa and Gutierrez with Sirotkin as test and reserve driver, stepping up in 2015. That would give him an extra year to get ready, give Gutierrez a sophomore season to prove himself and give Massa a chance of redemption out of Alonso's sizable shadow at Ferrari.
A Mistake In The Making
The above reasons are all genuine arguments for earning a place in a Formula One team. If you have something to prove and are capable of doing so, then you can still argue there is unfinished business in F1.
Barrichello cannot argue that. He had a full F1 career that spanned more than 300 Grands Prix, he had his chance in race-winning machinery (twice) and proved himself a capable race winner if ultimately lacking that little bit extra required to be world champion.
He may feel there is something still to be given to the sport and taken from it. The reality is all he would take is a plum seat from one of F1's next generation, and surely a driver from the future should take priority over one from the past.