The Best Policy: Why Brawn Should Be Honest With Rubens Barrichello
From his demeanour immediately after most of his races these days, before the Brawn spin machine has been put into action, it's evident that Rubens Barrichello isn't exactly a happy man.
The reasons for this, on the face of it, are not exactly clear. He has been rescued from the doldrums of a declining F1 career, and the threat of being without a drive this season, by one of the most remarkable new entrants to F1 for a very long time.
With the fastest car in the field for the first part of 2009, Barrichello has had the best chance of his career so far to take that coveted world championship, emulating his fellow Brazilian, hero and friend Ayrton Senna.
But that is about all that we can say about Barrichello's season so far—a chance at glory that, for whatever reason, has not been taken. Instead the initiative has been handed to his teammate Jenson Button, a driver who Barrichello comfortably outperformed in the bleak years of 2007 and 2008, but who is now running away with the drivers' championship.
After the German Grand Prix, Barrichello had finished ahead of Button in just one race all season—ironically, Button's home race at Silverstone. His qualifying record is a little better, but when grid positions aren't converted into strong finishes it counts for little.
Barrichello's frustration with the team was evident after the Spanish Grand Prix, where he felt that a sub-optimal pit strategy had allowed Button to beat him, despite the Brazilian taking the lead into the first corner of the race.
In Germany, the story was even worse: Barrichello again qualified on the front row and beat pole-sitter Mark Webber down into the first corner. Webber received a drive-through penalty for a questionable shove on Barrichello on the first lap.
Nobody overtook Barrichello on the track that day, but he still ended up sixth, behind even Button, who had been held up by Heikki Kovalainen for the first stint of the race, which had cost him about 15 seconds.
Clearly the German Grand Prix was a strategic disaster for Brawn, a team led by a man whose credentials for making strategic calls are impeccable. The Bahrain Grand Prix, for example, where Button won from seemingly nowhere, demonstrates just how astute the team can be in making the right decisions.
Yet for Barrichello something went wrong. A problem with a fuel rig cost Barrichello a few seconds, but it was the fundamental unworkability of a three-stop strategy that meant the difference between a potential podium and a lowly sixth. To be sure, the Red Bulls were too strong for the Brazilian to have won the race, but he could still have managed third if his race had been better managed.
Barrichello's first stop brought him out right behind Felipe Massa, whose extremely wide Ferrari proceeded to wipe out any advantage the Brawn car had previously enjoyed. Combined with the aforementioned fuel rig issue, this cost Barrichello any chance of the podium and brought him out fifth, line astern with his teammate.
Then Brawn made the audacious decision to orchestrate a swap between their two cars. Barrichello pitted a lap earlier than Button, giving the British driver the chance to eke out a slender lead over his teammate.
Barrichello's stop was half a second shorter than Button's, implying that he could have gone at least two or three laps longer. Furthermore, at the final stops Brawn put Button on super-soft tyres, but gave medium rubber to Barrichello, removing any chance of the Brazilian reclaiming fifth place with a quick out lap.
At the time of their final stops Button was clearly being held up by Barrichello, but the pair were already too far behind fourth-placed Nico Rosberg for either of them to have stood a chance of claiming an extra point. There was, therefore, no reason for the drivers to swap positions unless the team is already favouring Button—something they have denied.
There is certainly an argument for the team putting all of their resources behind Button in an attempt to wrap up his world championship as early as possible, especially now that Barrichello is 24 points behind. But Barrichello insisted after Germany, despite his anger with the team, that they were not yet favouring Button.
Unfortunately for Rubens, it appears that they are. Furthermore, treating your most experienced driver as a number two and not telling him about it is hardly a way to engender good relations.
For all that he has given the team, Rubens is owed an explanation by Brawn. If they have chosen to favour Button in pursuit of the drivers' championship, so be it—but they owe it to Barrichello to be honest with him and explain that this is the case.
Rubens is afforded little sympathy by many F1 fans, particularly in Britain—those who are literally jumping for joy at Jenson Button's sudden success are rarely receptive to any idea that his championship charge is being helped enormously by his number two, a useful but unwitting rear-gunner like any number of comic-book sidekicks. According to them, Barrichello's frustrations are all of his own making.
But the evidence against this idea is damning and continues to grow. Brawn have almost certainly decided to back Button—now they need to tell Barrichello about it.
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