Rubens Barrichello will start his 300th career race on Sunday at Spa
Depending upon who you ask, Rubens Barrichello will start his 300th Formula One Grand Prix when, and if, he takes to the grid to start the 2010 Belgian Grand Prix.
Now, if you’re one of those who believe that starting a race actually means starting a race, then please come back in six weeks to read this again and replace all references to Belgium and Spa with Japan and Suzuka.
If, however, you’re one of those who thinks that just turning up on race day is enough, then read on.
When Barrichello is discussed by future pundits, it will almost certainly be for his longevity and not because of the brilliance of his record. Not that he’s a dud, you don’t last 17 years in F1 without being talented, but averaging less than one win per year hardly puts him amongst the greats.
Barrichello simply doesn’t have that most crucial of all driving skills—luck.
His early career saw him hamstrung by substandard cars in Jordan and Stewart. While he consistently outperformed his teammates, he was unable to compete on even terms with the leaders due to unreliable and underperforming equipment.
When he did finally break into a competitive team at Ferrari for the 2000 season, Barrichello had the tremendous misfortune of becoming the teammate of Michael Schumacher—the only driver in the world to rival Fernando Alonso in his desperation to be the team’s unchallenged No. 1 driver.
Despite this, Barrichello managed to achieve some comparative success, including his first GP victory at a wet and tricky Hockenheim in 2000, a race that was overshadowed by a Mercedes Benz employee making an on-track protest.
This was to become the signature of Barrichello’s career. His successes were often overshadowed by other events.
In 2002, when he had dominated the Austrian Grand Prix, he received orders from the team to allow Schumacher to pass and win the race. Barrichello was so disgusted by this decision that he famously waited until after the final corner before he yielded to his teammate in a display that earned the team a lot of bad press and led to the banning of team orders from the 2003 season.
Though Ferrari was rarely so blatant again, Barrichello only ever won races at Ferrari when Schumacher was either so far ahead in the championship out of the race, or if there was another car competing for the win.
Even Barrichello’s terrifying accident and near death experience in 1994 at the San Marino GP is largely forgotten because of the terrible accidents that claimed the lives of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna on the same weekend.
In 2006, Barrichello left Ferrari to join Honda, but it soon became clear that he had landed himself back in an underperforming team again and he seemed destined to serve out his career having never really had the opportunity to compete for a championship win.
Indeed, when Honda announced that they were pulling out of F1 at the end of the 2008 season it seemed that Barrichello’s career was finished, with all of the other teams having secured drivers for the 2009 season.
When Ross Brawn rescued the team for the start of the 2009 season, Barrichello had one of the few strokes of good luck in his career. From looking into the abyss, he suddenly found himself not just with a car to drive, but in one that was capable of winning and in a team that would allow him to do so.
History tells us that he wasn’t able to convert this opportunity—finishing third behind Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel—and then, predictably, his luck ran out when Mercedes bought out Brawn’s operation and Barrichello moved on to Williams.
Although it had been a career-long ambition to move to one of F1’s most successful outfits, he did so at a time when the team was past its prime. Although Barrichello has been performing admirably, the team is far from the front of the grid and he seems destined to see out his career looking at the back of faster cars.
Of course, Barrichello fans would know that he is lucky to be in a position to see out his career at all, given what many see as Schumacher’s assassination attempt in the closing stages of the Hungarian GP.
Rubens Barrichello has written his name indelibly in the F1 history books by becoming the first driver to reach 300 races. It’s a remarkable record, however on reflection, he may not have achieved everything in the sport that his talent may have deserved.
Then again, in Formula One, very few drivers ever do.