So Rubens Barrichello has finally confirmed that he will compete in the IndyCar Series in 2012. It is undoubtedly the right choice given the circumstances – F1 didn’t come calling this season and there was no guarantee it would twelve months down the line. Committing himself to a new project – and doing so fully, ovals and all – was the most sensible option. The racer that he is, Barrichello could not have stomached a year on the sidelines after 19 successive campaigns in the thick of the action.
And IndyCar is the best place for him to scratch that competitive itch. With the series introducing a new car this season he’s getting in at just the right time, and in the KV Racing team he’s hooked-up with a top-line operation on the cusp of breaking into the big time.
What’s more he’ll fit the American series perfectly. IndyCar is more open, more fan friendly, and will embrace Rubens immediately in the way he deserves. F1 can often be cold and corporate in a way that does not suit the bubbly, effervescent Brazilian.
And what a wonderful story it is that he’ll be hooking up with old buddy Tony Kanaan at the team. Rubens has been friends with his new KV team-mate for three decades. When Tony lost his father as a child Rubens’ dad took the youngster under his wing and treated him as one of his own. The bond between the two is extremely deep – they refer to each other as brothers – and it will be fascinating to see how they cope in wheel-to-wheel combat. The two have never competed in the same series before, the closest they’ve come being the odd mess around in go-karts.
Not that Barrichello should be aiming to beat TK off the bat: Kanaan is a former series champion with 14 IndyCar wins and over 200 American open-wheel starts to his name, and could be a championship contender again this season. Despite being the ‘bigger brother’, Rubens will have much to learn from Tony.
And that’s going to be the story of Barrichello’s 2012: learning. He may be a few months shy of 40 and the most experience F1 racer of all time but this year he’ll need to get his head down and learn. He’s never raced on any of the circuits on the IndyCar calendar and will find a different style of racing in the states. Don’t expect a Mansell-esque rooki title for the Brazilian. Nige walked into the best team on the grid; Rubens’ new outfit is good, but Penske and Ganassi are the boys to beat.
Speaking of new experiences, some have sounded out concerns that Barrichello is taking an unnecessary risk in joining a supposedly dangerous series, particularly in tackling oval competition.
But aside from the last year’s Las Vegas tragedy – which was freak accident, a perfect storm of disaster caused by the collision of multiple factors – the worst injury that occurred last season did not happen on an oval: it occurred on a street circuit, when Justin Wilson badly injured his back in practice for the Mid-Ohio race.
Rubens is a vastly experience racing driver and one fully aware of the risks he takes. He’ll get his head around ovals, just as Mansell did two decades ago. And, with the number of ovals down to five this season, Rubens main focus will be on what he knows best: traditional race tracks and street circuits.
Barrichello will be one of four regular ex-grand prix drivers on next year’s IndyCar grid. They are headed by Wilson, who spent one season as an F1 driver but is now far better known for his American exploits: the Sheffield-born racer is one of the finest street circuit drivers in IndyCar and in January’s took victory at the Daytona 24 Hours. Takuma Sato races for Bobby Rahal’s team (with Honda engines, naturally) whilst Sebastien Bourdais leads the Lotus-powered Dragon team. Finally, Jean Alesi will make his Indy 500 debut in May’s running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, a slightly baffling decision given the Frenchman’s age (47) and the fact that he has never competed on an oval before.
The move is huge both for Barrichello and IndyCar, which has just lost its most famous driver (Dancia Patrick has switched to NASCAR) and the man who was set to step in to her shoes, the late Dan Wheldon. The veteran Brazilian’s progress will be fascinating to chart as he makes the biggest change of his sporting life and embraces a new challenge. We wish him the best of luck.