Judging by the events of the Spanish Grand Prix, Rubens Barrichello, not for the first time in his lengthy career, is heading for the Formula One altar dressed as sacrificial lamb.
The Catalunya race was Barrichello’s for the taking. Starting third, he led the field into the first corner and began to build what was expected to be an unassailable lead given that both Brawn GP cars were on a three-stop strategy.
Well, at least they were after the morning briefing. But once team-mate Jenson Button was switched to a two-stop and Barrichello was hampered by tyre issues during his third stint, the pendulum shifted.
The race ended with a Brawn GP one-two. Button 1, Barrichello 2. Victories in 2009 read Button 4, Barrichello 0. Qualifying is Button 4, Barrichello 1. Drivers’ championship points, Button 41, Barrichello 27.
F1 is all about numbers – or tenths of numbers to be precise. Barrichello is approaching his 38th birthday. So if you consider that Button has seven years on his side in terms of age, Brawn GP are going to be more comfortable with him topping the leader board at the end of the 2009 season and, more importantly, wearing the No1 on his car into 2010.
We are only five races into a 17-race campaign, but the cards may already be stacked against Barrichello. If Button continues to accumulate wins at the current rate, the maths will compel the team to throw its full support behind him. As in Spain, Barrichello’s toys will be hurled from the bassinet.
On Sunday, his reaction to playing second fiddle was to make quit noises. “If I get the slightest sniff of the fact that they have favoured Jenson, I will hang up my helmet tomorrow,” he told US television.
He will find some sympathy in this quarter. He has had his share of setbacks in a career which began in 1993. A violent crash at the wheel of a Jordan at Imola in 1994 came on the same weekend which claimed the life of Ayrton Senna. The mantle of carrying Brazilian hopes weighed heavily on his shoulders thereafter.
With Stewart Grand Prix in 1997 he scored a second in Monaco – one of only three race finishes in a notoriously unreliable car. He had two fifth places to show for his efforts in 1998 when the team shunned wisdom to run a carbon-encased gearbox.
Those of us who endured the horrors of that season clad in Stewart tartan (I successfully resisted the kilt), spent most of our time watching and waiting. Watching the oil temperature rise as the gearbox was brought to the boil. Waiting for the call to bring the SF-2s in to retirement.
The following year Barrichello, armed with a lightweight Cosworth engine with heavyweight grunt, recorded a pole position at a wet Magny Cours and three podium finishes. At the European Grand prix in Nurburgring, Germany, there was a maiden win for the team, courtesy of Johnny Herbert. Barrichello was third.
He had done the hard yards in testing and fast miles in race trim to dominate Herbert all season. So being denied the one moment of triumph for Jackie Stewart’s fledgling team was tough to digest.
Nonetheless, his reward for dragging Stewart GP by its boot laces to fourth in the championship was a seat alongside Michael Schumacher at Ferrari the following season. He was runner-up in the drivers’ championship in 2002 and 2004.
His six years riding shotgun for Schumacher at the Scuderia had its nadir at the Austrian race in 2002. Leading by a distance, Barrichello was ordered to allow Schumacher to pass on the start-finish straight with the chequered flag in sight. The win preserved the latter’s title chances.
Amid a chorus of crowd outrage, Schumacher shamelessly moved Barrichello on to the top step at the podium ceremony and handed him the winner’s trophy.
The podium indiscretion and Ferrari’s flouting of team orders led to the FIA banning the practice.
Two common denominators remain from those Ferrari days. Ross Brawn and Barrichello were colleagues then and now. And team orders are a touchy subject for Barrichello then and now.
Could be a case of bridesmaid revisited for Rubinho.