When Rubens Barrichello lines up on the grid on Sunday afternoon in Belgium, he will become the first driver to compete in 300 races. 11 wins and 68 podiums are great achievements for the Brazilian but do not tell the tale of a career that started in South Africa in 1993 and continues 17 years on. To be competitive in Formula 1 is a massive challenge but to have the skill, energy, determination and passion to maintain that high level is very impressive.
It all began in 1993 when Barrichello joined the Jordan team and found himself up against the likes of Martin Brundle, Ricardo Patrese and Alain Prost. When i mention Donnington 1993 most F1 fans will instantly think of Ayrton Senna's stunning first lap and win in damp conditions and rightly so. However this was also the occasion when Barrichello would first show his ability. He started 12th but made several passes to be 4th by the end of the first lap. Mixing it with the Williams of Prost and Damon Hill he was set for a podium until a fuel pressure problem. Unreliability would be the story of his debut season but points were finally scored in Japan. 1994 dawned with points in his homeland and a podium in Aida but then a horrific accident on that black weekend in Imola saw him need life saving treatment after his tongue blocked his airways.
He survived and also had to deal with the loss of his hero Ayrton Senna. He would return and even take pole positon in a weather affected session at Spa. The highlight of 1995 would be second in Montreal though engine failure robbed him of a third place on the final lap in Budapest. 1996 seen 14 points collected but things with Eddie Jordan had soured and BarrichelLo decided to look for a new team
He joined a brand new outfit in the form of Stewart Grand Prix run by ex world champion Jackie Stewart. Only 3 finishes were recorded in 1997 but one of these was a memorable 2nd at a soaked Monte Carlo. 1998 was another year of poor results. This was a frustrating time for Barrichello. At this stage of his career he had established himself as a good driver and regularly defeated his team mates. 1999 was an improved showing for Stewart and there was 3 podiums to celebrate. Other highlights included leading in Brazil and pole position in France. This was a great display of Rubens experience and knowledge. The 60 minute session started wet and most teams were waiting for conditions to improve. Barrichello wanted to go out and get a lap in but his engineer refuted his request. Two cars set times and Barrichello demanded that he get out and do a flying lap. He took provisional pole and as the session continued the weather remained wet and his time stood unbeaten. Shrewd thinking had done the job.
Perhaps this was one of the reasons that Ferrari principal Jean Todt came knocking. The dream move was on and Barrichello was on his way to Maranello to partner Michael Schumacher. He was up against arguably the best driver in the field but now had the machinery to compete for victories. The glory moment came at Hockenheim when staying out on dry tyres in mixed conditions. The emotion of it all poured out on the slow down lap
He finished the season 4th and helped Ferrari to the constructors championship. However this role of support act within the team would play out in 2 successive races in Austria when he moved over for his team mate. Particularly controversial was the 2002 race. Barrichello had dominated practice and qualifying and held the edge over Schumacher, who had a comfortable lead in the championship, all weekend. On the final lap he was ordered to slow and let Schumacher through. Even recently, the Brazilian has insisted that he did not go to Ferrari with the agreement that he would be the number 2 driver in the team
The next two seasons yielded four more victories, including victory at Monza and a stunning drive at Silverstone though car problems robbed him of home glory in Sao Paulo. After a sluggish 2005 for him and the team in general he moved to Honda to partner Jenson Button. He struggled at the start of 2006 to get to grips with the car but eventually gained pace and had a best finish of 4th. The next 2 seasons were pretty miserable as 2007 seen his only pointless season and 2008 wasn't much better as 6th in Melbourne was wiped out by a disqualification though in the rain of Silverstone he scored a brilliant 3rd after switching to the extreme wet tyres.
Now you would think after a couple of years like that the passion for racing would be dwindling but Rubens was determined to retain his seat for 2009 and was open in expressing this desire. Then came the shock pullout by Honda. Rubens career was up in the air but after Ross Brawn saved the team he decided to plump for him over the inexperienced Bruno Senna. All of a sudden he had another season and a car capable of winning.
Race day in Budapest. Barrichello has his good friend Felipe Massa critically ill in a hospital. He has qualified down the order and finishes outside the points. Despite having the best car in the field, no races have been won and his championship hopes look faint. The head is hanging low. I'll be honest, i really felt on that afternoon that Rubens was demoralised and that he would hang his helmet up at the end of the season. I couldn't have got it more wrong!
He took a well acclaimed win at the next round in Valencia and followed it up with another victory in Monza. He couldn't wrestle the title from team mate Button but played his part in Brawn winning the constructors championship. Following the close of the season, Williams announced that Barrichello was joining them, meaning a 18th year in Formula 1. They struggled at first but things have improved and Williams have spoken very highly of Barrichello. Many felt rookie Nico Hulkenberg would finish off his career but Rubens has held his own and a contract renewal is seen as almost certain.
Rubens Barrichello is a skilled and fast driver. However what has impressed me is his passion. He loves Formula 1, he loves to get up and race. To carry that for so long is an inspiration and shows that drivers can have long careers like him. We have seen youth picked a lot recently in the likes of Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastian Vettel and Lucas di Grassi.
Barrichello though continues to deliver results and is driving as well as ever. His enthusiasm was shown on British TV recently when he appeared on Top Gear and beat the presenter 'The Stig' around the test track, a feat that Jenson Button, Mark Webber and other F1 stars have failed to acheive. When he wakes up on Sunday, he will be determined as ever to do the best he can, driving to the limit. I've mentioned his wet weather skills a few times and with the forecast for Belgium the way it is, you just don't know what magic Rubinho could conjure up for race 300 and beyond...