Brazilian racing legend and IndyCar newbie Rubens Barrichello is looking cool despite the blisteringly hot weather.
Wearing a sponsor-emblazoned navy polo shirt overtop a white crewneck shirt, impeccable white Bermuda shorts with high-voltage neon-yellow running shoes, the trim racer — wraparound sunglasses perch on the brim of a navy ball cap — sits down for a quick bite to eat.
The most experienced driver in Formula One history (322 starts out of 326 entries over 19 seasons with team Jordan, Stewart, Ferrari, Honda, Brawn, and Williams) chuckles over his rookie status, confessing at 40 years of age the designation makes him feel young.
Though he admits there’s been a learning curve. Heavier cars, an absence of power steering and unfamiliar (and bumpy) circuits are taking a bit of getting used to.
Racing in tomorrow’s Edmonton Indy, the team KV Racing Technology driver says his love of the sport comes down to passion adding that despite challenges, he’s having fun.
But racing is likely in his DNA.
Hailing from the Sao Paulo neighbourhood of Interlagos, Barrichello grew up literally next to the city’s famed F1 circuit.
Looking back, he says his teen years were momentous ones: at 16 years of age, the ace student was wrapping up his studies, winning karting titles and soon to embark on a racing career in Italy. Underage, he competed initially using his father’s ID since they share the same name and coincidentally, the same day of birth.
Barrichello was also getting behind the wheel on the road, albeit somewhat precociously, with a Volkswagen Gol; a popular subcompact in Brazil that his dad had picked up.
A variation of the peppy car was badged as the VW Fox in North America.
“I fell in love with it because I was so young and wanted to have it” Barrichello says admiringly. “Being a racing driver since I was six, I was desperate to have a car.”
But instead of wild teen escapades in the Gol (goal in Portuguese), Barrichello — the responsible older brother (“I wouldn’t do anything silly”) drove his younger sister to school and back home.
His foray in the VW was short-lived however after dedicating himself to professional racing.
“I finished school when I was 16 so I moved away and that period was kind of tough because I didn’t have a car over there — because I couldn’t drive it either,” he says alluding to his assumed identity.
“I could only race my cars but I was living with the mechanics and at six o’clock they would wake up and go to the factory to see the cars and I had the choice to go with them or just stay home. It was cold. I missed home. But it was then I definitely decided that I want to do this because I want to be a racing driver. So those tough times taught me how to behave, pay my bills and just be a professional.”
Leaning forward a broad smile reaches across his face. “And when I drove the cars it just made it so much, ‘Yeah! That’s what I want to do,’” he says with emphasis.
Racing in the Formula Vauxhall Lotus and Formula Opel Lotus series in Italy, the teen was on his own in a new country — learning a new language — something he would repeat only years later when he moved to England to compete in the British Formula 3 series.
He also raced briefly in International Formula 3000 before hitting Formula One in 1993.
Naturally race cars preoccupy a pro driver’s thoughts, so when it comes to thinking back to the first road car he ever purchased, Barrichello pauses to recollect, noting he first had only money enough to lease a car.
Eventually he did get his first set of wheels.
“I bought a Vauxhall Calibra (1992) — the Chevrolet — in Europe when I was living in Italy for some time,” he says carefully, taking a bite of his small half sandwich (a green salad and fruit nestle on his plate as well). “I bought that car and I took it to Brazil later on.”
Despite his day-job behind the wheel, Barrichello loved to drive the German-made car. Opel manufactured the Calibra and sold it under different marques in various countries: Vauxhall in the U.K., Chevrolet in South America and Holden in Australia.
“My first trip I drove from Italy to England by myself. People took the plane and I said, ‘No, I’m driving; that’s what I want to do.’ It was around 2,000 kilometres or something like this and it took forever but I was so happy when I got to the other side and I was driving my . . . car,” he says, punctuating his ownership.
Echoing his criteria for his Indy ride: “All I want is a powerful engine and a steering wheel,” Barrichello laughs, confessing the same standard governs his road cars.
“It was so good looking; and (it had) good power,” he says, explaining why he chose the Calibra, which at the time also had the distinction of being the most aerodynamic production car in the world.
But when it comes to his road cars, Barrichello confides he’s not a big collector.
“I do have a Ferrari because racing for them — it was such a pleasure and if I didn’t have a Ferrari it would be stupid not to,” the two-time F1 championship runner-up says.
Of course beautiful, high-performance cars require pampering and need to be driven — something he admits he doesn’t do frequently enough.
When he does go for a spin, Barrichello who is currently ranked in the middle of the Indy pack at 16th, says he keeps his cool.
“In Brazil there are so many kids that get killed from racing on the roads and this is really stupid. Because they have the means to go to the circuits and do (it) the proper way, so I’m very calm. I hate traffic, so I tend not to be on the road when the traffic is there and I like different routes.”
His two decades of elite racing has also afforded a unique perspective into changes in automotive technology.
From the high-tech incubator of Formula One, the sport has produced ground- breaking innovations in fuel efficiency, braking, paddle shifting, lightweight materials, energy recovery and safety systems which eventually migrate to mass-produced cars.
“If you downshift with a paddle in your hands it’s much safer,” he says explaining the introduction in 1989 of semi-automatic transmission into Formula One racing by Ferrari engineers.
“So I think this is one of the biggest things I’ve ever seen. Obviously you have ABS brakes, you have the technology right now that the cars will stop if somebody crosses in front — it’s just amazing, the hybrid-thing as well.”
Discussing mechanical innovations offers a glimpse of the disciplined racer as a keen student (and perhaps a clue to his longevity in the fickle world of motorsport).
He recounts how, at the age of 11, he got permission to drive a go-kart inside his school. Ostensibly for a science project, he taught the workings of the two-stroke engine, scoring a perfect 10 on the assignment — in addition to winning the instant admiration of his fellow students.
Looking back, there is still one outstanding automotive desire he has yet to fulfill:
“My dream of my childhood was to have a Porsche — like a 911-type. I still don’t because I want to have that Porsche when I’m done with racing and I’m going to be living somewhere that I can drive the car.
“I want to have my dream of a kid whenever I am back.”
Hopefully he’s not done anytime soon.