Rubens Barrichello is starting 2009 without a Grand Prix contract and doesn’t look like securing a new deal to race before the season gets underway in March. With his career in limbo, the popular Brazilian has been given plenty of time over winter to reflect back on his efforts in Formula One.

Sixteen years in one of the world’s toughest sports is a very special achievement. Barrichello has taken 9 wins and 62 podiums which gives him a record that betters that of most World Champions.

Sadly for Rubens he never realised his own championship winning potential.

It is a little ironic that whilst Barrichello was part of the most successful team in Formula One history during its most successful period, he was never a contender for outright victory himself. Michael Schumacher was just too good for him and was always going to get the most out of Ferrari’s millennium dream team.

Had Rubens been born during any other decade he might well have climbed to the top of world motorsport, but he simply could not get the better of Schumacher in the same car.

However, he went a lot closer than many people give him credit for.

To beat Michael Schumacher over the course of a full year, Rubens had to have the perfect season whilst the German ran into trouble.

That’s exactly the opportunity he got in 2003.

Rubens Barrichello had a very genuine chance of beating the seven times World Champion that year, and if he had scored just a few more decent results he might have produced F1’s upset of the century

Schumacher took six wins but also had a collection of poor results in 2003. He made mistakes in the opening rounds, and struggled on the Bridgestone tyres later in the season.

Rubens went very close to taking full advantage of Schumacher’s setbacks with some excellent driving, but fell just short.

It might be hard to consider that Barrichello was a chance for the title in 2003 because he didn’t have a huge impact on the championship ladder, but that was simply because his big opportunity to go for glory was over just three races into the season.

Barrichello crashed out of the first race in Australia when he became distracted by his new HANS device. He was running second at the time of his accident and given the problems that everyone else experienced that day he was in a very good position to take the win.

He was also on track for victory during round three at Interlagos. Rubens was comfortably in the lead until his car stopped on track with a ‘fuel pick up problem’, which was Ferrari’s way of saying he ran out of juice. If he had stopped just one lap earlier, or had a sniff more petrol on board, the Brazilian would probably have won his home Grand Prix as well.

Barrichello potentially lost twenty points in those early rounds and that may have cost him the title.

If Rubens Barrichello had won the Australian and Brazilian Grands Prix he would have been leading the World Championship for most of the year, and would have been equal first on points alongside Schumacher with just five races to go.

That would have totally transformed the season, and would have changed the way Ferrari and Barrichello approached those final five races.

Rubens could have attacked those final Grands Prix like a championship contender, and might have avoided the problems that would have otherwise have prevented him from winning the title.

Ralf Schumacher crashed into Rubens at Hockenhiem and Juan Pablo Montoya did the same at Indianapolis. If Barrichello was leading the title chase he might have had a different mindset in the car and avoided those collisions, or perhaps he wouldn’t have had to avoid those collisions because the extra motivation of the title would have spurred him into a higher grid slot.

Ferrari might also have given Barrichello more testing, or perhaps Schumacher would have cracked under the pressure from within his own team.

Who knows?

Regardless of the possibilities, Barrichello would have been looking very good throughout 2003 if he had not lost those 20 points early in the year.

F1 is ‘if’ spelt backwards so you could just as easily claim that Raikkonen or Montoya could have won the championship without so many problems. In addition to that you could also argue that Michael Schumacher would have lifted his game if Rubens had been in serious title contention.

However, when Barrichello looks back on his career he will probably regard 2003 as the year he went closest to the sport’s biggest prize.

Having said that, Rubens would much prefer to be racing than thinking about what might have been.

The Brazilian’s Grand Prix future was in doubt long before Honda pulled the plug on Formula One, but the financial collapse at Brackley has made it likely that sponsor-friendly Bruno Senna will get the vacant seat alongside Jenson Button instead. Rubens is still a candidate for the drive, but Ayrton’s nephew is more appealing to sponsors and that will be a crucial selling point for the team’s new owner.

A rookie driver also places less pressure on the team because the expectations will be much lower.

That’s assuming Team Virgin/Petrobras/Prodrive/Whatever makes it onto the grid at all.

Quite what Rubens will end up doing this year is a mystery because the confusion surrounding his future may have cost him the chance to make alternative plans for the 2009 season.

He has received plenty of offers to race elsewhere and could already have competed in the recent Daytona 24 Hour event, or signed with a leading WTCC team.

He could also have chased a drive with Penske in the IRL thanks to his friendship with Gil be Ferran, but that door is now closed to him as well.

Barrichello might find that his best option for the future lies in the Brazilian Stock Car Championship where he would join the likes of Tarso Marques, Luciano Burti, Ricardo Zonta, and Antonio Pizzonia. He could even be tempted to jump behind the wheel of Brazil’s A1GP car when the series visits Interlagos for the first time later this year.

Whatever the case, he will continue racing because he is still highly motivated and the passion for racing still burns deep within.

That is something he will have reflected on a lot over winter.

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