The biggest news of the day in international motorsports doesn’t usually belong to the IZOD IndyCar Series, unless it’s in relation to the Indianapolis 500. Today, however, IndyCar is at the forefront of the racing world, as Rubens Barrichello will suspend a 19-season Formula 1 career to join KV Racing Technology for the 2012 IndyCar season. Barrichello, who will drive a #8 Dallara-Chevrolet backed by a Brazilian construction company, joins “brother” Tony Kanaan (the two are very close) and E.J. Viso at KVRT.
It will be KV’s second big driver-related move in two years, after Vasser sprung for Kanaan last offseason when his ride at Andretti Autosport vaporized. Previously, KV had made a history taking on drivers who brought their own sponsorship, and the lineup didn’t always work according to plan; in 2010, Takuma Sato, E.J. Viso, and Mario Moraes combined for over 30 accidents during races and practice sessions.
Now, their lead two drivers have combined for only 15 DNFs (Kanaan nine, Barrichello six) in 106 starts (Kanaan 51 in IndyCar, Barrichello 55 in F1) the past three seasons. Their ability to keep cars out of trouble on the track (only eight of those DNFs were accident-related) should have the team very confident about where they stand in the sport. In fact, Vasser may have, car for car, a more talented driver lineup than his former owner, Chip Ganassi.
But beyond that, landing Barrichello is a huge caveat for IndyCar, as he is the first big name Formula One driver to defect to the United States since Nigel Mansell made the move in 1993. Mansell tore up the CART ranks, winning back-to-back F1 and CART championships. Barrichello tested the new Dallara DW12 multiple times for KV as an advisor in the offseason, having experienced some of the new engineering concepts in Formula 1, and really enjoyed the car.
It also suggests that IndyCar’s safety improvements on the new car, made in the wake of Dan Wheldon’s tragic passing last October, have been significant enough to satisfy those worried about running open-wheeled cars on ovals. While his wife was initially concerned about the safety of running ovals, which could have resulted in a partial schedule, his kids reportedly convinced her to give the okay to run every race in 2012. That simply wouldn’t have happened if the car wasn’t deemed safe enough, and no amount of pleading from Barrichello’s kids would have changed that.
Barrichello believes that some other Formula 1 drivers have interest in ovals, and that his switch to IndyCar (especially if successful) could open the door for other drivers to make the same choice in the future. That’s not to imply that these drivers will be mid- to low-level F1 drivers, as Sato, Justin Wilson, and Sebastien Bourdais were, either – Barrichello is referring to top talent in the sport. Mark Webber, Red Bull’s second driver, has been rumored on his way out for years now due to his age despite strong performances; he could be a candidate if those rumors ever come to pass.
In the early 1990s, IndyCar was on par with Formula 1 for the greatest open-wheel driving talent in the world. Drivers like Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr., and Bobby Rahal established themselves well in solely American careers, while Mansell, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Mario Andretti brought Formula 1 pedigrees. The 1996 split between CART and the Indy Racing League undid a lot of the sport’s prestige, as drivers racing in America would look to NASCAR and the few CART drivers to earn F1 rides failed miserably. Barrichello’s signing, however, should do a lot to reverse that trend; not only will he bring a level of respect back to IndyCar, he should inspire other, better young talent to consider the series as a viable option once again.
- Chris Leone