A landmark day for Barrichello

At 38, the Brazilian veteran will start in his 300th F1 race with Schumacher (261) and Patrese (256) way behind.

No matter what happens at Spa-Francorchamps today, it will be a landmark event for Rubens Barrichello. The Brazilian qualified his Williams Cosworth a respectable seventh, but there are other headline numbers this weekend: it is Barrichello's 300th grand prix. Michael Schumacher (261 starts) and Italian Riccardo Patrese (256 from 1977-1993) run him closest in terms of career durability.

The Belgian GP will be the 833rd world championship race since the series was inaugurated in 1950. Barrichello, who made his Formula One debut with the Jordan team 18 seasons ago, has taken part in 36 per cent of them - and at 38, with 11 career victories, his enthusiasm shows no sign of receding. If anything, he admits the sport's recent summer break was too long. "Earlier in my career," he says, "I always used to think the holidays were too short. When I came back I always felt I still needed more of a rest. Things are different now, although I don't really know why. We have just been away for three weeks - and after the first of those I was itching to drive again. My wife is terrified - she thinks I'll race forever. I can't explain my enthusiasm, but it feels magical."

During his time at motorsport's pinnacle. Barrichello has only once contemplated a career elsewhere. During the winter of 1995/96, when he was between F1 contracts, he scoured the American market for possible opportunities, although that was merely a back-up plan. He harbours no regrets about his time in F1 - not even from his time at Ferrari, where he spent six seasons as Michael Schumacher's sacrificial lamb.

"People think I had a bad time at Ferrari," he said, "but, despite everything, I didn't. I fought all the way to get the same treatment as Michael. The day I realised I wasn't going to get it, I decided to leave. That is why I moved on a year before my contract ended. Even during those years, though, the car was better than most and I had an opportunity to win races. Remember, I have experienced the other side of the sport, too."

Barrichello admits he spent part of his recent vacation watching old video footage and transferring bygone career highlights to DVD format. "I had to readjust to European time," he says, "so I'd go the gym at 4am and come back after an hour. The rest of the family would still be asleep, so I had to find something to do..." It's a snapshot of an unusual but touching enthusiasm - and he has no plans to quit any time soon.

"It will be difficult to make the decision to retire," he says, "but at the same time it will also be easy. The day I stop deriving so much pleasure from taking corners, I will know exactly what that means: it's time to stop. "Right now, though, the thing that pleases me most is that I'm still competitive."