Most eyes will be on the front of the grid at the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday as the world championship battle, which has five drivers separated by just 20 points, is likely to take another twist. But it will be an emotional occasion for one of the drivers expected to be fighting for points further back in the pack. The race at the Spa-Francorchamps track will be the 300th of Rubens Barrichello's career, the first time any driver in the sport has achieved the feat.
The 38-year-old Brazilian said he feels fortunate to have achieved the milestone, all the more so after the events of the Hungarian Grand Prix earlier this month. Barrichello, far quicker than Michael Schumacher on fresher rubber in his Williams-Toyota, tried to overtake on the pit straight only to come within millimetres of being driven into the wall by his former teammate. He criticised Schumacher after the race for nearly causing an accident, and he is still angry about the move that will cost Schumacher a penalty of 10 grid positions at Spa.
"What Michael did was crazy," said Barrichello, who has yet to receive a personal apology from Schumacher, even though the German has made a public apology on his website. "I feel more lucky than usual to make it to 300 grands prix after what he tried. I wasn't surprised by what he did - that's Michael - but it's time to move on." For Barrichello, it was vital that the move succeeded. After being forced to play second fiddle to Schumacher at Ferrari during his six seasons on the team and regularly being forced to make way on the track for the seven-times champion, it was a bold move for what translated into just a solitary championship point.
Barrichello's take on it was "what a point". "I'm pleased it stuck," he said. "It felt good but it could have been very different, very, very different." To mark his 300th anniversary, he will wear a one-off helmet that was designed for the occasion, 17 years after making his debut at the South African Grand Prix on March 14, 1993. Driving for Jordan, he retired from that race and, looking back at his debut, the 11-time grand prix winner and two-time championship runner-up said he is surprised by his longevity in the sport.
"If someone said back then in South Africa that I would still be driving after 300 races in F1 then I would have said 'no way, you're crazy'," he said. But Barrichello, who has driven for Jordan, Stewart, Ferrari, Honda, Brawn and now Williams, is still as eager as the 1993 debutant. Bruno Senna, his countryman who drives for the HRT-Cosworth team, said recently: "Rubens is the crazy one of the Brazilians. He should be the sensible one, the one taking it easy maybe but he's not."
Barrichello smiled when told of the comment. He said "crazy" is not quite the right word, but acknowledged that he stands out from his peers on the grid. "I think too many drivers are too reserved," he said, "and I just love life. When you go to the driver meetings at a race weekend, you look around the table and all these faces look so sad. And all that makes me want to do is to make a joke and get people to smile. That's what I like to do, to make people smile and get on well with people. "
Barrichello's life might have been more blessed than most people but surely he looks back on his days at Ferrari when he was continually forced to play the very clear role of No 2 to Schumacher when they were together on the team between 2000 and 2005. "My point is that the bad times in life are there for you to learn and I think I learned from that time at Ferrari," he added. As the oldest man on the grid behind Schumacher, Barrichello would be expected to be sluggish in races of late but he has finished in the points in three of the last four track outings including fourth and fifth-place finishes at Valencia and Silverstone.
He appears to be on the rise once more. At the start of the season, things did not look rosy with Williams. They showed early promise in testing but then quickly fell away as a variety of upgrades failed to have the desired effect. At times, their leading driver cut a disgruntled and disillusioned figure but finally the signs are that the team are showing a much improved level of consistency. "The start was frustrating but I couldn't change that straight away and there was no point me spending time moaning about it," he said. "But things just weren't working. But the main thing is that the team really listened to what I was saying and I believe they've translated that to really good change."
Instead of dreaming of sneaking into the points, Barrichello now has his sights set on a podium finish. He said: "The podium is the aim towards the end of the season and I think that's realistic if our progress continues in the same way." Barrichello's move to Williams has been something of a career-long goal. He was in talks on a variety of occasions over the years with Sir Frank Williams about a possible move but, as he said, "the timing was never right".
And having signed for the team, they have been far from a disappointment. "It feels right here," is his take on life at Williams. "I'm here as it was always on my wish list and I want to stay here." Barrichello still talks about his dream of becoming world champion but, driving for Williams at the age of 38, that seems unlikely. When he first arrived in the series, he was talked about as a future world champion and his has arguably been a career that failed to completely reach the heady heights.
"I don't think of the what ifs," he said. "Life and F1 have been good for me and I still believe I can be world champion whatever people might think or say." Whatever Barrichello ends up achieving, one record looks set to stay in the record books for some time - his 300 mark of grands prix. firstname.lastname@example.org