Rubens homes into claim heritage

David Tremayne says Barrichello is due a spectacular homecoming

Ron Dennis' allegation that Ferrari deliberately favoured the Australian Grand Prix winner Michael Schumacher by forcing his team-mate Rubens Barrichello to make two pit stops instead of one suggests that the retirement of the two McLaren-Mercedes may have skewed the McLaren chief's perspective.

While Dennis was reacting angrily to a situation that many observers believed to be none of his business, Barrichello himself was quite content to finish second to the German on his debut for Ferrari in Melbourne. The change in strategy, he believed, was necessary to help him overtake Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan.

"Frentzen was holding me up, and I was talking all the time to the team on the radio," he said. "We decided to switch to a two-stop strategy to get me ahead. There was nothing more to it than that."

Many commentators felt that Barrichello was committing career suicide by leaving the Stewart team, where he was loved and pampered, to take on the thankless role of Schumacher's partner at Ferrari. But his performance in Australia suggests that, so far at least, he is coping better than expected. Twice during qualifying he had a first-sector time in the 29sec bracket, faster than Mika Hakkinen's 30sec best, which combined with the other two sectors to generate another pole-position lap for the world champion. On one occasion Barrichello spun, on the other David Coulthard's accident brought out the red flags. Barrichello had also spun earlier in the weekend; with any other driver that would not have been remarkable, but in his case it was. In the whole of 1999 he was the only driver not to spin during a practice or qualifying session. Whether two spins in one meeting is an indication of the pressure he is putting himself under as he tackles the elder Schumacher remains to be seen, but he shrugs it off.

"People ask me why I risked everything going to Ferrari. But believe me, when you are a racing driver and such a chance comes along - and they don't come very often - of course you take it. So much of this game is in the head. There was a time when it would not have been good for me. But I'm confident enough in myself now to believe that I will do well here."

Cynics say he will just be Schumacher's latest sacrificial lamb, but Ferrari's president, Luca di Montezemolo, has told the team's sporting director, Jean Todt, that he does not want to see Barrichello treated as Schumacher's butler or servant. But he later declared that there is a No 1 and a No 2 driver at Ferrari, so the jury is still out.

Next weekend Barrichello will be driving back in his homeland, Brazil, and racing there will always remind him of his mentor, Ayrton Senna. Two days after he himself had had a serious accident, during practice for the ill-fated San Marino GP back in 1994, Barrichello found himself watching Senna's fatal accident while recuperating in Cambridge. Though he was a mature21- year-old at the time, the tragedy shattered him.

"Ayrton was the first person I saw when I woke up in the medical centre after my accident, and all through my career he gave me many kindnesses," he said. "We became good friends. He was a good person to me, and I think he wanted to see me winning races."

Barrichello recalled the details of watching the accident, in a mesmerising sing-song voice reminiscent in some ways of Senna's own style of speech. "I could never, ever think that Senna could be hurt. So even when he move a little bit in the cockpit, I don't know whether it was a last sign or not. But with that movement I say, 'He's OK'. Then I saw the blood and I say, 'Oh my God, it's something very bad'."

He said that in the immediate aftermath the worst times were when he was alone. He did not sleep well for a week, and was tormented by images just before dropping off. Sometimes all it took to trigger off his grief again was the sight of a photograph. "But I got stronger again, until I could sit in the car without thinking of him and going wild. Now I really do think that he's an angel. He's alongside God and he's looking after me."

Brazilians have waited a long time for somebody to come along in whom they could reinvest the affection they had for Senna. Last year Barrichello made them cheer when initially he led the Brazilian Grand Prix in his Stewart-Ford, before its engine broke, but now his switch to Ferrari has placed him in one of the leading teams, and his performance in Australia has fuelled the anticipation of a possible home victory.

Donning the mantle of a dead icon is no sinecure, even for an experienced racer such as Barrichello, but he maintains that it does not worry him. "Some people might find it difficult," he said. "But I have a different feeling. This support, if you put it in the balance, is almost as big as the pressure I am under. That's a very good thing. I don't sit in the car and think: 'I have to be the other Senna'. I just want to have a good race, and to justify the faith the people have put in me."

One of Formula One's most popular characters is ready to score his first Grand Prix victory, and there could be no place better for it than at home in Interlagos, with Senna watching over him.

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