Tony Kanaan (left) will finally get to race alongside his "brother" Rubens Barrichello (right), as the F1 veteran committed to a one-year deal with KV Racing Technology for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season. (Photo: KV Racing)
He is the eighth-highest point scorer in Formula 1 history with eleven wins, fourteen pole positions, and sixty-eight podium finishes. He was a protégé of the great Ayrton Senna. He began racing Formula 1 when current World Champion Sebastian Vettel was six years old and is the first driver in F1 history to accumulate 300 Grand Prix starts.
But today Rubens Barrichello is an IndyCar driver because he's one of Tony Kanaan's best pals.
That friendship is what ultimately led him to Sebring International Raceway first to watch, then participate in, a test of the new KV Racing Dallara DW12 machine that - as it turns out - he will be piloting in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season. His friend asked him to come and check it out. Maybe, he said, you might get a kick out of it.
Back in 2006, Rubens and Tony had swapped helmet designs during the Grand Prix of Monaco and the Indianapolis 500, respectively, because they believed that that was as close as they would ever get to racing together in their sports' biggest events. Now, six years later, the two friends who are so close that they call each other "brother" will get to take on the Brickyard together as teammates.
People will point to Barrichello's long and distinguished F1 career, his million-plus Twitter followers, or his eleven Grand Prix victories as reasons why his commitment to INDYCAR is good for the sport. But for my money, it's something much more valuable.
Rubens Barrichello-as-IndyCar-driver will not be as big a political coup as Nigel Mansell's defection in the early 1990s. It won't be a publicity coup anywhere near the one scored by NASCAR when they landed Danica Patrick - at least not in the United States. But it will speak volumes because of the motivational difference between Rubinho's decision and those of the other two drivers.
Mansell, the newly-crowned World Champion, came to the CART series largely because of his falling out with Frank Williams over some frankly stupid posturing and egotism. CART leaped on the situation to its political advantage, but the prickly and vain Mansell wore out his welcome rapidly - to the extent that the great Mario Andretti called Mansell the worst teammate he had ever raced with.
Ah, and then there is Danica. She is a skilled and fiery competitor, but she's also a brand. The blunt truth that is always taken as a sign of "haterade" by her supporters is that she is not famous because of her on-track accomplishments. She could have been given enough time - and she still has the potential to be the most successful female racer of her era. But to much of the world she will forever be the world's fastest piece of cheesecake, FHM Magazine's most famous buttcrack bearer, and the star of many heavy-lidded, zipper-plunging website commercials. Disservice to her drive and ability though it may be, it must be noted that neither Danica nor her handlers seem to care - nor do their bank accounts.
Both Mansell and Danica are similar in that they existed in their own bubble, a sphere of hype, celebrity, and self-absorption that encompassed their admirers and their star power wherever they went. They made no attempt to fit in because the assumption was that the sport would change to fit them. When they moved on, so did everything within their bubble.
That is why IndyCar fans should be so happy to welcome Rubens to the series. Rubens is internationally-known and has a storied and accomplished racing career, but when you boil down his motivation to its bare essence, he is racing IndyCars in 2012 because he wants to win races and have a hell of a good time doing it.
Rubens is a guy who will act like part of the family - he already is, literally, considering his relationship to Tony Kanaan. He has an infectious smile that he can't seem to hide; put him on a podium, and his joy leaks from his tear ducts. When he ran his last Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, not even the race winner got the reception that Rubinho received - his countrymen adore him, because he's so easy to adore.
Don't get me wrong. It's not just the warm-and-fuzzies that will set Rubens apart. If you have seen any of his testing footage, you know two things - he wants to win and he's very, very likely to get what he wants. Armed with two decades of experience in the highly-technical and feedback-intensive world of F1, he is bringing a howitzer to his Indy knife fight.
But for a fan base who are used to getting brooding, mercurial "stunt casting" stars, Rubens' arrival is going to be like a ray of sunshine. Like a favorite uncle at a family gathering, people are going to gravitate to him naturally, and what's better is that he will genuinely reciprocate the affection. Sure, he wants to win - but he wants to win with us, not just win in spite of us.
That, more than anything, is what we are getting in Rubens Barrichello. And for that reason, I think we are very lucky indeed.