Even the nicest man in motorsports is surprised at the friendly welcome he's received from his newest competitors.
Fresh from his first day of open testing with the IZOD IndyCar Series at Sebring International Raceway, former Formula 1 driver Rubens Barrichello (LEFT) announced – quite politely, of course – that his reception in the States has been remarkable.
“There is something in Europe that's almost like the bad guy wins and the good guy doesn't – that's what they say,” Barrichello said. “I completely don't believe in that. I believe that you can be very competitive on the track but have a social relationship outside of that. Here in the U.S., I've found that they are very competitive but still pleasant.”
The 39-year-old moved to IndyCar after losing his ride with Williams F1 at the end of the 2011 season. He signed with KV Racing Technology as a teammate to fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan and is quickly getting to know his competitors. Barrichello wasn't far off the pace Thursday after posting a fast lap in the low 52-second range, a few tenths behind Scott Dixon's best-of-day lap of 51.7932sec.
“It was a difficult day for us," Kanaan admitted. "We were struggling a little bit with a couple of things we can't disclose. But at least we have one car that is really competitive!
"Days like this, especially with three cars, we just separate the duties. Sometimes you get the good part of the duties; sometimes you get the bad part. It was an OK day. We ran all day. We did almost 60 laps. The engine has been very reliable, so that is actually the priority number one, I think. Now we need to find some speed. There is still tomorrow and a couple more days that we are going to go test next week. I would say that, although it is frustrating, because you want to be the fastest every time. But, on a positive note, I think we had a no-trouble day, which is very good.”
Barrichello's move to IndyCar already is being compared with those of Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell, who left F1 for success in the U.S. in the 1980s and '90s. Known for his pleasant personality and tenacious skills, Barrichello is a hit with IndyCar drivers who have idolized him for years.
“I have a good relationship with Dario [Franchitti]; I always have,” Barrichello explained. “But because he sees how close I am with Tony [Kanaan], it's almost like – even without talking to him – I'm already closer to him. It feels good. That's how it should be.”
On Dixon's sixth lap of the morning session, he demonstrated that perhaps Chevrolet isn't as far ahead of Honda – or ahead at all – as previously thought. Dixon followed it with another lap below 52 seconds in the afternoon session in his Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara-Honda, more than 0.3sec faster than Chevy's best lap of the previous two days at Sebring.
"The car was good out the box – it was pretty quick," said Dixon. "We just went through the test program and tried not to just go for lap time. We didn't really have the lap time that we had in the afternoon that we had in the morning, so all and all it was pretty decent."
“It's really difficult (to tell how the manufacturers rank) until we get to St. Pete to know where it is,” Barrichello said. “Everyone has a card up their sleeve, waiting to show. The time Scott set this morning was really, really fast, and it was right out of the box. They are what they are. I'll be happy to be sneaking up among them, but the Ganassi and Penske cars are the ones to beat.”
Katherine Legge (RIGHT, with teammate Sebastian Bourdais) finally got in her first test laps in her Lotus Dragon Racing entry. It marked the Briton's first appearance in North American open-wheel racing since her brief Champ Car career prior to the open-wheel merger.
"It was really important that we got so many laps this afternoon, and that's 110 percent due to the crew,” Legge said about the all-nighter – and then some – for the Dragon crew to install the Lotus engine that arrived late March 7. “It was like a team-building experience.
“On old tires we were competitive with other Lotus cars. On new tires, I kind of pushed too hard. It's something that I have to learn. It's the first 60-some laps in the car.
“It feels like home and where I belong. The team that Jay [Penske, team owner] has built this year is incredible, and it's great to have Sebastien's feedback as well.”
Bourdais is expected to share the No. 6 car with Legge on Friday.
Overall, 16 cars recorded 680 laps on the sunny, windswept first day for the second group. Dixon's Target Ganassi teammate Dario Franchitti was quickest in the afternoon session (52.1401), while Barrichello was third.
"I'm still a boy playing with a toy, finding out what the toy is capable of giving you," added Barrichello. "It's good to be back on a track I've been to before, because even times I'm on zero but now I'm on 20. I had some laps here, so my mind is open.
Testing will conclude Friday with another full day, the final session of open testing before the IndyCar season opener March 25 at St. Petersburg.
Pos Driver Team/Car/Engine Time
1. Scott Dixon Ganassi DW12-Honda 51.7932s
2. Dario Franchitti Ganassi DW12-Honda 52.1401s
3. Rubens Barrichello KV DW12-Chevrolet 52.2228s
4. Mike Conway Foyt DW12-Honda 52.2230s
5. Takuma Sato Rahal DW12-Honda 52.4111s
6. Graham Rahal Ganassi DW12-Honda 52.4956s
7. E.J. Viso KV DW12-Chevrolet 52.6317
8. JR Hildebrand Panther DW12-Chevrolet 52.6868s
9. Charlie Kimball Ganassi DW12-Honda 52.9339s
10. Tony Kanaan KV DW12-Chevrolet 53.2012s
11. Josef Newgarden Fisher DW12-Honda 53.2013s
12. Oriol Servia DRR DW12-Lotus 53.3479s
13. Ana Beatriz Andretti DW12-Chevrolet 54.1478s
14. Alex Tagliani BHA DW12-Lotus 54.4135s
15. Katherine Legge Dragon DW12-Lotus 54.5918s
16. Ed Carpenter Carpenter DW12-Chevrolet 54.6490s