Rubens and Fisi: F1 s old guard ride again

At the end of this week the world discovered that a) Honda would be racing in 2009 and b) Rubens Barrichello would be one of their drivers. Barrichello is the most experienced driver in grand prix history, and with Giancarlo Fisichella, represents the last of the old generation. But how good are these two now? Why have they been retained? And why are they still in F1, when the chance for glory is all but gone?

Rubens has been in F1 since 1993, and Fisichella since 1996. They both were chosen on merit to drive for top teams at the peak of their form, Ferrari and Renault. They have both won races, convincingly on occasion, and qualified superbly. They are consummate professionals who are known up and down the paddock as nice guys. Moreover, last year Fisichella kept the highly-rated Adrian Sutil relatively honest, and Rubens more or less outperformed under-motivated Jenson Button. Rubens stellar drive in the rain at Silverstone was a reminder that when the day comes, he still has it.

But it has to be said that their finest hours both came as team-mates of illustrious champions, Schumacher and Alonso respectively, who for different reasons outclassed them season after season. Both have done nothing particularly special in recent seasons, and have occasionally failed to beat team-mates. A critic could say they both had indifferent 2008 seasons, the sole highlight Barrichello s Silverstone podium.

Barrichello is now 37, Fisichella 36. While Nigel Mansell won the world championship at the age of nearly 39, that was in 1992, and after the Schumacher era driver fitness became more important to a driver s make-up. Mansell critics would say that Mansell couldn t fit in the 1995 McLaren, remember, whereas Mansell fans would say that Nige was of such determination and grit that he drove past his age. But anyway. Defenders of ageing drivers should be reminded of an old racing saying that when drivers pass a certain age, something comes into their minds in the middle of a corner, preventing them from taking it in as committed a manner as their younger selves might have.

Barrichello himself said yesterday,‘sometimes this year in qualifying you have that little pimple on your skin saying ‘just remember you are not a boy any more’ after the corner, evidence perhaps that Rubens is conscious of time s passing. That time passing is affecting the two of them equally. Both, it could be argued, were not great talents in the first place, and are not likely suddenly to improve.

Are they candidates, then, for the insalubrious sobriquet of ‘journeymen ? Have they merely passed through F1, rather than stunning audiences with breathtaking bravery and speed aplenty? Sort of, yes. But it is clear why the two ‘journeymen have been retained. They both know exactly how to set a car up for each and every circuit on the calendar. They are safe hands; and their experience is tremendously beneficial for their younger team-mates to learn from. Moreover, F1 is undergoing considerable technical upheaval, including the return to slick tyres with which of course both Barrichello and Fisichella have experience. This outweighs, presumably, any concerns over their outright pace.

In Barrichello s case, Honda (or Brawn GP) need stability after their torrid off-season. Their first priority is to rebuild and salvage what they can of 2009, and therefore Rubens seems like a much better option than an untried rookie, whatever that rookie s last name happens to be.

In Fisichella s case, Force India are a team in the process of building too, and he helps that. The higher echelons of the Force India technical department can estimate, more or less, exactly what Fisichella will do with the car, and in this way his consistency helps. Furthermore, drivers salaries are of course confidential, but it is possible that Fisichella is driving for free.

So what is their motivation for continuing? No drivers championships are coming their way, no matter what. Remuneration, if it exists, will have become paltrier since the financial crisis hit and cost-cutting zeal hit the teams. So the answer must be that purely and simply, they enjoy it. The fires of competition still burn within them, and frankly, they are good enough to be given the seats.

They may never have been of the same calibre as Schumacher and Alonso, and may never be of the same stuff as Hamilton or Vettel, but F1 needs gutsy performers like Rubens Barrichello and Giancarlo Fisichella.