- Associated Press - Thursday, March 8, 2012

SEBRING, FLA. (AP) - Rubens Barrichello talks modestly about the expectations he has for his first season in the IndyCar Series, and when he says there will be an adjustment period and potential struggles, he sounds rather believable.

Then he gets in the car.

Barrichello marked his first test as an official IndyCar driver with the third fastest lap in Thursday’s afternoon session at Sebring International Raceway. Although his lap of 52.2228 trailed series champions Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti in the session, it was the sixth fastest over three full days of testing this week.

And it reiterated what everyone already knows: the Brazilian is still very, very fast.

He showed that last month when best friend Tony Kanaan lured him to Sebring to spend a few days on track with his KV Racing team. Barrichello had spent the last 19 years in Formula One, had never before been in an IndyCar, and wound up faster than Kanaan in Kanaan’s car.

“The guy sat in my car the first day and he beat me already, so now he makes me wake up in the morning thinking about him,” Kanaan said. “Trust me, I was mad. I was mad in a good way, but I was mad that he was faster than me.”

The invitation to test was a trap of sorts set by Kanaan, who figured Barrichello would enjoy the experience enough to make the leap to IndyCar. He was correct, and the wheels were put in motion immediately after to line up the funding for KV Racing to sign Barrichello.

The deal was put together in just over a month, announced last week, and Barrichello is now an official IndyCar Series driver.

The ripple effect has been huge for everyone involved:

_ KV Racing, which signed Kanaan the week before last year’s season-opener, continued its push to become one of the top teams in IndyCar and the Barrichello signing gave the organization an impressive three-car lineup.

_ Kanaan, winless last year, gained a teammate who will push him to up his game while E.J. Viso earned a highly-regarded mentor.

_ The IndyCar Series attracted an extremely popular driver (Barrichello’s nearly 1.5 million followers on Twitter are more than all of NASCAR’s championship contenders last year combined), and ticket sales rocketed for the April 29 race in Sao Paulo the moment Barrichello announced he was joining the series.

“Let’s face it, Rubens chose to come to the series, and he didn’t have to do anything,” Franchitti said. “He could go sit on his farm in Brazil and drink wine, or go to Disney every day. Whatever he wanted to do. But he has such a passion for racing, and the fact he chose to come to IndyCar says a lot about where this series is going.”

Barrichello gives immediate credibility to the drivers and their push to have a stronger voice in the series. He spent the last two seasons in Formula One as head of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, and is willing to get involved with IndyCar’s driver issues.

He’s not ready just yet, though, to comment on the ongoing public dispute between IndyCar’s drivers and Texas Motor Speedway over the construction of the fences at the high-banked oval. Drivers are pushing IndyCar hard to eliminate the pack racing that contributed to Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident, but many also believe Texas’ fence is too dangerous because, like the one at Las Vegas, the posts are on the inside of the track.

Barrichello said Thursday he doesn’t know enough about the issue to comment yet, and wants to see the fences, the track and experience the banking before he forms an opinion. But he does understand how to solve disputes.

“Communicate. Not pointing fingers,” he said. “Drivers are very unique in that sometimes they don’t communicate very well. But on the other hand, people try to think `I know what they are going through’ and they don’t. So the communication and the expression is the best thing. The best thing.

“When you are trying to say to people `You don’t know what it means to drive the car’ and then they come from the outside and say `You don’t how to handle the whole situation’ it is true. We both don’t know the other situation. That’s why we need to communicate.”

That’s a strong voice of reason at a time IndyCar needs a strong leader.

His availability was sudden, and came in January, when Williams gave his F1 seat to fellow Brazilian Bruno Senna. Even though he turns 40 the week he’ll make his debut in the Indianapolis 500, retirement didn’t interest him. He brought his two young sons to that first test at Sebring, and has repeatedly cited their enthusiasm as one of the reasons a move to IndyCar was appealing.

That enthusiasm is shared at KV Racing, which is winless since joining IndyCar in 2008 and hasn’t won since the final event in Champ Car history in that same year. Kanaan’s addition upped the team’s performance last year _ he was third in his debut race last year, had three podium finishes and finished fifth in the championship standings _ and Barrichello now brings his vast experience to the program.

“It really puts more pressure on the team,” team co-owner Jimmy Vasser said. “Not that there isn’t already enough built in pressure in motorsport, but to have a driver of Rubens’ caliber, a solid team with E.J. and Tony, and some new engineers that we have on board … it’s the kind of added pressure you want to have in motorsport, and if you don’t feel that naturally, then you’re probably not a real racer.”

Barrichello said there’s still work to be done.

“I don’t think it’s an automatic that KV Racing Technology will automatically raise its game, but I think the joint entry with Chevrolet is a good marriage and I think that we can conquer from that,” he said. “I am pretty sure that before the season starts you cannot simply say the team has all of a sudden improved. But they are doing all they can to make it more professional in terms of drivers, engineers, mechanics, pit stops _ everything that counts. We really do hope we are going to have a proper car that gives us a chance to win.”



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