Rubens Barrichello tells me he is in love.
And his smile, passion for racing and infectious enthusiasm is clear evidence that he means it.
We're talking, on a fine Spring Sunday, at Melbourne's Sandown Park raceway.
He is back in Australia for the first time since he called time on his Formula One career, after serving in the front lines with Ferrari and Brawn and scoring 11 wins despite running for a long time as Michael Schumacher’s sidekick.
Rubinho, as he is nicknamed because he is ‘little Rubens', is now 47 years old but has the enthusiasm and boyish charm of someone half his age. When he talks about his son, Eduardo, he smiles and smiles.
As he reports the details of his return down under, he mentions a visit to Tickford Racing where he checked out one of the Mustangs that is starring in Supercars racing, as well as a return trip to Melbourne zoo, and also a once-in-a-lifetime VIP visit to an AFL preliminary football final between Melbourne and Geelong. The TV channels zoom in on the newest Richmond Tigers fan, and Rubens also gets to visit ‘the rooms’ after his side advances to the grand final against Greater Western Sydney.
But none of these things have stolen Rubens’ heart. That belongs to car 111, which is sitting in the pitlane at Sandown Park, and carrying the speedy Brazilian through the debut weekend of the all-new S5000 single-seater series.
It’s red, like his Ferraris, and it is fast. The digital readout in the identical car of Tim Macrow, who is the pacesetter through most of the Sandown weekend is reading 271km/h as he flashes past the grandstand where Aussie fans once watched Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Jack Brabham doing their thing in the Tasman Series during the 60s and 70s.
This weekend, Rubens has arrived from Brazil - thanks to a deal brokered by his friend, old mate, and former manager of Nelson Piquet, Greg ‘Peewee’ Siddle - as the guest star for S5000.
There are 13 cars in the Sandown garages thanks to everyone from Chris Lambden, who had the original idea to revive Formula 5000 from the seventies with a modern twist; to Brian Boyd, the backer of the Australian Racing Group which has S5000s in a line-up that also includes TCR hot hatches; and Garry Rogers, whose crew has assembled and finessed the cars.
We don’t need to get into too much detail, but the cars are modern and fast.
They have a carbon fibre chassis, a V8 Ford ‘crate’ motor that makes 420 kiloWatts, and an F1-style halo to protect the driver.
When they fire up for the first time on Friday, there is emotion everywhere. Old-timers have their memories re-ignited and youngsters are creating new ones.
“It’s in our blood. It’s just a great feeling to be able to conquer the world and have new things,” Rubens says.
“It’s been more and more fun to drive the car every day.”
Barrichello is up against plenty of youngsters through three races over the weekend and it's one of them, James Golding, who claims the biggest prize on Sunday.
He as been buried in the Supercars pack but emerges as a fast star in S5000.
“I really enjoyed it. I had some great racing,” Golding tells me.
It’s bittersweet because the race is stopped early, after a giant smash when Alex Davison goes into the fence.
But he walks away from the crash in the final proof-of-concept for the weekend.
The cars have arrived, they have run almost trouble-free, they have been fast and noisy and racy, and they have been safe.
But James Golding (right) is thrilled with his win, and although contracted to the Supercars series, he tells me he is very keen to get back behind the wheel of an S5000 open wheeler.
Barrichello is the guest star and everyone, including my three-year-old great nephew Harry, gets a fist bump from Rubens on the grid.
On Sunday evening, as Davison’s car is being swept up and the adrenalin is fading, and a surprisingly-large crowd is heading for home, Rubinho has some words of wisdom.
“The message is positive. We had plenty of positives this weekend,” he says, obviously pleased with his second place finish.
So, will he be back when the S5000s join the program for the Australian Grand Prix next March?
“It’s almost like asking a monkey if he wants a banana. I love this. It doesn't matter if you have to travel 25 hours.”
I will be there, too. Just like Barrichello, and everyone else at Sandown, I am smitten.
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