"It's a different car, it's a different beast, but it is a beast," was Rubens Barrichello's first reaction to driving a 2012 IndyCar at Sebring International Raceway on Monday, as the guest of his close friend Tony Kanaan and of Jimmy Vasser's KV Racing Technology team. (See main story
and video of the session
in the F1 section.)
"I've come in as an invitation from my brother, Tony, and I am enjoying this time with him at the track and with a new car," he told reporters ahead of his two-day outing in the new-specification DW12 Dallara, while continuing to remain coy about his longer term plans.
"It's just an invitation for him to help us out as far as his feedback," stressed Kanaan, who had made the invitation after the news broke that Barrichello had lost his seat at Williams F1 to Bruno Senna for 2012. "What goes beyond that, it's up to him."
While IndyCar may be new to Barrichello, he has more racing experience of several of the DW12's new innovations such as carbon brakes and the steering-wheel mounted clutch than the IndyCar Series regulars themselves have, and it's his input in setting up such areas of the new car that KV Racing is hoping to benefit from.
"I think we've already seen we'll learn a lot from him on setup and everything else," said an impressed Vasser. "You can see he'll be right there in no time ... I think he enjoyed himself!"
Although no official timings were released for any cars running during the testing session at Sebring, observers reported that Barrichello was soon putting in times in the mid-54s, a little behind Kanaan's fastest morning times and compared with a low 53s benchmark for Scott Dixon during last week's testing on the 1.8-mile, 10-turn short road course in the heart of Florida state.
The question remains just how serious the chance of Barrichello moving to IndyCar in 2012 could be. Early reports had suggested that Barrichello had ruled out switching to the series and had long ago promised his wife Silvana that he would never run on ovals - not that this had to be an out-and-out deal breaker, as Sebastien Bourdais' road/street course-only season in 2011 demonstrated.
"It is something to talk about," admitted Barrichello, downplaying the importance of the oval question. "But it is not an issue I'd call a 'concern.'"
KV Racing Technology fielded three cars in 2011, with Tony Kanaan certain to continue with the team into 2012. EJ Viso is also likely to remain with the organisation, while Takuma Sato's as-yet unconfirmed move to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing leaves at least one seat to be filled.
If Barrichello wanted it, there would be no question that the sponsorship money would be available to make it happen. "By the time he gets out of the car, [Rubens] will have a pretty good idea what he wants to do," was Kanaan's opinion. "Right now, we don't have anyone signed for the other two cars."
Kanaan is certainly doing all he can to woo the man he sincerely thinks of as a brother (the two are godfathers to each other's sons) over to the States, even organising a dinner the evening before the Sebring tests to bring Barrichello together with Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Oriol Servia.
"He noticed the atmosphere, how we all get along," said Kanaan. "You can tell by his face he's having a lot of fun."
For the time being, Barrichello himself was careful to take things one lap at a time: "Right now, I am here purely to help the team out and to enjoy myself. I just have no idea right now what this could lead to, if anything."
But the language is certainly changing. "If you go purely from joy, it wouldn't be a problem," said Barrichello. "I'm truly happy and I like what I saw. I've been a fan of the Indy series for a long time. It's a great atmosphere and great racing.
"I just need to see what comes up: I need to talk to my family, I need to talk to Jimmy," he said.
But perhaps most tellingly, he finished off: "I like it."