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Rubens Barrichello switching gears?

2/2/2012 - IndyCar
Rubens Barrichello is contemplating his future after testing for KV Racing at Sebring this week. Paul Gilham/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was not a surprise to see Formula One veteran Rubens Barrichello testing a KV Racing Technology Indy car this week at Sebring International Raceway.

But Barrichello's presence has some observers wondering: Why?

The 39-year-old Brazilian, who has started more F1 races than any other driver (322), was almost immediately on the pace in one of KVRT's new Dallara DW12-Chevrolets and is reportedly exploring his options to compete in the Izod IndyCar Series this year.

But wouldn't you expect him to be quick? There's plenty of history that shows it's much easier for open-wheel formula car drivers to adapt to cars that are heavier and slower to react than what they are used to.

An F1 car is lighter, nimbler and more powerful than an Indy car. In other words, an Indy car is a big step backward from F1.

During the past 20 years, Formula One drivers transitioning to CART, and CART or Champ Car drivers switching to the IRL-sanctioned IndyCar Series, did much better than drivers working their way "up the ladder" rather than down.

For every champion Indy car driver who pretty much failed in F1 (Michael Andretti, Alex Zanardi, Cristiano da Matta and Sebastien Bourdais, to name several), there is a former F1 driver who conquered America.

Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell are the most notable examples. But throw in the likes of Mark Blundell, Mauricio Gugelmin, Christian Fittipaldi, Roberto Moreno, Robert Doornbos and Max Papis, and it's obvious that even a midpack F1 driver has the ability to run up front in Indy cars.

Barrichello's overall record of 11 F1 wins is enough proof that even in the twilight of his career, he probably is capable of winning Indy car races.

Still, you have to wonder why just three months from celebrating his 40th birthday, "Rubinho" would want to extend what already has been an unusually long career by committing to a much more dangerous form of motorsport.

Especially because he reportedly told his wife he would never race on ovals because of the danger -- although at Sebring, Barrichello told reporters that story has been blown out of proportion by the media.

"I did say that; it came out of my mouth," Barrichello said after completing two of his three scheduled test days on the Sebring short course. "But it is a not a big issue. It's not a problem. I could run on the road [courses]; I could run Indy. There are so many options available, and I'm thankful I have choices at age 39 and am still going fast in the car.

"It's an interesting change for me, and I'm just a kid enjoying myself."

INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard celebrated his birthday Tuesday at Sebring while watching Barrichello in action, and he admitted that having the Brazilian run the Izod IndyCar Series this year would be an ideal present.

"That kind of credibility is exactly what IndyCar needs to attract," Bernard remarked. "When you saw Nigel or Emerson or some of the other greats come to IndyCar, it elevated the awareness of the sport."

With all due respect to Barrichello, that comment may have exposed Bernard's overall depth of knowledge about auto racing history. While Barrichello was a winner in F1, 11 race wins in 19 full seasons doesn't exactly make him a champion like Fittipaldi, Mansell or Michael Schumacher.

In fact, when Schumacher and Barrichello were teammates at Ferrari from 2000 to 2005, Schumacher claimed 49 race wins to Barrichello's nine and outpointed the Brazilian by a tally of 678-412.

Barrichello may have 1.4 million Twitter followers, but he still won't have the impact on Indy car racing that Fittipaldi and Mansell did in the 1980s and '90s, respectively. On or off the track.

There are so many options available, and I'm thankful I have choices at age 39 and am still going fast in the car. It's an interesting change for me, and I'm just a kid enjoying myself.

-- Rubens Barrichello

When Mansell came to America to race in the CART Indy car series in 1993, he was the defending F1 world champion. Barrichello finished 17th in the F1 standings in 2011. In that respect, he's more like his countryman Fittipaldi, a two-time world champion who retired from F1 at the end of the 1980 season after five years of poor results running his own team, only to come out of retirement to begin racing Indy cars in 1984.

Fittipaldi's second career in America spanned 13 seasons and was quite successful; he won 22 races, including two Indianapolis 500s, and the 1989 CART championship. Mansell raced in America for only two years, but he won five races and the 1993 CART title.

More significantly, Mansell attracted such a huge international media contingent in 1993 that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had to open an auxiliary media center to accommodate the Fleet Street throng.

Barrichello is likely to sell a few thousand tickets to the IndyCar race in Brazil, but the likelihood of a significant number of American fans flocking out just to see him race at Indianapolis, Long Beach or Mid-Ohio is virtually nil. Nor will his participation attract much additional media coverage.

And what if Barrichello immediately emerges as a front-runner and championship contender? What does it say when a guy who finished 10th or lower in the F1 standings for four of the past five years comes in and regularly beats the IndyCar regulars at their own game?

Even factoring in the way the IndyCar Series has a more level playing field this year with a new chassis and engine formula this year, it won't reflect well on the likes of Dario Franchitti, Will Power, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan if an older, second-tier F1 driver comes in and puts them on the trailer.

In short, Bernard and the IndyCar Series should be careful what they wish for. Whatever cachet Rubens Barrichello brings to America as a former F1 star could substantially damage the credibility of the IndyCar Series if he suddenly turns into a regular race winner as a 40-year-old rookie.

No matter how many Twitter followers he brings along for the ride.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.