ST. PETERSBURG — IndyCar enters its season with a new car that was years in the making.
But perhaps the biggest splash the series made in the offseason happened just in the past few weeks.
Rubens Barrichello, a Formula One star for two decades, has turned a one-off test as a favor for a friend into a new direction, beginning with this weekend's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Barrichello holds the F1 record for starts with 322, including 11 victories, and twice was runnerup in the world championship. He is a huge star in Europe and South America, especially in his native Brazil (witness his approximately 1.5 million Twitter followers). But he was out of a ride after last season.
Enter longtime friend and IndyCar veteran Tony Kanaan of KV Racing, team co-owner Jimmy Vasser and a test in February at Sebring International Raceway.
"(TK) called Jimmy and said, 'Let's hope for Rubens to drive,' " Barrichello said. "We've been talking about having a drive for such a long time, even when he was back at (Andretti Green), talking about (Indy) 500s. But I had a contract, and I couldn't do it."
In Sebring, Kanaan invited Barrichello to test his new Dallara DW-12 under the pretext of giving Kanaan feedback. But in short order, the team and Barrichello had a deal for the season.
"It's a game-changer," Vasser said. "Kanaan (joined the team) last year, Rubens this year. Coupled with the young E.J. (Viso of Venezuela), I think we've got a fantastic driver lineup. We've gotten a lot of Latin American flavor around here."
The connection between Kanaan and Barrichello dates to their childhood in Brazil. After Kanaan's father died, Barrichello's family helped fund Kanaan's fledgling career.
Though they have never raced in the same series, Kanaan and Barrichello remained so close, they are the godfathers to each other's sons.
"I lost my dad when I was 13," Kanaan said of the Barrichello's involvement in his career. "He's like a brother to me. It was not only money-wise, but moral support, too. I'm happy to help bring him over to this (IndyCar) stage.
"It's awesome to have him as a teammate, but he's going to learn a lot as well."
But befitting a driver of his stature, it didn't take long for Barrichello to sort things out.
"I was ready to rock and roll at Sebring," he said, "In 20 laps, I was able to set competitive times.
"So it was just great."
His arrival in the series is being hailed by his new competitors.
"He has such a passion for racing," said Dario Franchitti, the three-time defending series champion and last year's St. Petersburg winner. "And the fact that he chose to come here says a lot. He is one of the very, very best."
"I think it's exactly what we need," Marco Andretti said. "We need more followers, more eyes on us. Rubens will be able to do that. He's a very talented driver. So for us, it's more of a pain in the butt."
Though he will live in Brazil again after spending much of his F1 career in Monaco, Barrichello said he's eager to get to know America better and talked about, perhaps, getting a motor home.
"I've loved coming to America every time I came; not just for holidays but also to see IndyCar as a fan," he said. "The kids love coming as well."
America will get to know Barrichello a bit better as well. Kanaan laughed recently while recounting a recent visit to Indianapolis in which the two encountered four fans — who asked Barrichello to take a photo of them with Kanaan.
"I said, 'All right, you dominate back in Brazil, but here I own the place,' " Kanaan said.
Barrichello, who turns 40 in May, is the oldest driver in IndyCar but hopes to make a similar impact as Emerson Fittipaldi, a two-time F1 world champion who retired in 1980 then was out of the spotlight for four years. Fittipaldi arrived in IndyCar at age 37 in 1984 and won the Indianapolis 500 in 1989 and 1993.
"He had the motivation to keep going, and people told him not to do it because he was old already," Barrichello said of Fittipaldi.
"We are only old if we want to be old."
Tweets to beat
IndyCar newcomer Rubens Barrichello has a massive Twitter following from his two decades of racing in Formula One, dwarfing his new rivals and even NASCAR's top stars. A sampling of top drivers and number of followers (as of Friday morning):
Rubens Barrichello: 1,516,802
Tony Kanaan: 460,481
Helio Castroneves: 54,276
Dario Franchitti: 53,338
Marco Andretti: 40,402
Graham Rahal: 23,776
Danica Patrick: 569,049
Juan Montoya: 506,198
Brad Keselowski: 254,083
Jimmie Johnson: 197,453
Jeff Gordon: 183,749
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 109,396 *
* Has yet to tweet anything