INDIANAPOLIS (November 19, 2002) - Newly-crowned CART champion Cristiano da Matta of Newman/Haas Racing has been lauded as the most dominant driver in the Champ Car series in 2002, but a closer look at his accomplishments shows that the Brazilian may well have turned in the top performance of any driver in North America this year.
In a series where drivers must show mastery of the most diverse series of racetracks in the world, da Matta won races on ovals and permanent road courses as well as temporary street circuits en route to the championship, claiming seven wins and seven poles along the way. His four consecutive race wins tied an all-time series record and his 11 podium finishes were the second-most ever earned in a season. He not only put himself among the sport's greats with his dominant season, he earned the respect of some of racing's legendary figures including CART and Formula 1 World Champion Mario Andretti.
"The CART field is Triple A. There are no backmarkers in our field so with the season Cristiano has had he has been an absolute standout," Andretti said. "He excelled in a series where the equipment and talent is exceptional. He is a very modest champion, which says a lot. He has time for everyone whether you are a sponsor, media or a fan. Because of that, he is a great ambassador for not only CART but also for the sport of racing worldwide. Not only has he won seven races but he has also been a constant force to be reckoned with throughout the entire season whether it was in a race, qualifying session or each practice session."
Da Matta showed his dominance in qualifying as well as on race day, with his seven poles equaling the most won by a CART driver in the last 10 years. He qualified in the top 10 in 23 consecutive races in a streak that dates back to the 2001 season, marking the longest such streak since 1994. He also qualified in the top three of 13 of the year's 19 races and his 619 laps led were more than the combined total of the second and third-highest drivers in the series.
"Cristiano impressed everybody the last two seasons, including myself," said former CART and Formula 1 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi. "His domination of the 2002 CART season, the most competitive category of racing in the world, shows his talent, performance and consistency on four different types of tracks is world class, Formula One, World Champion material. His dominance in a tight field throughout the entire season proved he deserved to be Champion."
The Brazilian driver also was the winner of the prestigious Driver of the Quarter Award for the third quarter of the 2002 season, making him a finalist for the Legends Marketing Group's Driver of the Year Award, an award that dates back 35 years and is given via a panel of 16 esteemed motorsports journalists as well as an online fan vote. To vote, fans can go to www.cart.com and follow the link to the online voting site.
He also has been the standard bearer for Toyota in the CART series and will continue to campaign for the manufacturer next year when he moves to Formula 1. He leads all Toyota drivers with 11 Champ Car victories and was in line to add to that total in five other races this year before mechanical problems struck.
"Cristiano's been as dominant as any Champ Car driver I can remember," said Toyota Racing Development Group Vice President Lee White. "It's not just that he's won races, but how he's won them. He's qualified up front and gone straight to the lead. The amazing thing isn't that he's won seven races, but that he probably should have won 12 or 13 of them, but has had something out of his control go wrong in another five or six probable wins."