CHAMPCAR/CART: Da Matta da man at Miami

MIAMI (October 6, 2002) - Newman Haas teammates Cristiano da Matta and Christian Fittipaldi finished one-two in the inaugural Grand Prix Americas at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. Da Matta's seventh victory of the season clinched the 2002 CART FedEx Series championship for the 29 year old Brazilian.

Da Mattas's first championship is the fourth for Newman Haas Racing. The team's last championship came in 1993 with Nigel Mansell at the wheel.

Cristiano da Matta celebrates victory and CART 2002 Championship.
Photo by Michael Kim.

"I think there isn't a better way to clinch the championship then with a victory," said Da Matta. When you clinch it with a win it shows you that you were there all year. I'll just try to go for the record of nine wins (in a season) because that's all that's left for me this season."

Da Matta led 58 laps on the way to Toyota's ninth victory of the season. In the battle for the manufacturer's title, Toyota extended its lead over Honda 287-241 with three races remaining. Ford, with 81 points, has been eliminated from the championship hunt.

Five of the six lead changes in the 105-lap race were a result of the leader reporting to the pits. The first lead change, on lap 24, was the result of a penalty assessed against polesitter Tony Kanaan.

Kanaan, who led from the start, pulled away from the field with Scott Dixon in tow. Dixon attempted a pass for the lead at the end of the front straight and Kanaan squeezed the New Zealander into the wall. Dixon was uninjured in the incident but his day ended early.

Cristiano da Matta celebrates victory and CART 2002 Championship.
Photo by Michael Kim.

Kanaan was assessed a penalty for blocking and was sent to the rear of the field for the restart. "Well, that was a really bitter pill to swallow," said Kanaan. "It was really unfortunate that CART decided to penalize me for that incident with Scott (Dixon) because that took away every chance in the world that we had to win the race. As far as I'm concerned, I don't agree with the call. I am allowed to make one move to protect my position."

Once Kanaan's penalty was assessed, Da Matta assumed the lead followed by Dario Franchitti, and Christian Fittipaldi, none of which reported to the pits.

Tracy, Jourdain and Junqueira ran fourth through sixth respectively after taking advantage of the yellow to make their first pit stop.

With the early yellow sending half the front-runners to the pits, the race became a battle of strategy and survival. Da Matta's strategy, stopping at the CART mandated intervals of 42 and 84 laps, handed the lead to Tracy each time.

The podium: race winner and 2002 CART Champion Cristiano da Matta with Christian Fittipaldi and Jimmy Vasser.
Photo by Michael Kim.

As for survival, Tracy escaped several close calls, including a drag race with Alex Tagliani. Tracy exited the pits, pulled onto the front straight and out-braked Tagliani into the first turn. When Tracy slid wide, Tagliani nosed under the Kool car to re-take the position.

Despite kissing the wall on lap 75 and a long and lazy spin five laps later, Tracy continued in fourth place.

"It's one of the fastest parts of the track and I just lost it through there," said Tracy. "I was lucky not to hit the wall. I was looking in my mirrors driving backwards down the track and backed into the run off area and took off again."

In the end, Tracy's day was over through no fault of his own.

With six laps remaining, Jimmy Vasser, whose car was performing flawlessly, executed a pass for fourth place on Alex Tagliani. Tracy, who was running third at the time, was just ahead of Tagliani. Vasser misjudged the space between the third and fourth place cars hitting Tracy from behind. Tracy spun and was unable to continue.

"I was just trying to get my third place," Tracy said. "I don't know what happened but Jimmy hit me. That's kind of out of character for him. He's not one to realty do things like that, so I guess it was just one of those things."

"When I slid in there with (Alex) Tagliani I clipped the rear wheel of Tracy," said Vasser. "All my apologies to Paul, but he's been there before, usually on the other end of the wing."

Vasser finished third with Tagliani fourth.

Bruno Junqueira, the last driver on the lead lap, finished fifth.

Shinji Nakano was treated at the CART Medical Unit for first and second degree burns on his hands. He was released on site and will have further treatment on his return home to Indianapolis.