CHAMPCAR/CART: Mexico City: Newman/Haas Racing race report

2002 CART champion and Havoline driver da Matta finished second in the CART FedEx Series season finale in Mexico City; podium finish or possible win eluded Lilly driver Fittipaldi who ultimately had an exhaust failure snd finished fifth overall in...

2002 CART champion and Havoline driver da Matta finished second in the CART FedEx Series season finale in Mexico City; podium finish or possible win eluded Lilly driver Fittipaldi who ultimately had an exhaust failure snd finished fifth overall in 2002.

- Havoline driver Cristiano da Matta earned his 11th podium finish of the season with a second place finish in the CART FedEx Series season finale the Gran Premio Telmex/Gigante race at the 2.75-mile Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course in Mexico City, Mexico. He overcame his worst qualifying effort of 12th place since mid-2001 and moved from eight place into second due to a lightning fast final pit stop to finish 3.9 seconds behind Swedish driver Kenny Brack, who earned the first road course victory of his career. On the strength of seven wins, seven poles, and 11 podium finishes, Cristiano da Matta earned the title of 2002 CART FedEx Champion with a total of 237 points, 73 more than second place finisher Bruno Junqueira, who finished third after starting from the pole. Junqueira will drive for Newman/Haas Racing in 2003.

On Friday, all drivers were in agreement that the track would provide the most fun they would have all season after the first practice session on the 16-turn road course. Teams began the weekend by acclimatizing themselves as well as their race cars to the 7400 ft. altitude, one-fourth of the distance to the top of Mount Everest. In provisional qualifying da Matta's quickest lap was disallowed as the red flag was brought out by Michel Jourdain as he was approaching the timing sensor and da Matta settled for 10th quick. Da Matta was dealt a challenging situation when the track was slower on Saturday due to less grip and only a few drivers improved upon their Friday times. Again the loss of the fourth fastest lap time on Friday came back to haunt him and he settled for a 12th place start after he lost his fastest lap time due to bringing out the red flag after he spun late in the session.

In the race on Sunday under sunny skies with air temperatures in the mid-60's and in front of a crowd approaching 150,000, da Matta held his 12th place start until eighth place starter Paul Tracy made contact with the rear of fifth place starter Jimmy Vasser's car which brought out the first of only two caution periods in the race. Da Matta then held 10th place until Lap 16 when he gained a position when seventh place runner and Mexican driver Mario Dominguez retired with mechanical failure. He held the position until his first of three pit stops every 20 laps in the 73-lap race on lap 20. He returned to the race in 10th place He moved into ninth place when teammate Fittipaldi made his second mandatory stop one lap before the majority of the field. He pitted the following lap and returned to the race in eighth place after he passed Michael Andretti in the pits and Michel Jourdain, who was on a different pit sequence, stopped. He maintained eighth place until his third and final stop on Lap 60 when the Havoline pit crew performed a miraculously-fast stop and he was able to get back on track ahead of six cars and in third place but second to Kenny Brack, who was on the same pit strategy. On Lap 62, temporary race leader and crowd favorite Michel Jourdain pitted and da Matta officially took over second place. Immediately he seized the opportunity to attempt a pass and drove alongside Brack into a corner but locked up his wheels in order to complete the turn. Unfortunately it was his only opportunity to attempt a pass and he remained in second place until the checkered flag after 73 laps.

Following are his post race comments:

"It was a race that I had to drive harder than any other race this season," said da Matta. "We didn't really have a car that was capable of finishing second but that's where the teamwork comes into play at Newman/Haas. Some days the car wasn't that good or the engine or pit stops or the driver but the other areas compensated for the weakness. That is what makes a team capable of winning the Championship. I have to thank the Havoline crew because this is 100 percent their result. They smoked everyone today. They've been the best in pit stops all season. I came in the pits for my last stop in eighth place and got back on track second of the guys on the same strategy. Second place is not a bad way to end the season. (On attempted pass for lead:) I was on the outside of Kenny because I knew I couldn't get him on the inside but I just couldn't make it. I knew it was for the win and he did to. The result is not what I wanted, but I have to thank the crew for that final pit stop to allow me to challenge for the win. You can't imagine how much I have learned in my two years at Newman/Haas. I will always be grateful to them for everything they have done for me. Despite the result, it is not a happy feeling that I have today because I am leaving a team like Newman/Haas and have to say goodbye to a lot of people that mean a lot to me."

"It was a happy day in terms of celebrating the close of a season in which we won the Championship but it was a sad day because Newman/Haas Racing is losing two dear friends in Christian and Cristiano," said Brian Lisles, General Manager of Newman/Haas Racing. "We're disappointed on behalf of Christian and the Lilly crew because they possibly could have won the race or finished no lower than third place. It shows how competitive the series is as witnessed by Cristiano having the opposite fortune through great stops. The Havoline crew turned an eighth place finish into a second place. Everyone at Newman/Haas Racing deserves to be congratulated for their part in winning a fourth title."

- 2002 DA MATTA HIGHLIGHTS...Won seven races and seven pole positions. In addition to seven wins, he was a contender for victories in Long Beach, Cleveland, Vancouver, Montreal, Australia, Fontana and Mexico City. Started on the front row nine times. Won nine of past 21 CART events dating back to his first three-peat (Australia and Fontana in 2001 and Mexico in 2002) where he became the first driver to accomplish the feat since Juan Montoya (1999). He clinched the 2002 CART FedEx Championship in Round 16 of 19 in Miami after winning the event and building an insurmountable lead of 69 points over second place with 68 points maximum left in the season. Led almost twice as many laps as anyone else in the series. His 73-point advantage in the championship is the second largest in modern CART history behind only Alex Zanardi's 116-point winning margin in 1998.

- Lilly driver Christian Fittipaldi looked likely to close out his CART FedEx Champ car career with a podium finish possibly as high as first place in the Gran Premio Telmex/Gigante season finale but problems during two of his three pit stops and an exhaust system failure after 67 of 73 laps relegated him to a 15th place finish. He was able to hold onto fifth place with 122 points in the season-ending standings and match his best result in the Championship in 1996, his first of seven seasons with the team.

After holding the fastest time in the final half of Friday's provisional qualifying session, he narrowly lost a guaranteed front row start when Bruno Junqueira utilized a quick lap and the best the track had to offer in the final seconds of the session and bettered Fittipaldi's time by one-tenth of a second. He held his second place start with the lap time he posted on Friday in the final qualifying session on Saturday as the track slowed and few drivers were able to improve their times.

At the start of the event, which saw a three-day total of over 350,000 attendees, Fittipaldi held onto his second place entering the first turn. Fourth place starter Tony Kanaan passed both Fittipaldi and pole sitter Bruno Junqueira on the second turn but Junqueira later went off course in Turn 9 which handed second place back to Fittipaldi on the first lap. He held second place until the first of three mandatory pit stops each 20 laps. After a quick stop he retained second place on track but soon after was told that he would need to begin conserving fuel as the expected amount did not flow into the car on the previous stop. He made his next stop on Lap 39 instead of Lap 40 as the majority of the field would but was able to get back on track in third place behind new race leader Dario Franchitti and Kanaan once the cycle of stops finished and the field completed Lap 41. Franchitti was able to get on track ahead of Fittipaldi and Kanaan, who reported a clutch problem immediately prior to his stop, due to Kanaan encountering a pit problem. Once his stop was near completion, he pulled away from the stop with the fueling rig not completely released from his car, and a massive methanol fire erupted, sending crewmembers and safety officials scrambling to douse the blaze. Five crew members with various injuries were taken to the CART Medical Center trackside for treatment before they were released. A few laps later Kanaan was shown the black-flagged by CART officials for a safety violation as a result of that pit fire and was forced to serve a drive-through penalty on Lap 48. Now in second place to Franchitti, he began to close the six-second gap in order to give the team the best opportunity to attempt to gain a position through a quick stop. The opportunity appeared to present itself when the field was slowed from Laps 51-55 for a caution period to clear the debris from Michael Andretti's single-car crash. On Lap 53 the field made their third and final stops but Fittipaldi and the Lilly crew's hope of passing Franchitti for the lead came to an end when a wheel nut came out of the inside rear tire changer's wheel gun which forced a slow stop. By the time Fittipaldi returned to the track, he was in ninth place. He moved into eighth place on Lap 56 after CART penalized eighth place runner Scott Dixon for a pit safety violation on his last stop. Fittipaldi held eighth place until Lap 67 when smoke began flowing from his race car. He nursed the car around the track and into his pit box before he climbed out of the No. 11 Newman/Haas race car for the final time.

Following are Fittipaldi's post race comments:

"Things don't always go your way," said Fittipaldi. "I had a slow third stop that probably cost us the race when a lug nut fell out of an air gun. On the second stop, I didn't understand why they brought me in one lap early but apparently for some reason they didn't get enough fuel in the car on the first stop. The third stop did us in for the win though. I dropped from second to ninth. I ran second to Tony after the second stop and would have taken over the lead when he was black-flagged but unfortunately the race didn't go that way for us. After that the exhaust broke and ended our day. I was very confident of our chance to win the race so it's a huge shame for everyone that the day ended the way it did. It's definitely not the way I wanted to finish my career in CART. I spent eight years here and seven with Newman/Haas and I am thankful to them. I have made many friends at the team and in CART that I am going to miss but I am looking forward to starting my new career in NASCAR."

- 2002 FITTIPALDI HIGHLIGHTS...Posted two second place finishes (Laguna Seca, Mid-Ohio) and three third place finishes. Ran in the top-three in 12 of the 19 events. Started as high as second place twice (Mid-Ohio, Mexico City). Led in five races for a combined total of 18 laps. Was a contender for a minimum of four other podium finishes. Ranked as high as third place in the Championship standings on two different occasions during the season. Set the fastest lap in qualifying in Monterrey, Mexico although the time was not allowed because he brought out the red flag when he later stopped on course during the qualifying session.

- Toyota Stats...Toyota drivers swept all three podium spots today which was the fourth time in 2002 for the manufacturer (Laguna Seca, Toronto, Denver and today). Toyota powered drivers also finished first and second in the CART points race with three in the top five and four in the top six. The manufacturer won 10 races this season, seven of which were by da Matta. They won the CART Manufacturer's Championship by 49 points, 332-283, over Honda.

-nhr-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Bruno Junqueira , Christian Fittipaldi , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Alex Zanardi , Tony Kanaan , Kenny Brack , Mario Dominguez , Cristiano da Matta , Michel Jourdain