The transition from 2002 CART/Champ Car World Series champion to 2003 Panasonic Toyota F1 driver wasn't a totally pleasant experience for Cristiano da Matta, but it was certainly one he, or any good driver had to experience.
Today da Matta announced a return to his American racing roots, where he earned the 1998 Dayton Indy Lights title driving for Tasman Motorsports and his 2002 Champ Car honors with Newman/Haas Racing.
For the 2005 season, 31-year-old da Matta joins third-year entrant PKV Racing, the team headed by series co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven, his business partner Dan Pettit and owner/driver Jimmy Vasser. The 1996 CART champion, Vasser will continue to drive a #12 Gulfstream Lola/Cosworth/Bridgestone challenger while da Matta takes over the #21 PKV Racing Lola. Commercial partnerships for da Matta's car will be announced later.
This team recently upgraded its potency by hiring estimable general manager Jim McGee to its roster of employees at the north Indianapolis shop. As a manager/chief mechanic in USAC/CART/Champ Car, McGee has 89 victories and nine national titles to his credit. "The addition of Cristiano to our team cements the package," McGee said, "and I think you'll see us showing results quicker than expected."
With da Matta on the PKV team, the Champ Car World Series will now have four champions competing for series honors: Vasser, Paul Tracy and current titleholder Sebastien Bourdais join da Matta.
Pettit acknowledged, "The addition of Cristiano to PKV Racing's driver lineup gives us the strongest team we have had in our three year existence and one of the most exciting in Champ Car history. Cristiano is, obviously a tremendous driving talent, a past [series] champion and a driver who knows how to win races.
"Adding his experience and expertise to that of Jimmy Vasser and Jim McGee gives us formidable leadership on the track, in the pits and in the garage as we pursue our goal of capturing the 2005 title," Pettit continued.
Of course adding da Matta as his teammate gives Vasser competition on his own team. "I can say from past experience that the formula for a championship team always includes two teammates that are competitive - but more importantly can work together," Vasser noted. Teamed in 1996-1998 with Alex Zanardi, Vasser was able to test himself as he worked to best his teammate, an achievement he'll try again with da Matta.
"I have known Cristiano for several years and respect him as a driver and person," Vasser acknowledged. "I am confident we will be able to work together to get the most out of our cars each race weekend. I can also tell you that once the green flag drops there will be no team orders," he asserted. "We will both race to win.
"The face of this team is completely changed and I think we're one of the teams in the forefront of Champ Car racing. "We've done a lot of hard work the last few months" to get to this point, Vasser said.
Following his 1998 Indy Lights title chase, da Matta joined Arciero-Wells Racing, a CART team that became PPI Motorsports and took his first victory in July of 2000 on the tough Chicago oval track. He went on to score ten additional victories including seven in his 2002 championship season. Da Matta secured his championship at the 17th race of a 19-event campaign that season, assuming the #1 on his car for the two final contests and was named Driver of the Year.
Moving to F1 with Toyota, da Matta earned his first point in only his fifth Grand Prix (Spanish Grand Prix) and led the British Grand Prix, his 11th start. In his 28 races with Panasonic Toyota, da Matta had 11 top-10 results, sixth at Spain in 2003 and 2004 and sixth at Germany in 2003.
Da Matta will need some time to adapt when he returns to Champ Car. "The Champ car is more physical than the F1 car, but the F1 car is difficult on your neck," he explained. "With the steel brakes, no power steering and the fact that you have to shift the car you use more of your body than you do in F1. My heart rate in an F1 race ranges from 150-160 beats per minute but in the Champ car it's 160-175bmp.
Returning to Champ Car was "an easy decision for me," da Matta admitted. "From a racing standpoint it [the Champ Car World Series] is the most competitive series in the world and one that puts a premium on a driver's ability. The decision to join PKV Racing was not a difficult one. I really only talked to three teams and, in the end the best opportunity for me was here."
One of the teams he spoke with was Newman/Haas Racing and, in fact he'll be racing with Paul Newman and Sebastien Bourdais this weekend in the Grand American Rolex 24 at Daytona twice-around-the-clock classic. From PKV Racing's Indianapolis shops, da Matta will travel this evening to Daytona where, on Thursday he'll take part in both practice sessions.
"Once I finish the second session I will drive to Sebring in the late afternoon and drive the Champ car all day Friday," da Matta explained. "I have the option to test again later but really, I am anxious to get back in the car." He's been doing some karting and training very hard to stay in shape, da Matta declared. "I'm going have to wake up some sleeping muscles."
The Champ Car World Series he left at the close of 2002 is much changed from the one Cristiano da Matta will join at the first race of the 14-event 2005 season in Long Beach. Yet he continues to believe that "Champ Car is the best test for a driver. The series is more complete than when I left," he said. "When I won in 2002 I was very happy in America and I never wanted to race somewhere else.
"The 2003 season was questionable and every driver wants to drive in F1. When the opportunity arises, you can not miss it," da Matta advised. "In F1 the designer or aerodynamicist is bigger than the driver in making a difference but here, everything you need to win is on the truck. We have the same equipment, essentially so it is up to us to make it all work," da Matta noted.
"You always have a chance to win the race and, while it is usually that way in the Junior formulae, to have that in a top series is very exciting. That's what I like here so much."
The addition of Cristiano da Matta to an upgraded PKV Racing will likely be a boon for the three owners, two drivers and crew. "Having a less experienced teammate was a hindrance last year," Vasser said of Mexican rookie Roberto Gonzalez, his 2004 squadmate. "That was apparent early on. We needed a second good driver" to go with the "great manager" the team acquired when McGee came aboard. "This is the last element we needed to go forward."