Toyota drivers talk about Indy and progress

Toyota drivers talk about Indy and progress

The Panasonic Toyota Formula One team has gone through many changes in its first season and a half, with team members coming and going as well as drivers. Discarding Allan McNish and Mika Salo at the close of the 2002 season after the duo had ...

The Panasonic Toyota Formula One team has gone through many changes in its first season and a half, with team members coming and going as well as drivers.

Discarding Allan McNish and Mika Salo at the close of the 2002 season after the duo had deposited a mere two points into the Japanese auto maker's Formula One coffers, the German-based group decided to go with a veteran, Olivier Panis and a rookie, CART champion Cristiano da Matta. The Panasonic Toyota team also engaged the services of Ricardo Zonta, hired as insurance should da Matta turn out to be a flash in the pan.

Cristiano da Matta.
Photo by Toyota Racing.
Reflecting now, as the season winds down to its final three events, the insurance of hiring Zonta wasn't necessarily needed, but certainly helped in terms of testing. To date, da Matta and Panis have each scored points in three of 13 events, but the latter has also had more DNFs than his less experienced teammate. That gives Panasonic Toyota 14 points total and upward movement from their first season, where they placed 10th among constructors.

In preparation for the upcoming United States Grand Prix, being held for the fourth time on Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2.605-mile road/oval circuit, da Matta and Panis sat down to talk about that race, racing in general and Panis' 37th birthday, which he celebrated September 2nd at the Monza circuit, where all three Panasonic Toyota drivers are testing to prepare for the Italian Grand Prix on September 12-14.

This will be da Matta's first time driving at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, in fact, his second time ever on the grounds. While competing in the CART series last year, the Brazilian took in Pole Day for the 86th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. He's never driven the Grand Prix circuit. "Going back to the United States is a special thrill for me because I lived there for six years. I'm excited to see my friends again," da Matta said.

Cristiano da Matta.
Photo by Toyota Racing.
While he claims not to be a political animal, Cristiano da Matta does have his feelings about the Brickyard circuit, CART and IRL and hasn't ever kept those views quiet. "It's just another track to me. It has a lot of history, yes, but it doesn't give me a special feeling," he noted. "The Indy 500 and the IRL are different. The Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world and there's a lot of emotion to that race.

"Because I was racing in the Indy Lights and then in CART, I didn't go there [to race]. If I have time in my career, for sure one day I would like to do the 500 because I really want to. But right now," da Matta insisted, "I'm completely focused on Formula One. Some day I'll want Indy" on that long resume.

Panis, winner of the 1996 Grand Prix of Monte Carlo while driving for the Ligier Mugen team shrugs at the thought of the USGP being something special, but does believe that this year, with improvements by the Toyota team, "We have the car" to do well at this race. Noting better results that have come since the start of the year, the veteran thinks, "The car is really good and we have worked very hard to improve within the team and between us. Cristiano is a good teammate to work with. He's easy to get along with," Panis admitted.

The Indy circuit, Panis stated, "is unique. It has a lot of low-speed corners, which are not best for us but the long straights and necessary power suit our car. You really can't judge from the 2002 performance, because so much has changed within the team since that time."

The French veteran celebrated his birthday at the Monza circuit as all F1 teams prepare for the next race a week hence, now that the ban on testing is over. Talking about the tire wars that have been so heavily in the news of late, both Panis and da Matta chided the recent uproar about the veracity of Michelin's rubber.

Olivier Panis.
Photo by Toyota Racing.
"I don't know why they [alluding to Ferrari and Bridgestone] need excuses when they are not quick enough this year," Panis said. "We have today been testing the new spec tire, should we need to use it, and already we are going quicker." Da Matta agreed: "Some people are used to winning races and they react not in a proper way" when they don't.

Ceding the floor to his younger squadmate, Panis went back to work on setups for the upcoming Italian GP while da Matta continued to answer questions, particularly about the differences between his current and past rides.

"You prepare mentally the same for either series, but physically you might change how you prepare. I think you have to race 100% all the time," da Matta allowed. "The biggest change for me(between CART and F1) is in the weight of the cars and in the tires. Those are the two biggest differences. The technical changes are difficult because the cars handle so differently than any I've driven in my life.

"You turn into the corner so much earlier in an F1 car than you do with a Champ Car," he said. The Champ Car you drive more by momentum. It's getting more natural for me some of the time. That's part of my development. I don't have a lot of time to learn these [unfamiliar] tracks. We have one-hour practice on Friday before pre-qualifying and one hour Saturday before final qualifying and then we race. That's it! It's not easy doing it but I think we're doing okay. I expect some big improvements for 2004."

Both drivers, Olivier Panis and Cristiano da Matta have had their contracts renewed for next season, making for some continuity on the Panasonic Toyota team that appeared to thrive on changes from last year to this. "I miss winning, of course, but didn't expect it. This is a long-time project for me and I will win again. It's frustrating," Cristiano admitted, "but I deal with it. It doesn't bother me now" like it did at the start of the year.

"We are proving ourselves this year, proving ourselves to the Formula One community. If you, all the time look back, you can always do better," da Matta explained. "The program is going good and I feel we're making improvements. We're not where we want to be. It's not fantastic where we are. There's a lot of pressure here, but there's also more communication because I am working with so many more people" than he did with PPI and Newman/Haas Racing in his Champ Car years. "There's a lot more pressure; there's a lot more work involved."

Like many in the US, Cristiano da Matta believes there should only be one top-line American open wheel series and, due to its different types of circuits and its challenges of road, street courses, short- and big-oval competition, da Matta thinks CART has the most to offer a driver. I'm not against the IRL. I just prefer CART."

Having his family around for many of his F1 races in a rookie season has helped make the transition easier for da Matta. Having his guitar to play has helped, as well. "I'm very connected with my family. I like to have them close to me," as he lives in Europe now and misses both his home in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and his home in Miami. "I can always stay with Tony Kanaan when I want to visit," he laughed.

The Panasonic Toyota duo will be able to fight for points in this year's United States Grand Prix, both believe. If everything goes right, perhaps a podium is in the cards. But neither Olivier Panis nor Cristiano da Matta want to see a reprise of last year's race, when Michael Schumacher apparently moved over to allow his teammate Rubens Barrichello to take the win. "It's not sporting to let someone by like last year," da Matta insisted.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Michael Schumacher , Rubens Barrichello , Olivier Panis , Ricardo Zonta , Allan McNish , Mika Salo , Tony Kanaan , Cristiano da Matta
Teams Ferrari , Toyota Racing