CLEVELAND (July 11, 2002) --- Making a bid for their fourth Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) FedEx Championship Series Championship is exactly what Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) has done so far this season with drivers Cristiano da Matta and ...
CLEVELAND (July 11, 2002) --- Making a bid for their fourth Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) FedEx Championship Series Championship is exactly what Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) has done so far this season with drivers Cristiano da Matta and Christian Fittipaldi. The team hopes to continue to run away from its CART competitors as they take to the runways of the Burke Lakefront Airport for the 20-running of the Marconi Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank.
As both NHR drivers stood on the podium together for the third time this season (da Matta 1st; Fittipaldi 3rd) last weekend at Toronto, it not only became apparent that NHR has established itself as the team to beat in 2002, it was also apparent that their Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone combination was dominant. The Marconi Grand Prix of Cleveland, marks round nine of the 20-round CART FedEx Championship Series, and the 2.106-mile temporary street circuit is yet another welcomed sight to the team. Of their total 66 victories in this, their 20th season, NHR has scored 43 of their wins on road/street courses. This season has been no different, as road/street courses have brought NHR four of their five victories, as well as seven podium finishes, and three poles.
After eight races, da Matta and his No. 6 Havoline Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone have won five events, captured three poles, and reside comfortably on top of the CART points lead with a total of 118, a 48-point margin over Bruno Junqueira, who is currently in second place. In fact, da Matta has remained victorious for four races in row; good enough to tie the CART record for most consecutive wins with Al Unser Jr. (1990) and Alex Zanardi (1998).
Both Al Unser Jr. (1990) and Alex Zanardi (1998) went on to win championships in the years in which they won their four-consecutive events. However, in the races where they tried to extend their winning streaks to five, both drivers would settle for third-place runs, Unser at Mid-Ohio and Zanardi at Michigan. If he fulfills his goal of earning another win this weekend, da Matta would change that history as well as bring engine manufacturer it's first win at the track. After four straight one-two finishes, Toyota is also on a roll in the manufacturer's standings.
Dating back to the final two events of the 2001 season, da Matta has won seven of the past 10 events after beginning his hot streak in Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia in October, 2001. At the season-opener in Monterrey, Mexico, da Matta won his third consecutive event for the first time in the CART FedEx Series (Australia and Fontana in 2001 and Mexico in 2002). After this past weekend in Toronto, da Matta extended his consecutive win streak with wins at Laguna Seca, Portland, and Chicago.
"There's a reason for the success we've had," da Matta speculated. "It happens because we have a very good team, the Toyota engine is working very well, the Lola chassis is good and the Havoline crew has been doing a good job. We are pretty confident right now, especially on the road and street courses."
Despite the fact that a win this Sunday in Cleveland would place da Matta in the CART record books for the most consecutive wins (5) of any driver, he is more concerned about securing his name in CART history for a different reason as he hopes to earn the distinction of 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series Champion.
NHR has won the CART championship three times, with three different drivers (Mario Andretti, 1983; Michael Andretti, 1991; Nigel Mansell, 1993). Da Matta hopes to add his name to that list of prestigious racers and bring the Vanderbilt Cup back to NHR headquarters, and Cleveland seems to be another prime location to strengthen his championship campaign.
At the Burke Lakefront Airport at Cleveland, da Matta has shown much promise, as his first podium finish (3rd in 2000) came at the temporary course set up on airstrips. In fact, da Matta could have won his first pole at Cleveland last season, but due to qualifying rules and rain in the fastest one-half of the field during final qualifying, he wasn't able to do so.
"Last year in qualifying we had rain in one group but not the other so of course it wasn't fair because the conditions were not the same for all of the drivers," said da Matta. "Now we have just one group so everyone is in the same conditions so it is a lot easier and a lot more fair. I'm sure the situation in Cleveland played a big part in the rules change."
Apart from his first podium finish here in 2000, his other races have not been as celebrated. His first event in Champ cars here ended due to suspension damage and he suffered a setback last year after rain scrambled the starting grid and he started 19th place although he charged back to a seventh place finish.
A successful qualification run for da Matta, according to the 28-year-old Brazilian, is crucial for another strong performance this weekend. Getting through what has usually been a tricky race start at Cleveland, by qualifying up front is da Matta's goal. "The start is tough because you can drive 10-wide on the front straight and then only two cars can fit into the first corner so everyone is waiting for the other cars to back off," da Matta recalled. "Everyone expects this though so we have had some trouble free starts. I hope it is the same this year. I'm hoping to qualify up front to avoid any problems."
After winning his first three poles in the series already this season, and currently on a win streak, da Matta is anxious to continue his good fortune at Cleveland. "I'm looking forward to racing in Cleveland," da Matta said. "I enjoy the track a lot. It's not a street course, it's not a road course - it's something in between. It's fast and wide and there are many lines so you can pass cars. With all of these things combined, it's a very unique event for us. I think that if you ask any driver in the paddock, he will say it is one of his favorite places to race so when everybody says that, for sure there is something special about the place."
Da Matta isn't the only one leading the CART FedEx Series standings, as NHR teammate Fittipaldi and his crew holds the No. 1 spot atop the Craftsman Pit Crew Challenge. Not to mention, the No. 11 Lilly Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone, piloted by Fittipaldi, has competitively stayed in the points races this season as well. Currently in fifth place in the standings with a total of 57 points, Fittipaldi has accumulated three podium finishes this season (2nd at Laguna Seca; 3rd at Monterrey and Toronto) as well as four top-four finishes in eight races - a 50 percent average.
Remaining in fifth position in the points race for a number of weeks, Fittipaldi knows that in order to gain some positioning on the CART competition, the little mistakes that lead to points unattained must be eliminated from his race weekends.
Fittipaldi said, "Our car has been good on road and street courses but everyone is catching up with us. We haven't qualified as good as we would have liked in some of the races but we have been reasonably happy with four top-four finishes. We left some points on the table in Long Beach with a mechanical problem, the oval races - especially Milwaukee -- when our wheel came off and in Portland. If we could have finished in the top-five in a couple of those, we would be closer to the top of the points but we are coming with the intention of continuing our momentum from our third place finish (in Toronto)."
Among his seven starts on the runways of Cleveland, Fittipaldi has yet to finish on the podium although he has led the race twice. His highest start here was fifth place in 1997 where he also scored his highest finish of sixth place although he was leading when his airjack broke and limited his result to sixth. Other strong runs at the track include leading the 1998 event before his radio malfunctioned during a caution period, which forced him to miss his stop and he was third in 2000 before his engine failed. Because of these situations, Fittipaldi feels he is "due" for a good finish - not just performance - here.
With knowledge gained from his previous seven races here, Fittipaldi believes that certain strategies are going to be played out by the majority of the CART teams both in qualifying and in the race.
"Cleveland is going to be very simple," Fittipaldi said. "In qualifying, all 18 cars are going to wait until the very last second to go out because the chances of having any kind of red flag are very slim because of the layout. And we all know what is going to happen at the start of the race. Everyone is going to dash for that first corner, see if they can get a good start, hope to not get tangled and then race from there. Everyone is going to make it 18-wide into the first turn when only a couple will fit. It makes it exciting for the fans but a little tense for the drivers - especially those who don't get through the corner without damage or losing positions."
The weekend opens with practice on Friday morning at 11:45 a.m. followed by provisional qualifying at 3:45 p.m. Saturday morning sees another practice at 10:00 a.m. with the final grid set with another qualifying session at 1:45 p.m. Both qualifying outings will be covered by SPEED Channel. CBS Sports will broadcast Sunday's Marconi Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank live, beginning at 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time.
Newman/Haas Racing, owned by actor/race car driver Paul Newman and racing entrepreneur Carl A. Haas, is in the midst of its 20th season in 2002 and is the most successful active competitor with 65 race wins and 65 pole positions in the CART FedEx Championship series. For more information, log on to www.newman-haas.com, www.texaco.com/racing or www.cart.com. The 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series 20-race schedule will be broadcast by new television partners, CBS, Fox and Fox Networks Group, including Speed Channel.