An interview with Cristiano da Matta Part I John Procida: Let's go to what we call our one-one punch with Cristiano da Matta of Newman/Haas Racing. Cristiano is the old-timer among the Toyota group, this being his fourth season with Toyota.
An interview with Cristiano da Matta
John Procida: Let's go to what we call our one-one punch with Cristiano da Matta of Newman/Haas Racing. Cristiano is the old-timer among the Toyota group, this being his fourth season with Toyota. He enters the 2002 season with two streaks intact: first he's won the last two races of the 2001 CART FedEx Championship Series at Australia and in Fontana. So he'll be looking for his third consecutive CART win here. Also he's looking for his second straight win in Mexico, having won the series opener last year.
Not to put too much pressure on him, but I've been told by the Newman/Haas folks they were also looking to open their 20th season of CART racing with their ninth season-opening win. They've won almost pretty much every other year since they've entered CART.
With that, Cristiano da Matta, let's ask Cristiano, your thoughts coming into the season?
Cristiano da Matta: First of everything, thanks for the pleasure.
I'm pretty glad to be with my second year with Newman/Haas. Of course, it's a very competitive team. We proved that last year. We had some ups and downs. Off-season for us so far has been really good. I'm very excited to start this season because I have better knowledge of the team. The team knows better the way I like to work. We are just more of a team than we were at the beginning of last year. I think we've got a lot of things going on now that we didn't have last year.
Everything indicates we're going to have a better season.
John Procida: Let's go to questions.
Q Last year obviously you went through a slump through the middle part of the year, especially July. I'm interested in something you said, which was something to the effect of you guys were over-engineering. Maybe that's another way of saying trying too hard. What did you mean by saying that you guys were over-engineering things and over-did things, and that's what caused you problems in July?
Cristiano da Matta: Well, many races, especially in May, in June, we have the speed. We were fastest in many of the sessions, the races from the beginning of the championship to June. For one reason or the other, we weren't getting the results. We started to try to make the car even faster, to try to get the result there. I end up trying harder and harder, and the team also trying harder and harder. We started to get out of our basic setup we have that we was good. We start to think, "Okay, this is good, but we can make it even better. Let's do this. Let's do that." We started to get away from our formula, you know, our basic setup.
The more we went away from this setup, the slower we went. We really were in trouble like in July, in all the races in July, and good part of August, too. Only by Vancouver I believe, which was beginning of September, end of August, we start to get back in pace. It was funny because we didn't have a good result in Vancouver, but we had a lot of lessons learned there. We knew the car was fast. I didn't qualify well because I had a problem qualifying. I didn't finish the race well. I also had the problem during the race. But the car was good.
So we all sat down and we said, "Okay, we were back to our normal stuff in this race. We were fast here. We were fast here. We could have done it. It just didn't happen because this, this and this, that it's not inside of the area we can control. So let's keep this line." That's what we did. We just went back to more likely what we were using at the beginning of the year, and the speed was back there. So it was very interesting how can you make a mistake by trying to do too much.
Q You have to feel good that all of you recognized that, though, and were able to go back to basics, if you will?
Cristiano da Matta: Yeah, it's a positive thing. I think we didn't recognize it earlier because it was my first year with the team. I knew everybody pretty well by that time. It's not like I had a year to be with all those guys every single day. It makes a little difference. Like just until everything is really gelled, it's a little difficult.
But I think there's a big progress on this area. I think the experience from last year, of course, made us a better team, made us work together better. I think that's what we needed. We learned the hard way, but we've learned.
Q A lot of the experts are now looking at you as the pre-season favorite to win this championship based on the way you finished last year. You look at the fact that Marlboro Team Penske is now in the other league. What are your thoughts about where you stand at this point about making a legitimate run at the championship? What do you think has to come together for you?
Cristiano da Matta: Well, I think it's a championship race championship, a long championship. A lot of things have to go right. You see sometimes a guy going very fast in some parts of the championship, some other guys going very fast in other parts of the championship. We have a good example, as Castroneves last year. He started the year so well. He was so fast in so many races. He only finished the championship one point ahead of me. That's so much consistency, and not only speed is important.
For me, I suffered a lot with consistency last year. There were races that I was very fast, and there were other races that we were like out to lunch basically. We had to admit that. We worked a lot on that on the off-season. So I hope we're going to have a lot more consistent car this year than last year. That's the area we've been working harder. I'm very anxious to see the results we can get.
So far our testing has been good. We've been consistently fast everywhere we've been, which wasn't true for us last year in the off-season. And I hope it keeps this way.
But the variety of tracks we go to is very big. Like we go not only from superspeedways to speedways to street courses and road courses, but there's a big difference in between all the street courses, too. For example, Long Beach comparing to Vancouver, two street courses, but they're totally different. So you have to be very, very versatile to make your car work in every kind of racetrack we go to.
So it's a difficult task. It's not easy to see like the way Gil won the last two championships was all about consistency. I won more races than him last year, and he won the championship. He finished like almost 60 points ahead of me. So there's a lot of room for improvement there for me and I'm going to concentrate on that.
Q You're now definitely a veteran of this series. What is it that you know about making that run that you didn't know two years ago? Is it just, like you said, you want consistency, but what is it that you know about achieving that now?
Cristiano da Matta: Well, I think a lot of it, it comes with the experience you say about. Knowledge about setup, knowledge about what every racetrack you go to, what the car needs more in those kind of circumstances. Helping the team the most, and the team helping you most on understand those things. I think that's the biggest thing that experience brings to you.
Of course, the race strategy and the consistency, I think it's a little bit easier to recognize than that. But the factors that makes you consistent driver, that is what I'm talking about. Sometimes it's just a small area on the car setup that you didn't pay attention very well. Sometimes the team brings your attention for that and makes a big difference.
It's like the team helping you or making you a better driver, giving you more knowledge. Of course, the other way around, too.
Q Do you like the idea of being a favorite? Do you enjoy that?
Cristiano da Matta: Yeah, I like it. It's recognition for the work you've been doing. So it's good to know that people recognize you, see that myself and Newman/Haas, we're doing a good job, we've been fast on the spring training, we've been fast on every kind of track we've been to so far. It makes you feel good. There's no reason why not.
Adds a little bit of pressure, but the pressure is on us anyway just from what I feel I can do this year and from what the team feels we can do this year. So we put enough pressure in ourselves, so it's not a little bit more pressure that is going to crack us.
Q Can you talk about the impact that Chris Pook has made and what the feelings amongst the drivers is? Do you feel excited about the direction that the series is going? What changes do you like the best?
Cristiano da Matta: For me the biggest difference, like in the paddock, I feel quite a bit more optimistic, I would say, about the future of CART and the changes we've made.
The biggest change I like, was the fact that we don't have the fuel economy races anymore. Those something that every driver used to complain, every team used to complain, even the engine manufacturers used to complain. It's like they would say, "We're spending all this money, all these engineers working here, to make all this power, then it comes race time, sometimes we have to lean the engine to get better fuel economy to get a better strategy."
All these guys spend so many hours just projects, many hours on the dyno testing the engines. All that was gone just by flipping a little switch on the steering wheel that would make your car four percent lean, six percent lean, ten percent lean, whatever. Of course, that costs you power, too.
So I think the fact that you can be flat out all the way, you going to be able to run as fast as you can, using as much fuel as you want, that's going to be a great thing.
I see about, going back to Chris Pook, one thing I felt a lot, it's more on the media. Of course, in the public, there's a big recognition, but even more in the media. I remember last year, it would make me sad reading some places like that CART, this is happening with CART, CART is going down, this and that. Now I reading many places, even the people that used to be the most like pessimist about CART, I read good things.
You know, everybody seems to like the way Chris is directing things, the changes he's made so far. It's very exciting for me and for I'm sure like even to speak on behalf of the other drivers, very exciting for everybody to see that the credibility of our series has grown so, so many higher than where we stop last season, for example.
Q When you end a season like you did last year, do you really not want the season to end? You get two straight wins, then, boom, you have to wait till March in order to go racing again.
Cristiano da Matta: It seems like a long time. It's so tough to build up this momentum when really this is boost on everybody of will to succeed, to do well in the season, to get the good atmosphere inside everybody, inside of you. Then suddenly we have this long break, and you have to find a way to kind of fool yourself and make it like this is just the continuation of last year, not last year's season, but the last two races. Try to make you still feeling so good about everything, even being so far away from the race car, sometimes a month, month and a half not driving the car.
But it's a little bit of a mind game. But I think I've been able to handle it pretty well.
Part II da Matta interview