CHAMPCAR/CART: Cristiano da Matta interview

T.E. McHALE: Good afternoon to everyone. Welcome to the CART media teleconference, and thanks to all of you for being with us today. Our guest this afternoon is driver Cristiano da Matta of PPI Motorsports who established a career best...

T.E. McHALE: Good afternoon to everyone. Welcome to the CART media teleconference, and thanks to all of you for being with us today. Our guest this afternoon is driver Cristiano da Matta of PPI Motorsports who established a career best with a fourth-place finish in last year's Bosch Sparkplug Grand Prix presented by Toyota at Nazareth Speedway.

Good afternoon, Cristiano, and thanks for being with us.

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: Thank you.

T.E. McHALE: Just some background on Cristiano, the driver of the No. 97 Pioneer MCI WorldCom Toyota Reynard, he's matched his career best effort in back-to-back events with finishes of fourth at Rio de Janeiro in his homeland of Brazil -- and fourth at Twin Ring, Motegi, Japan last weekend. Those efforts have propelled Cristiano, the 1998 Dayton Indy Lights champion into a fourth-place tie with Max Papis of Team Rahal in the FedEx Championship Series driver standings. Heading into Saturday's rescheduled Bosch Sparkplug Grand Prix presented by Toyota at Nazareth Speedway, Cristiano and Max are tied in the championship with 25 points each. Cristiano qualified 20th last month for this weekend's event at an average speed of 169.644 miles per hour. The rescheduled Bosch Sparkplug Grand Prix presented by Toyota at Nazareth Speedway, race five of the FedEx Championship Series, will be televised live by ESPN this Saturday, May 27th, beginning at 1:00 PM Eastern time.

Q. Good afternoon, Cristiano. Could you just give us an overview of how you felt your season has gone, and also, how tough you think it will be to get to the front from 20th at Nazareth?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: Yeah, we have a pretty rough beginning of the season. Even on off-season testing, we were struggling quite a bit at the ovals. We could not find a right combination of screens, dampers, and all the things that work towards the performance of the car on ovals. And we are really struggling. Like Homestead, I qualified 23rd and Nazareth, of course, I was the second round. By that time, I qualified 20th. But now, I believe I have a much better car than at that moment because we seem to have more success, and, of course, during the race weekend making some experiments. And we found a bunch of stuff that really worked for our car, and we were able to prove that in Brazil and in Japan, of course. We were a little unlucky on these two rounds because we had both races we had problems in qualifying rounds. Otherwise, I really believe that I would have a Top-8, Top-6 car on the starting grid, which would have made me a lot easier to finish on the top than starting 19th, like starting in Japan, for example. But those last two races, I came from the back from 17th in Rio, 19th in Japan; and now I'm going to have to come from 20th in Nazareth, which I think is going to be a little bit more difficult because Nazareth is not a track that is really easy to pass. It is actually probably the most difficult oval to pass that we go to. The track is narrow. The track is quite small. So I think it is going to be a very, very difficult race for me.

Q. What time is practice on Saturday?

T.E. McHALE: 9:00 AM. One hour combination practice warmup beginning at 9:00 lasting until 10:00, and then the race will be at 1:00.

Q. Cristiano, Toyota apparently has put forth a lot of effort this year. How do you find you've improved or how do you think they have improved since last year, other than you're running closer to the front?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: It's a really big difference on last year's engine and this year's engine. The difference is so big that the first time I sat in the car, we were still in the shop; I was like making my seat for the new car for the 2000 car, and I just opened the car and the guys had the engine switched on. And he was just leaving the throttle, I feel like the revs come up a lot quicker, and the engine was a lot more responsive on the throttle. And then, of course, a few weeks later when we went to Homestead, I was really surprised the amount of power and torque, more than we had in the previous engine, the 1999 engine. So I'm really happy about the engine, of course. I just think we cannot settle down, and we have to keep on pushing. And I'm sure Toyota is doing that right now, just to make our engine better and better and better. I think in Japan it was -- it was a very, very good -- a very good -- how can I explain that. It was a very good race to show how our engine is stronger, because in that kind of circuit, the big power is very important, and we showed that we are probably the most powerful engine over there. I think we just need to do a little bit of work on the torque and the bottom end, and I think we will be very, very competitive. But the difference from this year to last year is massive.

Q. I know last year the reliability was coming around and Toyota has it improved more this year. I know Juan Montoya seems to have a problem with it, but you finishing races --

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: I cannot speak on Juan's behalf, but I think he had the engine problem I think only in Homestead. The other races, I think his problem was not the engine, as far as I know. I'm not 100% sure about that. On my side it's been very, very good. Like on the pre-season testing, the engine has been fine. And these first few races, I didn't have any problem with the engine. And unluckily, I had the little problem in qualifying in Rio. That was one of the things that was -- caused me like such a bad start as I had in the starting grid. But it wasn't any mechanical failure, anyways. It was only electrical failure. So since last series, big difference again, not only power and driveability and all that, but also in reliability; we are a lot better this year.

Q. And leading after Nazareth, then we are back into the road courses. Do you think you still have got enough low-end power to handle those courses well?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: That's for sure the area on the engine that we need to work more. But if you look at the Long Beach qualifying that Montoya and Vasser had, and even my qualifier, I qualified 12th over there, and I had a few problems on my qualifying, not many, but I could have qualified I think on the Top-10, for sure. And I think the engine is proving that it's there. We are still losing a little bit to some other engines I think on this range, but we are very close, and Toyota knows that; that we need to work on this bottom end and this torque, and they are doing that right now.

Q. A couple of questions that maybe focus on Nazareth a little bit. You said you have trouble passing there, but I notice last year you must have passed somebody since you came from 17th. What does it take to pass on a track like that? It's one thing to say it's hard to pass, but you must pass, how do you attack a track like that? And that track, you seem to do well there; you had the two wins in Indy Lights.

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: It's, for sure, my favorite oval track. I really enjoy it, driving on that track, and I think that track suits my kind of driving style. And the best thing -- the passing story on that track is difficult. You have to be really patient because the opportunities are not many. You have few opportunities, and you have to be there. When the opportunity happens, you just have to be there. So you just have to be like really, really 100% focused on the whole race. If you're running behind somebody, if he makes like a really, really small mistake, you have to know how to take advantage of that. And, of course, there is another thing that is very critical in Nazareth, which is the tire wear. If the tire is wearing and the car is becoming more difficult to drive, if you have a car that is not as hard on the tires, towards the end of the race, it becomes a little easier to pass people that is running out of tires. So that is a big issue over that, too.

Q. Even though you did not qualify well for Saturday's race, what was your feel for race setup, because you did get your happy hour, your practice sessions in. What was your feel for the track under race -- the race setup on the car and for the Toyota engine there?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: It's back to -- Nazareth was a race -- it was only our second race of the season and at that moment we didn't have a very good setup for the oval tracks. That has changed right now, and I believe we are going to have a strong car at Nazareth. It's going to be kind of a -- interesting thing for us to see, because we are going to go there to -- we have a setup that we believe that is going to work there, but we have never tried before, because we know the one that we use there in qualifying on the practice, during the race week, and they were not good. And so we are going to go with something different. Something a lot more towards what we were using in Japan and it worked. So I'm really, really anxious right now to like -- waiting for this first session to really feel how my car is going to be.

Q. Do you think that maybe the veteran drivers, say, a Mike many Andretti, Jimmy Vasser, will have an advantage with just the one, short practice session, one day? There won't be a lot of time, will they have any advantage over some of you guys who don't have quite that much experience?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: No. I don't believe that will bring them such experience. I think that will bring drivers who work with the engineers for a longer period of time and have a better understanding of each other, or even just guys who have a good relation, drivers in engineering and drivers in teams. The guys will have this relationship very, very well set. I think they are going to have a small advantage.

Q. How do you fit into that picture?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: I'm quite happy about it, because if you look at almost all the first sessions, we are -- when we get to a racetrack, we are -- it's almost always is our best -- our best finish. So I'm glad about it. I have a pretty good relationship with my team, with my engineering, and I believe that in a short period of time we are going to do many, many improvements in our car.

Q. You were sitting pretty good in the points standings so far, how does that make you feel as compared to last year? You have to be looking at things, there is a possibility for a championship here?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: Yeah, I think it's a little too early for me to think about it. But, of course, just being able to see myself sitting forth on the championship table making me feel good and adds a little bit more responsibility to my work. I think I just have to approach the way that -- the rest of the season the same way I was doing before. I think we have to try to get the maximum in the race. Maybe now we have to think a little bit more on the points. For example, I'm going to Nazareth starting the 20th. Of course, a race win from 20th over there is very difficult; so I have to try to do everything I can to try to get some good points and then carry on to Milwaukee and then try to get a good race over there.

Q. The Toyota program seems -- it's obviously stepped up a whole lot. With Toyota going into Formula 1 next year at the earliest, for sure in 2002, have you seen any change in how Toyota is approaching their program in CART, either with personnel or development?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: No. I think they are -- I haven't heard a lot about this program. But far as I know, it's going to be a completely separated view, and it's going to be all commanded by Toyota Europe. So it's going to have nothing to do with TRD USA and TRD Japan, which are the ones that have a lot of power on champ car engines. With a company as big as Toyota, they have the resources to do everything very well done in both series, I believe. So far it hasn't changed anything.

Q. Is there any particular Toyota test program in the plan for this summer?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: For this summer?

Q. Yes.

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: We have a few new pieces for the engine that they are going to be in the car, I think in those CART-open tests. Every car is going to be trying a different component; so, it will be interesting. The Toyota engineers, they have been promising the same step we had from the end of last year to the beginning of the season; they are saying by mid-season, we are going to have another step as big as that. So if that's true, I think by mid-season, we are going to have the best season of the series.

Q. Airton Dare' has made the field. Have you remained in contact with him? He's made the field for the 500. Have you remained in contract with him and are you going to be rooting for him?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: Yes, for sure. I am a very good friend of him. We live one block from each other in Miami. And we have been teammates for two years. I can say that in racing, he is probably my best friend right now. This last month, I haven't been talking to him very much because of course I was here in -- I was in Rio and then straight to Japan and then straight from Japan back to Brazil, and he was, of course, testing the whole month in Indy. So I haven't been talking to him so much, so I would like also to know from you which position he is starting?

Q. You know what, right now I don't have the field with me, but I think he's starting in the last three rows.

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: Because yesterday, I tried to look at that on the Internet and I couldn't find it. But I'm glad he's made the race. Considering the race he had in Las Vegas going on, I think he will be able to do good there.

Q. And also, you are too short for basketball and too small for football, but do you have any other commercials in the works, because I thought you showed great charisma in that commercial for Toyota Motorsports.

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: Right now, I don't think there is any other commercial coming on. I think maybe towards the second half -- I think Toyota has a plan to make another one for the second half of the season. Which would be good, because I actually enjoyed doing it.

Q. You came up from CART through the European Formulas and then came over to the U.S. to run Indy Lights, and, you know, we have all this talk currently about American drivers versus drivers from overseas, and do you find that you were really prepared when you came from Formula 3 and Formula 3000 over to Indy Lights?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: I was pretty happy with the background I had, because, of course, not only three and a half, 3,000 in Europe, but I also race two years in Brazil on year in Formula Fords and one year in Brazilian F3. And of course, the four years of racing, I felt that I was prepared racing cars, because I had the few years in go-carts before that, also. So after four years driving cars, I felt that I was prepared to get in Indy Lights. And, of course, I was prepared for the road courses. I didn't have a clue what ovals were all about, and the two years I had in Indy Lights were like extremely important for me to learn how to -- how to drive in an oval, how to think, how to approach the setup, how to approach the track, the engineering that is doing the car. It was very important to me.

Q. Would you recommend to young drivers in the U.S. that they head to Europe for a couple seasons, or do you think the series we have in the IS can be comparable or are comparable?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: I think the way I see, I think Indy Lights and the Toyota Atlantics, they are a pretty good series, but before that, I think the Barber Dodge, they are good, too.

What I feel the U.S. motor racing misses a little bit is more professional go-carting, which I think that's one of the reasons Brazil has a lot of -- lots of drivers that are succeeding like every before, because the go-carting here is really strong. It's like to go through a go-cart race, you wouldn't believe -- like you go to the Brazilian championship, the teams are really professional. There's like sponsors, people spending money, many chassis, many tires. It's almost just like CART. So you start racing in this kind of environment, very competitive, you learn how to address every little bit from every situation and try to get every hundredth of a second inside the rates track. And I think that's one of the good points about the Brazilian motor racing is the beginning, and the go-carting I see in America, I'm not sure because I'm -- maybe I'm wrong. Because as far as I know, I have never seen a very, very professional very, very competitive American go-carting. I have always seen very amateur, a lot of people just driving for fun. So I think that's the biggest difference. But after that, like I told you, Atlantics and Indy Lights, I think they are a pretty good series and you're going to be able to learn as much as anywhere else in the world any of those cities.

Q. Would you like to talk Cal Wells into entering the Indy 500 next year?

CRISTIANO DA MATTA: Yeah, we had this plan this year, actually, but we couldn't put all the budget together because, of course, it's pretty expensive, just having to buy cars and engines and all that, just for one race. So we tried, and I'm sure Cal is going to try again next year, and, of course, as every driver, I think it's my dream to try to race and win the Indy 500. I will help him almost every way I can to put this deal together, this project together for next year.

T.E. McHALE: We'll wrap it up for today. Cristiano, thanks for taking the time to be with us this afternoon. Travel safely back to the states. Best of luck in Saturday's Bosch Sparkplug Grand Prix presented by Toyota, and through the rest of the FedEx Championship Series season. CRISTIANO DA MATTA: Okay. Thank you, very much, everybody, and I hope to see you guys when I'm back to America on this next Friday.

-CART-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Airton Daré , Jimmy Vasser , Max Papis , Cristiano da Matta