MONTERREY, Mexico (March 8, 2001) --- The CART FedEx Championship Series heads to Monterrey, Mexico this weekend for the inaugural Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix. Instead of opening the season on an oval track as the series has for the past...
MONTERREY, Mexico (March 8, 2001) --- The CART FedEx Championship Series heads to Monterrey, Mexico this weekend for the inaugural Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix. Instead of opening the season on an oval track as the series has for the past few seasons, the CART season-opening event will be held at the new 2.1-mile road course at Fundidora Park marking the first time CART has raced in Mexico in two decades.
Newman/Haas has traveled to Mexico to begin their 19th season in the series and the team will have the same look as in the past decade or so but there are inherent differences. The 2001 season will launch Kmart driver Christian Fittipaldi into the driver seat as the team leader while Cristiano da Matta will take over the Texaco/Havoline/Kmart seat long held by Michael Andretti who spent 10 years of his career with the team.
Fittipaldi drove to his first 500-mile victory and second overall in the CART FedEx Series in the 2000 season-ending Marlboro 500 and earned the distinction of "CART's Most Recent Winner," a tag he has enjoyed for the past five months and would like to extend.
"We are reasonably comfortable with the amount we learned from pre-season testing but we won't know for sure how we stack up until we get on the track in Mexico," said 30-year-old Fittipaldi, who married Andrea in the off-season. "I think we are looking good heading into Mexico. It's been great to extend the "most recent CART winner" tag but you're only as good as your last race. I've been able to hold onto that winning feeling for a while now which is good for the team and myself until we get on track in Mexico. Then we will want another fix of course."
Fittipaldi will return to the No. 11 Kmart Lola for 2001 but will drive will be powered by Toyota for the first time in his CART career after the team announced they were switching to Toyota at the conclusion of the 2000 season. In 2000, Fittipaldi ran in the top-six in all 19 events he competed in but only got to the podium three times due to various reasons. Fittipaldi will attempt to score back-to-back wins this weekend.
The addition of Cristiano da Matta has revitalized the team as well as helped them over the learning curve of switching to the Toyota engine. He begins his third season in the CART series and first at Newman/Haas but the driver has already proven he is a race winner when he earned his first CART victory at Chicago Motor Speedway in 2000 after ironically beating Michael Andretti by 1.6-seconds. The 27-year-old Brazilian is undaunted by the shoes he has to fill.
"Who wouldn't want to drive for a team that has won 58 races and 63 pole positions with Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Paul Tracy and Christian?," asked da Matta. "Many people have asked if it puts extra pressure on me to be replacing Michael Andretti. It doesn't because I try not to think about that and just concentrate on the things I have control over like doing the best job I can."
Although it will be the first race for da Matta at Newman/Haas Racing, he already feels part of the team. "Coming to Newman/Haas wasn't completely an unknown situation. I already knew Christian and that made the transition easy. I also had the most experience in the entire team with the Toyota engine and it was good for me to be able to bring that knowledge to the table. I told Christian about the engine and he helped me get acquainted with the Lola chassis since I have only driven a Reynard in CART until I joined Newman/Haas.
"The biggest thing I noticed when I came to Newman/Haas was the amount of experience on the team," continued da Matta. "These guys don't move around from team-to-team each year. Most of them have been with the team for around 10 years and some for all 18. They don't just want to be on a race team - they want to win! That makes a driver confident in his surroundings."
Opening the season at a new track where most teams have not tested poses another challenge. "We have analyzed the data of the track layout with the measurements of all the straights and the corners to get a baseline set-up for Friday practice but nothing will completely be able to prepare us for the new track," said Fittipaldi. "We will have to experience it for ourselves and feel out the conditions."
"It is more difficult to race on a new track for the first time not only because you are learning a new track but also because you have to set up the car at the same time even though you don't know the track well yet," added da Matta. "You have no idea what you will find out there. The engineers and I will walk the track, talk and talk and the first day we will get it wrong, but it will be the same for everybody. Some teams will figure it out, some will luck into a set-up but no one will still have it completely figured out."
The expanded 2001 CART FedEx Championship series season included races at four new tracks including the ones in Mexico, Fort Worth, Germany and England - all of which are important markets to Newman/Haas Racing sponsor Texaco.
"Going outside of the U.S. is very important to CART because they have always been an international series from a fan base standpoint," said da Matta. "Mexico is one of the countries where CART is big. We have a lot of fans here. It gives them an opportunity to see a race up close, even though many Mexicans come and see races in the U.S. It helps with going to a big city like Monterrey and Mexico is a big Texaco market, so it is important to our team as well as the series."
"It is really important for the series to go to new races, not only in Mexico but also other places where we have a lot of fans," added Fittipaldi. "It is a nice track and my understanding is that we have a huge bunch of fans waiting for us, not only because the series is interesting, but also because of (Mexicans) Fernandez and Jourdain. It should be nice and I am looking forward to the season opener. We should have a great car to get out there and start the season in 100% fashion."
Newman/Haas Racing begins competition on Friday, March 9th at 9:30 a.m. CST for the first official Champ Car practice session for 2001. Changes for 2001 included a series-wide reduction of engine boost from 40" to 37" in the interest of slowing the cars down for safety reasons as well as to encourage closer racing. The Head and Neck Support Device (HANS) that Fittipaldi actively assisted in developing has been mandated at all oval races and is suggested for road and street courses. Single probe refueling will be mandated at the fourth race of the season although Newman/Haas will be doing this beginning with the first race of the season.
Due to a new CART rule that states there is no in-season testing, the first day of on-track activities practice at each venue are practice sessions only with practice and qualifying to take place on the second day. Qualifying order will be based on current point standings. The race day format will continue to include a morning warm-up and then the race.
The Tecate/Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix will be televised LIVE on ABC Sunday, March 11 at 3 PM ET. Check your local listings for times.