CHAMPCAR/CART: Mexico City: Newman/Haas Racing preview

Newman/Haas Racing heads south to end the 2002 CART Fedex Series season the way they began it - with a win. LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. (November 13, 2002) --- Heading south for the last of 19 Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) FedEx events,...

Newman/Haas Racing heads south to end the 2002 CART Fedex Series season the way they began it - with a win.

LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. (November 13, 2002) --- Heading south for the last of 19 Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) FedEx events, Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) hopes to make the inaugural Gran Premio Telmex/Gigante presented by Banamex/Visa in Mexico City, Mexico the perfect ending to a near perfect season.

Although the race will mark CART's return to the Mexican capital 21 years after back-to-back events in 1980 and 1981, it will be the inaugural event for Newman/Haas Racing, which began competing in the series in 1983.   The inaugural event at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodríguez in 1980 marked CART's first international race although the track will now be longer due to the recent completion of a multi-million dollar renovation, which has extended the permanent road course from 2.48-miles to 2.75.   Havoline driver Cristiano da Matta and Lilly driver Christian Fittipaldi hope to add their name to that of two-time Mexico City winner Rick Mears and two-time Mexico City pole winner Bobby Unser.

What is looking to be one of NHR's most bittersweet races in it's 20-year history, the 2002 season-finale will serve as the site for what may be the end of two great Champ car careers. As the checkered flag drops on Sunday, NHR drivers, da Matta and Fittipaldi will possibly conclude their careers as Champ car drivers and switch their focus to two other racing series; da Matta in Formula 1, and Fittipaldi in NASCAR.

With a combined 2002 road course record of six wins, four second place finishes, three third place finishes, seven poles, and one championship, perhaps there is no better venue than a road course to finish out the 2002 season and two CART careers.

In 2002 alone, NHR has proved to be the most successful team on the CART circuit as da Matta sealed the CART FedEx championship in Miami on October 6th.   In addition to powerful and reliable Toyota engines and Lola chassis, a pool of talented individuals at NHR consistently produced competitive race cars at road and street course events - a type of track that makes up the majority of races on the circuit. Of their 68 total team victories, 45 NHR victories have come on road/street courses including da Matta's six road/street course victories out of seven total wins so far this season.

Sporting the coveted No. 1 on his Havoline Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone and a special commemorative helmet worn also by Fittipaldi and fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan in celebration of their final race together, the 2002 CART FedEx champion, da Matta, hopes to secure another spot in the Champ car record books in the 2002 season-finale. With seven wins this season, da Matta is looking to tie a Champ car record already shared by former NHR driver Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. for eight wins in one season. In just his fourth season in CART, and second with NHR, da Matta is already close to achieving the same feat that took Andretti eight full seasons and Unser Jr. 12 to earn.

Scoring his eighth win of the season in the final race would also mean another spot in the record books for da Matta. By reaching victory lane in Mexico City, he would have started and finished each of the last two seasons with wins.  Only one other driver (Rick Mears in 1989) in CART history has been able to both open and close a season with a victory. In doing so, he would also keep his win average in Mexico at 100 percent after winning the 2001 and 2002 season-opening events - both held at the road course in Monterrey, Mexico.

"It's going to be a pretty special race for me because it will be my last with Newman/Haas Racing, at least for a while," da Matta said.  "I don't want to think about that until after the race is over though.  Instead we are concentrating on ending the season the way we started it - with a win in Mexico!  I want to go out with a win and at least try to match the record.  Other than that, it's an important race like any other."

Surprisingly, da Matta's chance to tie the eight-win season record has come down to the last race. In at least five other races this season - Montreal, Cleveland, Vancouver, Australia and Fontana -- da Matta had the potential to win.  Da Matta's chances to win are still promising, for in the two previous inaugural races this year, he finished second at Montreal and third in Denver.

However, da Matta's consistent debuts on inaugural tracks and his championship trophy aren't the only factors making him a favorite for the Mexico City affair, as his love for computer games may just play in his favor this weekend. He said, "The layout is very nice from what I have seen.  I actually have an old computer game that is pretty similar except for the last turn, which has been changed.  Even though I haven't been to the track, I can already be familiar with it because of the computer game." 

Again, given that the track is a permanent road course plays into da Matta's favor as well. In the six permanent road-course events this season, da Matta has won four and placed second in a fifth.  Even though da Matta has qualified on the front row in four of the six events, only three (Laguna, Portland and Montreal) of his seven pole positions have been on permanent road courses.  He did not start on the front row on the Monterrey road course when qualifying was slowed by rain or at Mid-Ohio where he qualified third.

"I have heard that the changes that the promoter made to the surface and other areas are so nice," da Matta said.  "I'm looking forward to seeing it with my own eyes.  We have had a good car for the road courses and we hope that Mexico City will be more of the same."

Leaving the team that helped define da Matta as a Champ car driver won't be easy for the 29-year-old.  Of his 78 starts to date, nearly half were with NHR (20 in 2001; 18 so far in 2002) including all but one of his 11 Champ car victories. In addition, all of da Matta's Champ car starts were powered by Toyota. Da Matta's 11 victories are the highest of any driver to campaign a Toyota during the program's seven years in Champ car racing.  With the blessing of team owners Carl Haas and Paul Newman, da Matta will continue to have a Toyota engine behind his cockpit as he will drive for their factory team in Formula 1 beginning in 2003.

Joining the Champ car scene in 1995 from Formula 1, Fittipaldi will make his eighth season possibly his last in CART. Of his 133 starts in this series (Mexico City will be 134th), all but 17 have come with NHR as he spent his first season with Walker Racing. Fittipaldi has won two races and captured one pole with NHR in addition to amassing a total of 20 podium appearances - all but one with NHR (2nd place 1995 Indy 500). 

Although the Champion has been crowned, the battle for the remaining positions in the 2002 standings will not be decided until the checkered flag falls on Sunday.  Currently fifth in CART FedEx points race, Fittipaldi has a chance to better his current best finish in the championship of fifth place in 1996, his first season with NHR, with an outside chance at fourth if he can gain 16 points on Franchitti in Mexico. While Bruno Junqueira, Patrick Carpentier and Dario Franchitti will be fighting it out for second place, as far down as 10th place Paul Tracy, could pose a threat to Fittipaldi's current fifth place ranking. 

Although he has posted five top-three podium finishes this season, the potential was present for a total of 11 but a variety of reasons reduced his results although the team has the capability of winning in Mexico City.  Fittipaldi, who drove primarily on road or street courses since he began racing and until he joined CART, earned his first of two wins in the series at this type of track when he drove to victory in Elkhart Lake, Wis. in 1999.  Not only is it the type of track that suits his driving style, it also has been the type of track NHR has excelled on this season.

Driving the No. 11 Lilly Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone, Fittipaldi qualified and finished second on the Mid-Ohio permanent road course earlier this season and feels that the track is similar to the one he will revisit this weekend.  Unlike his teammate da Matta, Fittipaldi will not have to rely on computer simulation to learn the track as he competed in the 1992 Formula 1 event held at Hermanos-Rodriguez.

"I think we will run well in Mexico City," Fittipaldi frankly said.  "The car was very competitive on road courses and especially at Laguna Seca and Mid-Ohio which are traditional road courses like the one in Mexico City.  Apart from the elevation changes, which you don't have in Mexico City, the track is a little like Mid-Ohio.  It doesn't have a lot of chicanes like in Montreal or Australia."   Despite the fact that Mexico City may be Fittipaldi's last race in a Champ car and with the Newman/Haas team, he is keeping his focus simple and concentrating only on the race. He said, "I don't want to think about it until after the race.  I'm just going to Mexico City as if it is just another race.  It would be great to end on a high note with a win or podium finish but we'll take it one session at a time."

An open wheel driver ever since he could walk, Fittipaldi will have a big adjustment to make as he will trade-in open air and open wheels for a roof and fenders in NASCAR. Of the change, Fittipaldi stated, "Will I miss open wheel racing?  Yes, of course because I have done it my whole life.   I'm starting a new phase in my life.  I have made a lot of friends at Newman/Haas Racing and have had a lot of good times in CART and there is still one more race that we can win together."

The third of three new venues for the CART FedEx series this season, Mexico City is expected to be a crowd favorite as race officials are projecting a race-day crowd of 180,000 spectators and a race-weekend tally of 300,000 fans. "I am looking forward to the race in Mexico City," an anxious da Matta said.  "The place is going to be packed which isn't a surprise considering what we are used to in Monterrey (Mexico)." 

Groundwork laid through Texaco/Havoline's 2001 campaign "130 Pounds of Pure Nice Guy," and a successful 2002 season no doubt strengthened Cristiano da Matta tie with the fans.  As a result, he is one of five finalists for the 2002 WorldCom Most Popular Driver Award.   Da Matta, Patrick Carpentier, Paul Tracy, Michael Andretti or Dario Franchitti will be bestowed the honor at the year-end awards banquet to be held at the Hotel Intercontinental in Miami on November 22nd.  The winner's designated charity will receive a check for $25,000 courtesy of WorldCom.  Da Matta has named Paul Newman's group of Hole in the Wall Gang Camp's for seriously ill children s his recipient.

Television coverage for the inaugural Gran Premio Telmex/Gigante presented by Banamex/Visa will kick-off with coverage of Friday's Qualifying session at 4:00 p.m. while CART Friday Night will air at 10:30 p.m. the same evening.  Saturday's qualifying session will air at 3:30 p.m. and the 2002 CART FedEx season-finale will air LIVE on Sunday at 4:00 p.m. All programs will be televised on SPEED Channel and all TV times are Eastern.

-NHR-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Michael Andretti , Bruno Junqueira , Patrick Carpentier , Christian Fittipaldi , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Tony Kanaan , Rick Mears , Bobby Unser , Paul Newman , Carl Haas , Cristiano da Matta