CRISTIANO DA MATTA CLINCHES 2002 CART FEDEX CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES TITLE WITH A VICTORY IN THE GRAND PRIX AMERICAS MIAMI - (October 6, 2002) - Cristiano da Matta ( ...
CRISTIANO DA MATTA CLINCHES 2002 CART FEDEX CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES TITLE WITH A VICTORY IN THE GRAND PRIX AMERICAS
MIAMI - (October 6, 2002) - Cristiano da Matta (#6 Chevron Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) used a fast car, quick pit work from his Newman/Haas Racing crew, every bit of racing skill he has - and a bit of help from his closest friend on the circuit - to win his seventh Champ Car race of the year and clinch his first CART FedEx Championship Series title on a balmy Sunday in downtown Miami.
Da Matta came from his sixth-place starting position to lead 58 of the 105 laps and win the inaugural Grand Prix Americas on the temporary 1.379-mile street course on the shores of Biscayne Bay. The win was his seventh of the season, and combined with Bruno Junqueira's (#4 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) fifth-place finish, it gave da Matta his first Vanderbilt Cup. The championship is the first for the 29-year-old Brazilian and the fourth for Newman/Haas Racing, and is the first for the team since Nigel Mansell turned the trick in 1993.
Da Matta's close friend and roommate Tony Kanaan (#10 Pioneer/WorldCom Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) led the race from pole for the first 23 laps, but set the stage for da Matta's ascension through the field when he and Scott Dixon (#44 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) brought out a yellow flag with a Lap 19 crash. Dixon and Kanaan had been the class of the field in the opening laps, running out to a seven-second lead, but Dixon's bid for the lead heading into Turn One was ended by Kanaan, who moved to his right to block the advance and triggered an accident that would bring out the yellow flag.
The timing of the caution flag was nearly perfect for some drivers as the pit window to make the race on just two stops opened on Lap 21. All but six cars took the opportunity to pit on Lap 21, but da Matta led the group that stayed on course, effectively moving himself from sixth to first - but only after Kanaan got sent to the rear of the field by CART stewards for causing the Lap 19 accident.
The yellow flag not only moved da Matta into the lead, it also vexed his closest challenger in the championship, as Junqueira was called in on Lap 20 by his Target Chip Ganassi Racing squad, a decision that proved to be a dubious one as the timing of the stop meant that he would have to pit twice more before the end of the 105-lap event as CART rules dictated that everyone had to stop every 42 trips around the course.
The middle part of the race was clean as da Matta, Paul Tracy (#26 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) and Junqueira swapped the lead as their respective fuel strategies cycled through, but just when it appeared that everyone had a handle on the race and how the championship race was going to shake out, things got a bit sideways.
Dario Franchitti (#27 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone), who was trying to keep his title hopes alive, brought out a caution on Lap 90 and bunched the field up behind the leader when he spun and got stuck in Turn Three. The stop not only bunched the field, but also aided the Junqueira cause as he was able to make his final pit stop under the yellow flag and rejoin the fight in seventh place.
Da Matta claimed the championship point for leading the most laps after the Lap 93 restart, meaning that Junqueira would have to climb to fourth place in order to stay in the hunt. One lap later it appeared that all hope was lost as Junqueira and Kanaan tangled in Turn One, sending Junqueira rolling through the runoff lane. He would keep the car moving however and took the subsequent restart in seventh place, needing to pass four machines to stay in the hunt.
Help nearly came four laps later in the form of Jimmy Vasser (#8 Shell Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) when Vasser cut inside of Alex Tagliani (#33 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) in Turn Three in a move for fourth, and hit Tracy's car in the rear, spinning him out in the middle of the track. The spin collected Michel Jourdain Jr. (#9 Office Depot Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and brought out another yellow flag, but Junqueira was trapped behind the stricken cars and could not advance any positions.
The CART Simple Green Safety Team cleaned up the broken cars quickly and got the race restarted with five orbits to run, but Tagliani and Vasser would maintain their spots ahead of Junqueira through the finish, meaning that da Matta would clinch the title by taking a 69-point lead in the series with just 68 points left on the board for the 2002 season.
Da Matta's big day nearly overshadowed another strong run from his Newman/Haas teammate Christian Fittipaldi (#11 Lilly Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone), as Fittipaldi would finish second for the third time this season, coming home a scant 0.734 seconds behind his teammate. Fittipaldi earned his fifth podium of the year and cemented his hold on fifth place in the title standings. Vasser would round out the podium in third, taking his best finish since his runner-up placing from the pole in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
CHAMP CAR TOP-THREE QUOTES
CRISTIANO DA MATTA (#6 Chevron Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone): "Of course it feels great to win the championship. It's impossible to explain though. When I saw [Scott] Dixon crashing and Tony [Kanaan] got sent to the back of the line, it was the opportunity I was looking for after starting seventh. My car wasn't that great and Dario [Franchitti] was all over me while Christian [Fittipaldi] was all over him. I knew Bruno [Junqueira] had to make a few more stops because of strategy, and that it all could work out for us. After that it was of course a tough race. I didn't know where Bruno was and I didn't want to ask my team where he was either because I was thinking about it. So I just tried not to think about it and concentrated on driving. After all [the yellows] were clear, it was a good feeling to drive it to the checkered. I think there isn't a better way to clinch the championship then with a victory. When you clinch it with a win it shows that you were there all year. I'll just try to go for the record of nine wins [in a season] because that's all that's left for me this season."
CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI (#11 Lilly Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone): "The race was actually very good. The first quarter of the race was the hardest. At the half-way point, I really started to feel comfortable. Track position was king today. If we didn't have problems qualifying on Friday we would have started where we should have. But I'm really happy for shorty [da Matta]. He's been consistent all year and he deserves this."
JIMMY VASSER (#8 Shell Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone): "I've been looking at the points, and after an abysmal start to the season we just looked to be out at sea. We started twelfth today which made it difficult, but the car was braking well in turn one. A lot of the race I was stuck behind guys and I just had to be patient. I passed [Tora] Takagi and eventually worked my way up around [Kenny] Brack, then to [Paul] Tracy." (On the incident with Tracy) "When I slid in there with [Alex] Tagliani I clipped the rear wheel of Tracy. All my apologies to Paul, but he's been in that situation before." (On the track) "It's a fantastic venue and we should have been coming here all along. I think the future for this race looks bright." (On CART) "CART's level of competition is very high and world class and I hope it continues to be. This racing series produces not only great drivers, but great team personnel who can move onto and excel in other great things, and win."
* Cristiano da Matta becomes the 16th driver to win a CART championship and the third Brazilian to do so, matching Emerson Fittipaldi (1989) and Gil de Ferran (2000-01) as CART titlewinners.
* Da Matta led 58 laps on Sunday, giving him 812 in his career and moving him into 19th on CART's all-time laps led list. He bumps Teo Fabi from the top-20 list and moves Jimmy Vasser to 20th with 792. Da Matta has led at least one lap in 11 of 12 CART road or street courses this season, getting shut out only in Denver.
* Da Matta won his seventh race of the season, moving him into exclusive company in the annals of CART history. Only four other drivers have ever won as many as seven races in a season with Al Unser Jr. (1994) and Michael Andretti ('91) winning eight while Juan Montoya ('99) and Alex Zanardi ('98) each won seven in a year.
* The race for the championship may be sewn up, but the battle for second place is still up for debate. Bruno Junqueira holds the second spot with 143 points but there are still 10 other drivers that can still end the year as the championship runner-up.