Newman/Haas Racing heads to Miami with chance to clinch their fourth CART Fedex Championship at The Grand Prix Americas and aims to have both da Matta and Fittipaldi in top-three by year-end. LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. (October 1, 2002) --- Newman/Haas...
Newman/Haas Racing heads to Miami with chance to clinch their fourth CART Fedex Championship at The Grand Prix Americas and aims to have both da Matta and Fittipaldi in top-three by year-end.
LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. (October 1, 2002) --- Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) returns to the downtown streets of Miami for the first time since 1995 for the Grand Prix Americas, Round 16 of 19 in the CART FedEx Championship, with hopes of bringing home the Vanderbilt Cup with Chevron driver Cristiano da Matta as well as gain ground on a top-three finish in the season-ending standings for Lilly driver Christian Fittipaldi. Both drivers view the race as a homecoming of sorts as they reside mere minutes from the track.
Da Matta was a championship favorite even before the green flag flew in Monterrey, Mexico for the 2002 season-opener and he has kept stoking the flame of the speculation ever since with a total of six wins, six poles and 9 top-three finishes in 15 events. With four races to go and a maximum of 91 points available yet this season, da Matta will enter a Champ car race weekend for the first time with a possibility to clinch his first CART FedEx Championship.
After 15 of 19 races, da Matta has amassed a total of 191 points and holds a 58-point lead over childhood friend and fellow Belo Horizonte native Bruno Junqueira who has 133. He could mathematically clinch the Championship by finishing the event with 10 more of the weekend's points than Junqueira -- a total of 68 points over second place (the maximum number of points available in the final three races). If he collects all 23 championship points available (both poles, most laps led and race win) as he has already done three times this season in Laguna Seca, Portland and Toronto, and Junqueira finishes no higher than fifth, he will depart Miami with the prestigious Vanderbilt Cup, a $1 million bonus and his first Championship title since being crowned the 1998 Indy Lights champion.
"We are going to Miami to score as many points as we can," said da Matta who recently celebrated his 29th birthday on September 19. "It's the same mindset as we have had at all of the races we have gone to this year but obviously more is on the line at this point in the season. It is an important race for our team not only for the Championship but also because Chevron and Lilly will have many guests at the race. To run well in my home race would be great but to clinch the Championship there would be even better but we plan to take it one race at a time."
Not only does the Miami street race mark the first time that the series has returned to the area since 1995 - and event where Newman/Haas Racing driver Michael Andretti brought the team one of its 69 poles -- it is also the third of four new venues for the series this season after inaugural races in Montreal, Denver and the season-finale in Mexico City, Mexico on November 17. Da Matta and the Chevron team have fared well on new venues this season as he led the Montreal race from his sixth pole position of the season and finished second and drove to a third place finish in Denver.
"There is always a little bit of surprise when you go to an event for the first time but I expect it will be a good race," said da Matta. "The track is pretty short in length -- it's 1.4 miles (1.379) long so we know that since the straights aren't long, we probably won't need all seven gears. The engineers had a track map that had the radius of the corners on it. Before the team gets to Miami, they will have done computer simulations to get a baseline set-up for the car. It is still a question mark until we get on track for the first practice session though. Qualifying will be very important in Miami. The guys who are fast off of the truck and qualifying well will have an advantage. We have unloaded fast at the road and street courses this season so our goal is to continue this in Miami."
A drastically reduced commute to the track will allow him more time to concentrate on the new challenge as well as greet the many fans and friends that plan to attend.
"It's not only a home race for me, I only live one block away. Just the friends of mine that are planning to come will probably pack the place. Everyone has been talking about this race since it was added to the schedule. As I live really close to the track, I can either get to the track my bike or by scooter. I have friends from Miami and Brazil who are coming to the race. Miami is where the biggest population of Brazilians live outside is Brazil so I'm sure a lot of Brazilians will be at the race. They are at most of our races and it's good that we have been able to give them something to cheer about. They follow open-wheel racing and soccer - they go everywhere for those two things. It's going to be nice to race in front of the crowd in Miami. Every time you race in front of a lot of people from your home, it makes you feel special and important."
If da Matta and the Chevron crew are able to win the Championship in Miami, it would be the first time since Alex Zanardi clinched the 1998 Championship with four races to go. It would also mark the fourth CART Championship for NHR after Mario Andretti (1984), Michael Andretti (1991) and Nigel Mansell (1993) earned the honor for the Lincolnshire, Ill.-based team. Although Junqueira poses the biggest threat to da Matta there are actually a total of three drivers that still have a mathematical shot at the Championship - Junqueira (58 points back), Dario Franchitti (65 back) and Patrick Carpentier (76 back) with a maximum of 91 points available over the four events.
Street and road courses have suited da Matta and his Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone combination well in qualifying this season as he has started in the front row in three of the four street circuits this year. Unfortunately he only won one of the four street races so far this season although he led three of the four events. He led 30 laps on the streets of Long Beach before a collision while leaving his pit box diminished his chance of a fourth consecutive record-matching victory and a drive shaft failure in Vancouver after he led 36 laps limited his number of potential overall victories. He has led 444 of his 526 laps this season on road and street courses - more than double any other driver on this type of course and has scored 152 of his 191 points on these types of tracks.
With four opportunities left in the season to return to the top-rung of the podium, da Matta also has an opportunity to match or better Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr.'s record for most wins in a season of eight (Andretti in 1991, Unser Jr. in 1994). The possibility of him winning at least two of the remaining four events is improved by the fact that he is the defending winner at the two tracks CART raced on in 2001 (Australia and Fontana) and he has run well on tracks like in Miami and Mexico City. Although he is not one to yearn to break records simply to get his name in the record books, he admitted that he missed the thrill of victory.
After finishing second in Montreal, third in Denver and second in England he said "We've finished on the podium the past three races but I'm going to try to get back to the top step because I miss the feeling of the win. It's been too long. When you feel like you have a car capable of winning and you don't, you have a small bad feeling in your stomach."
NHR has sights on not only the Championship but could also finish as high as second place with Lilly driver Christian Fittipaldi who currently ranks fifth place with a total of 98 points. Fittipaldi not only scored his highest finish of the season of second place at Laguna Seca and Mid-Ohio and finished third in Monterrey, Mexico and Toronto, he ran in podium contention in Long Beach, Chicago, Cleveland, Vancouver, and Denver before a variety of circumstances dropped his finish. Fittipaldi leads a group of eight drivers that could climb as high as second in the championship by season's end.
Miami is not only a home race for Fittipaldi, it is also the site of his Champ car debut in 1995 when he moved to the series from Formula One to compete for Walker Racing. He finished fifth in the event and was the highest rookie finisher. He looks forward to finishing the season strong and collecting the podium finishes that looked to be his for the taking earlier this year.
"There are four more races left this season and we are going to try to win one or more of them and close the gap (in points) to Shorty (da Matta) and finish as high as possible in the Championship," said Fittipaldi. "I'll actually get to sleep in my own bed during a race weekend. I think the race will be great because it's downtown. There are many drivers who live in the Miami area so it's going to be a big party for all of our friends while we are working. We had a huge crowd for the last race we had downtown and the atmosphere was like CART races in Long Beach, Surfers Paradise and our races in Canada. I don't see why the event won't be as good or better than it was the last time we were in town."
NHR's has won six of the eight victories this season for engineer manufacturer Toyota's and Fittipaldi and the Lilly team would like nothing more than to help Toyota clinch the Manufacturers Championship by adding to their total. Toyota currently leads the standings with 266 points, while Honda (234) and Ford-Cosworth (192) lurk nearby. The two known quantities - the street course in Australia and the Superspeedway in Fontana - have been good venues for the Brazilian as he has finished as high as third in Australia and won the 2000 Marlboro 500 in Fontana and he has also run well on tracks similar to the ones in Miami and Mexico City. His first of four remaining opportunities to meet this goal in Champ cars will come this weekend in Miami with numerous Brazilians, Florida natives and sponsors expected to witness the action.
"It will be a smaller street course but it will be interesting," said Fittipaldi who has scored 85 of his 98 points this season on road and street courses. "It will be very important to get a good starting position because passing will be tough. Not only are there going to be plenty of Brazilians and local fans to help root for us but Lilly is going to have many guests at this race so it would be nice to bring home a good finish for them too."
Returning to a strong markets like Miami for a street race has proven to be a boon for CART as the series has announced that fan attendance has already topped the 900,000 mark just for the street events and is over 1.8 million for the 15 races held to date. In addition to on-track entertainment, many off-track activities have been scheduled free of charge for ticket holders. Internationally renowned jazz flautist Nestor Torres will play Friday, October 4th at 6:30 p.m. at the Pioneer Stage at the Bayfront Park Amphitheatre while The Pioneer Rock-N-Roar Concert Series will resume on Saturday, October 5th at 7:30 p.m. with Grammy Award-winning rock band TRAIN. Arista Records recording artists Boyz II Men will perform the National Anthem prior to the start of Sunday's CART race.
Friday's qualifying will air from 2:00-3:30 p.m. and CART Friday Night will air earlier than usual at 7:00 p.m. the same night. Saturday's qualifying session will be broadcast live from 1:30-3:00 p.m. The Grand Prix Americas will be broadcast live on CBS Sports beginning at 1:00 p.m. All times are Eastern.