For any driver changing disciplines, there has to be a period of adjustment and this proved no different for Cristiano da Matta, the 2002 Champ Car titleholder who spent the last 1.5 seasons with Formula One's Panasonic Toyota team. By the time...
For any driver changing disciplines, there has to be a period of adjustment and this proved no different for Cristiano da Matta, the 2002 Champ Car titleholder who spent the last 1.5 seasons with Formula One's Panasonic Toyota team.
By the time the Brazilian was relieved of his duties in F1, he was actually glad to get away, finding the atmosphere on the team stifling and the opportunities minimal. Returning to competition with PKV Racing's third year Champ Car squad, da Matta spent the first few races getting to know the changes that had been made to the series he left and adjusting to them.
When he returned to Champ Car, da Matta found the landscape quite changed. Now there is a single engine manufacturer, Ford-Cosworth, a sole chassis (Lola), different pit rules, different Bridgestone Potenza tires, different power applications. Traction control is gone, pit windows are gone and the scenario is better, he believes for drivers.
"The first 97 percent of my adjustment happened quickly," da Matta confirmed. "The last little bit takes longer. With no traction control you have to relearn the car. With no pit windows you can go faster and save fuel at the same time. The option tire, the red tire is different - and last weekend was only the second time I used the red tires. Put all those changes together and I'm still just getting back" his rhythm.
Da Matta's rhythm returned in a big way this past weekend in the G.I. Joe's Presents the Champ Car Grand Prix of Portland. Despite starting mid-pack in the 18-car field, da Matta was able to move up, thanks to strategy from PKV general manager Jim McGee and the innate goodness of his #21 Bell Micro Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone machine.
The result of McGee's plotting was the victory: the first Champ Car win for PKV Racing, da Matta's 12th career victory and, actually, his second straight at Portland International Raceway, on a 1.964-mile natural road course reconfigured to produce safer conditions.
"Our pit strategy was to get Cristiano clean air," McGee confirmed. "It's great to have our new pit rules that allow you, with a fast car and good start some options (in a 105-lap contest). It was a calculated risk for us to bring him in early in the race. Our car was capable of a top five finish but we had a poor qualifying session due to traffic and other things," McGee said.
"Your car has to be fast enough, as Cristiano showed, to get to the front and pull away. This first win for the team gives us momentum and gives our crew confidence we can do it," McGee continued. The team is progressing steadily "as Jimmy [Vasser] showed in Milwaukee. He had the pole and led laps. We knew it was there if you get the right pieces and this time we used Jimmy's setup for Cristiano in the race. It paid off."
Team co-owners Vasser, Kevin Kalkhoven and Dan Pettit used the off-season to upgrade their team, adding the talents of Jim McGee, Tom Brown (from HVM) and improving PKV's corps of engineers and mechanics. "It feels great to get our first win," Pettit declared, "but there is still a long way to go."
Pettit has "gained so much and learned so much" since he began this venture with Kalkhoven. "I don't think I appreciated how difficult it is to win but I've gotten into it. Each week we gain a lot and, with the changes we made over the winter, we've gained tremendously from a technical standpoint. It shows how the work we've done is taking us in the right direction," with da Matta's Sunday victory.
Da Matta's previous visit to Victory Lane came in the waning 2002 at his Miami "home" track. "It feels great to be in Victory Lane because it's not good not to win as a driver. When you get back you realize you can still do it so it is a boost to your confidence and for everyone on the team. I feel I can contend."
The Brazilian knew he had a good chance to win "when I saw the yellow on lap 47. It was very beneficial for us because when the others stopped, we could still stay out. The team gave me a good enough car to pull away and get a sizable gap," da Matta explained.
McGee believes the PKV squad needs to work a bit more on qualifying but as a whole the team arrives at many of this season's 14 races without much of a database. "Some weekends, including Portland, we're a day behind the Newman/Haas, Forsythe teams because we don't have data. We've been able to progress and get better but this week we didn't come up with a solution until Sunday morning."
That key was veteran Vasser's setup, which McGee & Co. transferred to da Matta's machine and enabled PKV to be competitive. "Jimmy is the rock in our organization and these guys are a dream duo. There's tremendous cooperation that filters down. We are one team, not separate egos and I believe Jimmy will win again. He just needs a few breaks," McGee advised.
McGee brought da Matta in for his first stop on the lucky 13th lap after he'd been mired in a traffic jam. That move put him back in 16th but da Matta began to claw his way, emerging in ninth place on the 30th lap. Calling at the pits a second time on the 44th lap, da Matta was able to move up when the leaders pitted on lap 49, leading for all but the final exchange of pit stops.
Da Matta used the red, option Bridgestone on his first and third stints (da Matta's third stop came on lap 75) and felt the different, grippy tire made a big difference in his ability to move up, as did Champ Car's "power to pass" button. "In the past we missed passing opportunities by a tiny little bit, lacking power and going through traffic. This gives a little bit of help," he confirmed. "It's a great way Champ Car came up with to help make the racing better."
With a good car, good strategy and good team, Cristiano da Matta was able to lead the most laps at Portland (50) and make the biggest upward move of all 18 competitors. He goes to Cleveland this weekend fourth in points and with momentum on his side. "For me and for the team, it's good to know we are going in the right direction. Now we need to be more confident with what we do.
"Cleveland is so different because of how wide it is and how many options (for driving sight-lines) you have. It is a difficult track because it is quite bumpy with fast corners. I expect to do well here with all of the progress we've made."