Vanderbilt Cup chase ends but fierce battles still to be waged as CART FedEx Championship Series heads to Australia's Surfers Paradise. INDIANAPOLIS (October 17, 2002) -Cristiano da Matta ( ...
Vanderbilt Cup chase ends but fierce battles still to be waged as CART FedEx Championship Series heads to Australia's Surfers Paradise.
INDIANAPOLIS (October 17, 2002) -Cristiano da Matta (#6 Caltex/Havoline Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) may have spent the last two weeks clearing space in his ever-growing trophy room for the Vanderbilt Cup, but having captured the spoils of war does not necessarily signify the end of the fight.
Da Matta clinched the 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series title with a win at the Grand Prix Americas in Miami but the Brazilian still has a target to shoot for as two wins in the year's final three races would give the Newman/Haas driver the all-time CART record for wins in a single season with nine. He claimed his seventh victory of the year with the Miami win and is now headed to a track where he has already worn the victor's laurel wreath, as the series champ enters the October 27 Honda Indy 300 as the defending race winner.
Mechanical problems for polesitter Roberto Moreno allowed da Matta to assume the lead in last year's Australia event with 14 laps to go and from there it was simply a matter of pulling away from Michael Andretti (#39 Motorola Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) and taking the win. Da Matta built a lead of 5.786 seconds by the time the checkered flag would fly, extending the streak that has seen 11 different drivers win in CART's 11 trips to the Gold Coast.
But da Matta's pursuit of the CART record of eight wins in a season held by Andretti (1991) and Al Unser Jr. ('94) is not the only point of interest for the crowd - expected to top 300,000 for the three days that CART is on track - to follow as the 800hp Champ Cars scream around the 2.795-mile Surfers Paradise street course.
Bruno Junqueira (#4 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) leads a pack of 11 drivers that still have a chance to finish second in the championship, and enters the weekend with a 14-point lead on the competition. Junqueira has quietly put together a strong season of his own, drawing out the championship fight despite da Matta's seven wins by putting together a run of five top-five finishes in the last six races. The Denver winner will be looking to reverse the fortunes from last year's rookie trip to Australia where he started and finished 21st.
Most of the drivers in the fight for the runnerup spot in the championship, which pays $500,000 at the end of the season, will be looking to draw on past experience to tell the tale in Australia. In all, six of the starters in the Honda Indy 300 have Australia wins on their resume - which is the highest number of previous event winners of any race on the 2002 schedule. Da Matta heads a list of former Gold Coast winners at this event that includes Andretti, Paul Tracy (#26 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone), Jimmy Vasser (#8 Shell Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), Dario Franchitti (#27 KOOL Honda/Lola/Bridgestone) and Adrian Fernandez (#51 Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Honda/Lola/Bridgestone).
Of the sextet, only Fernandez is out of the hunt for a top-three finish in the championship, but the Mexican veteran could be the most dangerous of the six. Last year's 19th-place finish ended a streak of four consecutive points-paying runs for Fernandez - a run that includes a podium in 1999 and the win in 2000. Fernandez is still searching for his first win of the year but has been strong in qualifying, joining Junqueira as the only drivers to win poles on a road course and an oval this season.
Franchitti is another driver that will be looking to reverse his bad fortunes Down Under and get back to old form in the quest for the runner-up slot. One of only three drivers (Andretti, Nigel Mansell) to win two Gold Coast poles, Franchitti scored in his first three trips to the Australian street course including podiums in 1998 and '99. The last two visits have not been as kind however despite qualifying in the top five in each of the last two years, the Rockingham winner has failed to place in the top 20.
Patrick Carpentier (#32 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) and Christian Fittipaldi (#11 Lilly Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) are slotted in behind the third-placed Franchitti in the standings and are separated by just one point as they head to Australia. Fittipaldi moved to within one digit of the Canadian driver with his second-place finish in Miami and will be making his seventh Australia start. Carpentier will be taking the green flag for the sixth time and will be searching for his first Gold Coast podium. The Mid-Ohio winner has been at his best on the twisty courses this year, standing second in the series in laps led on CART's road and street courses. The Player's/Forsythe squad does have a podium finisher in the stable however as Alex Tagliani (#33 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) rolled to a third-place finish in last year's event.
Vasser returns to the site of his CART debut from 1992 with his trek to Australia and will be looking to repeat his 1996 win from the pole as he continues his late-season charge. Vasser, who along with Andretti has the most Gold Coast starts with 10, has strung six points-paying finishes together capped by a third-place run in Miami and has climbed from 12th in the points to a tie for eighth with Andretti. The 40-year-old Andretti will tap into his previous experience as he looks to break that tie, having amassed four top-five finishes and three podium runs in Australia, capped by a pair of poles and a race win in 1992. Andretti has been one of the constant threats on the road and street courses this year, standing second in the series in laps completed on the road and street courses and has earned 81 of his 90 championship points on the non-oval tracks.
The hometown fans will have a hero of their own to cheer for as Auckland, New Zealand driver Scott Dixon (#44 Target Toyota/Lola/Bridgestone) makes his second start in Australia. Dixon, who grew up racing open-wheel cars in New Zealand and Australia, had a podium finish in his sights in last year's Honda Indy 300 but was slowed by a mechanical problem that left him 15th.
The breakout season for Team Rahal's Michel Jourdain Jr. (#8 Office Depot Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) continues as he extended his year-long streak of points-paying finishes by climbing from 15th to sixth at Miami. Jourdain, who has topped the 100-point mark for the first time in his seven-year Champ Car career, is bidding to become the first driver since Al Unser Jr. in 1992 to score points in every race of the season. He is no stranger to climbing through the field on the long Queensland street course, having come from 16th on the starting grid to finish seventh in each of the past two years.
The Honda Indy 300 will take place Sunday at 12:00 a.m. Eastern Time and will be broadcast live on SPEED Channel. Championship points will be awarded to the leaders of both Friday and Saturday's qualifying sessions as well, sessions that can be seen live on SPEED Channel, with Friday's run being televised live at 12:00 a.m. Eastern Time on Friday morning with final qualifying slated for an 11:30 p.m. Friday evening start.
Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc. (NYSE: MPH) owns, operates and markets the CART FedEx Championship Series. Newly-crowned 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series champion Cristiano da Matta is among the open-wheel stars competing with teams such as Newman/Haas Racing, Player's/Forsythe Racing, Team Rahal, Fernández Racing, Patrick Racing, Herdez Competition, Mo Nunn Racing, Walker Racing and others. CART Champ Cars are thoroughbred racing machines that reach speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, showcasing the technical expertise of manufacturers such as Ford Motor Company, Lola Cars, Reynard Motorsport and Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire, LLC. The 19-race 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series will be broadcast by new television partners, CBS, FOX and SPEED Channel. CART also owns and operates its top development series, the CART Toyota Atlantic Championship. Learn more about CART's open-wheel racing series at www.cart.com.