CHAMPCAR/CART: Vancouver: Newman/Haas Racing preview

Newman/Haas Racing aims for second Canadian win of the season at this weekend's Molson Indy Vancouver - one of three Canadian races in the 2002 CART FedEx Series. VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada (July 25, 2002) --- Newman/Haas Racing (NHR)...

Newman/Haas Racing aims for second Canadian win of the season at this weekend's Molson Indy Vancouver - one of three Canadian races in the 2002 CART FedEx Series.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada (July 25, 2002) --- Newman/Haas Racing (NHR) takes its championship hopes north of the border this weekend as the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) FedEx Series holds its 10th of 19 races this season with the running of the Molson Indy Vancouver. Held on a 1.781-mile temporary street circuit located on Concord Pacific Place in Vancouver, NHR hopes team drivers, Cristiano da Matta and Christian Fittipaldi can continue the successful runs they have had in the first half of the season.

Another one of CART's famed street courses, NHR is confident that their competitive road/street course Champ car setup will yield favorable results again this weekend in Vancouver. NHR has a history of taking home trophies from road and street course events. Of their total 66 victories in this, their 20th season, NHR has won 43 of their victories on road/street courses including three in Vancouver. With the potent combination of Toyota engines, Lola chassis, and Bridgestone tires, this season has been no different, as road/street courses have brought NHR four victories, seven podium finishes, and four poles.

If there is a driver on the CART FedEx circuit who should be confident of his chances of leaving Vancouver with a trophy, it would be da Matta. Road/street courses have been his expertise as four of his five wins this season have come on those tracks. "We have been pretty competitive on the street courses we have run on so far this season so hopefully that will carry over to the Molson Vancouver race," da Matta said.

From his performances behind the wheel of the stealth black No. 6 Chevron Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone, the 28-year-old bachelor has filled his trophy case (AKA coffee table, kitchen bar and etc.) already this season and has become a fixture at the top of the CART FedEx championship points standings. After winning four races in a row, which tied the CART record of consecutive wins, an honor he shares with Al Unser Jr. (1990) and Alex Zanardi (1998), he looks to start a new set of consecutive race wins and extend his points lead to secure a championship season.

"Our streak ended at four in a row so now we'll just have to start a new one," said da Matta who was en route to earning a CART record fifth consecutive victory in Cleveland before mechanical failure while leading ended his bid. "I'm really not concentrating on that though, I'm concentrating on fighting for the Championship. There have only been two races so far this season that we haven't scored any points so we need to make sure that number stays at two. If we can consistently have top-four, top-five finishes for the rest of the season, we should be in good shape to be a contender at the end of the year."

Tallying up 150 points in just nine races, da Matta has built a sizeable lead of 50 points over his nearest challenger, second place Bruno Junqueira, which is the largest lead any CART driver has held after nine races under the current scoring system, which went into effect in 1983. Da Matta's winning ways have put the rest of the competition in battle mode as they try and catch up to the 28-year-old's tenacious start to the season.

While da Matta can't put his finger on any one thing that has made him so successful up to the mid point of the season, he can attribute several factors that have allowed him to park his car in victory lane so many times. He said, "There isn't one specific thing that has put us in this position - it is many things. The Chevron team has given me a good car and performed good pit stops, the Toyota engine has been good, and the Lola chassis and Bridgestone tires have also been good so it is a combination of everything working well together at the same time. There are so many elements necessary for success in racing so it's not unusual to not finish a race once in a while due to these things. Luckily for us, these things all worked so well together for a good stretch of races that we were able to build a small amount of points to carry us over if we had a bad race like we did in Cleveland."

A "good stretch of races" may be an understatement as da Matta's hot streak of race performances began to heat up at the end of 2001 CART Fed Ex Series. Of the past 11 CART races, dating back to last season, da Matta has won the past seven CART FedEx events, dating back to his win in Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia in October, 2001. At the season-opener in Monterrey, Mexico, da Matta won his third consecutive event for the first time in the CART FedEx Series (Australia and Fontana in 2001 and Mexico in 2002). At Toronto, da Matta extended his consecutive win streak to four with victories in addition to his wins in Laguna Seca, Portland, and Chicago.

Making his fourth Champ car start on the streets of Vancouver, da Matta hopes to return to winners circle for the first time since he won Indy Lights races here in 1997 and again in 1998 when he clinched the Indy Lights Championship. A win looked possible last season in Vancouver, after da Matta led three laps before he was forced to enter a closed pit during a caution period or run out of fuel on course. The subsequent drive through penalty dropped him back in the field and he ultimately finished 20th. Despite the disappointment, the team was encouraged by their return to competitive form.

"After struggling in the middle of the season last year, we started to improve a few races before Vancouver last September and looked like we could have won the race but we had to pit when the pits weren't open during a caution or run out of fuel on track," recalled da Matta. "We were pretty disappointed with how the race went but optimistic with our performance." After running in third in 2000, he finished seventh as he was forced to pit for a splash of fuel with only five laps to go. He was able to finish fifth in 1999 after starting well back in 17th.

Gaining confidence from last year's run at Vancouver, in addition to his winning efforts so far this season, da Matta is ready for this year's race at Vancouver. He said, "After that we began to pick up some momentum that we have been able to carry over from last year. I'm looking forward to racing again in Vancouver."

However, NHR's winning efforts don't end with da Matta, as Fittipaldi and his No. 11 Lilly Toyota-Lola-Bridgestone has demonstrated his abilities to bring home hardware for the trophy case as well.

Currently in seventh place in the point standings with a total of 58, Fittipaldi has four top-four finishes and has run in the top-three in seven of the nine events. In the season opener in Monterey, Mexico, Fittipaldi finished in third place. In Milwaukee, Fittipaldi was fourth, while earning a second place finish the following race at Laguna Seca. Fittipaldi was on the podium for the third time this season with a third place finish at Toronto. Most recently at Cleveland, Fittipaldi suffered much disappointment, as he was en route to another podium finish and additional championship points. He said, "We have some points to make up after a third place finish fell through our hands at the last race. That one was hard for us to take because it would have put us second in the point standings but everyone is 100 percent focused on doing well in Vancouver and gaining back some positions in the standings."

One competition Fittipaldi and his crewmates have been consistently leading this season is the Craftsman Pit Crew Challenge (CPCC). At the CPCC shootout at end of the year, five teams will compete in the winner-take-all contest when Craftsman will award a custom Waterford Crystal trophy and $50,000 in cash to the victors. Fittipaldi is confident his crew will extend their lead in the CPCC this coming weekend. "The Lilly crew still leads the Craftsman Pit Stop contest and has given me some good stops and will continue to increase their lead in Vancouver," Fittipaldi said.

Last season Fittipaldi finished 11th at Vancouver in his sixth start at the track. In 2000 he finished just off the podium in fourth and was unable to compete in 1999 due to a lingering injury from a test session. In 1998, he finished 14th due to contact late in the race with Richie Hearn. Fittipaldi finished 9th in 1997 because of contact on the last lap and he was on the podium in 1996 with a third place finish after starting in 14th position. In his first Champ car experience at Vancouver, Fittipaldi finished 24th in 1995 as a result of exhaust failure.

Making up some ground on the streets of Vancouver is Fittipaldi's goal, which includes tracking down his teammate da Matta. Fittipaldi said, "I'm looking forward to racing in Vancouver because we have been competitive on the street courses and it is one of my favorite race cities of the season. Cristiano has been able to put together a string of flawless performances and everyone out there has to do the same in order to catch him including us. We've had some good runs in Vancouver in the past and hopefully this year will be no different. We need to start a good string of finishes in this next run of races and close the gap (of points) for the Championship."

Vancouver is the second of three Canadian CART races, the others being in Toronto and Montreal. Both NHR drivers have recognized this enthusiasm for their sport in their previous trip to Toronto this season and are excited to perform for the Canadian CART fans. Of the 19 cities on the schedule this season, both drivers list Vancouver as their favorite.

Still in awe from his winning weekend in Toronto, da Matta is eager to return to Vancouver as he feels he may just have a trick up his sleeve that makes him successful north of the border. He said, "It's one of my favorite race cities! I came to Vancouver earlier this year for a media day and because it was only for one afternoon, I didn't carry any bags with me. The Canadians are always so nice and when I got to the event they gave me all sorts of things. The promoters of the race gave me some cycling socks --because that's all I wear - that had Canadian flags on them. I even received a pair that I consider my formal ones because they are black. I was also given cycling jerseys, sunglasses and other stuff. I had so much stuff, I had to get a bag to carry all of it back on the airplane with me. I wore one of the pairs of socks in (the race in) Toronto and they brought me good luck because I won. I'm planning on wearing a pair of those socks again in Vancouver."

The weekend opens with practice on Friday morning at 10:00 a.m. followed by provisional qualifying at 2:10 p.m. CART Friday Night will be shown on SPEED Channel at 7:30 p.m. Saturday morning will feature another practice at 10:00 a.m. with the final grid set with another qualifying session at 1:45 p.m. Both qualifying outings will be covered by SPEED Channel as well as the Molson Indy Vancouver, beginning at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 28. All times are Pacific Standard Time.

Newman/Haas Racing, owned by actor/race car driver Paul Newman and racing entrepreneur Carl A. Haas, is in the midst of its 20th season in 2002 and is the most successful active competitor with 66 race wins and 67 pole positions in the CART FedEx Championship series. For more information, log on to www.newman-haas.com, www.texaco.com/racing or www.cart.com. The 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series will be broadcast by CBS, Fox and Fox Networks Group, including Speed Channel.

-NHR-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Christian Fittipaldi , Paul Newman