F1 Rookie da Matta trying to regain CART winning ways
Posted: Wednesday September 10, 2003 9:07PM; Updated: Wednesday September 10, 2003 9:07PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- Cristiano da Matta's first year in Formula One has gone just about the way he figured it would -- not very well.
A season ago, he was closing in on the CART series title, with six of his seven victories already in hand. Now, heading into Sunday's Italian Grand Prix, the F1 rookie is simply trying to be competitive.
"When I moved here I was not expecting to win any races," da Matta said. "When I decided to come here, I knew it was going to be more of a long-term project."
That means there's a certain amount of frustration for a driver accustomed to running up front.
"It's still not close to where I want it to be, but I'll keep working and try to keep on progressing," he said. "I think the result has been OK. Overall, I'm not unhappy."
Driving for Toyota, da Matta's best performances in 13 races this season are sixth-place finishes in Spain and Germany and a seventh-place run in England.
But after four years moving up the ladder in CART, the Brazilian driver isn't surprised by his mostly middle-of-the-pack efforts -- especially because his team is only in its second year on the world-hopping F1 circuit.
Gustav Brunner, Toyota's F1 designer, is one of da Matta's biggest fans.
"He's learning all the circuits and, coming from CART, he has made a very good transition," Brunner said. "He's a very reliable, consistent driver, but Formula One is a lot more technical than CART, and this is where you need the time for him to adapt."
Da Matta quickly found out the differences are huge between the similar-looking cars in CART and F1.
"The hardest thing on the learning curve is just the car handles so different to a Champ Car or to anything I've ever driven in my life," da Matta said. "It demands such a different driving style, too, that we have to start learning to do some things that are not natural. So it just takes time and mileage."
Another big difference between the two open-wheel circuits is the makeup of the teams.
"In CART, you work with less people," da Matta said. "Changes are easier to make inside the team. There is more communication from people to people.
"In F1, you are talking about a team that has over 500 people. Some of the things take a little longer to happen, and I don't think I'm 100-percent adapted to that."
But da Matta will have the time to get more familiar with the cars, the tracks and the Toyota team. He and teammate Olivier Panis have signed to return in 2004.
For da Matta, that is more proof that he made the right decision to leave CART and that his progress is on schedule.
"To do a big change in my career, as I've done, to only spend one year would be, of course, quite frustrating," he said. "So, I'm glad that I'm going to get a chance in the second season, because I really feel that I can do much better than I'm doing this year."
Going to Monza, one of three races remaining this season, da Matta is 12th in points, two places ahead of his veteran teammate.
"Some people feel very positive about the progress we've made so far," da Matta said. "I think, for sure, we've been proving ourselves this year to the whole Formula One community."
A victory before the end of the season would really be a big step for da Matta and the team, but the diminutive driver isn't getting his hopes up.
"Being realistic, I don't think it's right for me to say that I can win a race, because I think it's still out of our reach," he said. "It's more realistic to say we'll continue to fight for points -- and maybe we can dream about a podium (top-three) finish."