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Fast Study
Mark Bechtel
September 23, 2002
In just his third year in CART, Cristiano da Matta is speeding toward the winningest season ever
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September 23, 2002

Fast Study

In just his third year in CART, Cristiano da Matta is speeding toward the winningest season ever

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Racing For a Record
Cristiano da Matta, who finished first in five of his 15 starts this year, needs three wins in his final four races to tie the CART mark for victories in a season. Here are the drivers who are ahead of da Matta on that list.

Driver

Year

Wins

Total Races

Michael Andretti

1991

8

17

Al Unser Jr.

1994

8

16

Bobby Rahal

1986

7

17

Alex Zanardi

1998

7

19

Juan Montoya

1999

7

20

As important as a heavy foot and steady hands are in racing, CART's Cristiano da Matta has shown that sometimes a driver's greatest assets are his feel for a car and his mouth. Last year when da Matta took over Michael Andretti's seat at Newman/Haas racing—a team that had been together for years and was largely set in its ways—his car was handling terribly, especially entering turns, and his engineers had no idea how to fix it. That's when da Matta spoke up.

"Cristiano helped us untangle a bit of a mess with the car," says Peter Gibbons, the senior engineer for Newman/Haas. "These were fundamental vehicle-dynamic problems that he was able to give us a clear picture of. We had lost that clear picture the past two or three years. His abilities to communicate with an engineer and get to the solution are exceptional. Toward the end of the year we sorted it out, and we've reaped the benefits this year."

After winning the last two races of the 2001 season, da Matta has made a mockery of this year's championship series, opening with a win in the Monterrey Grand Prix in Mexico on March 10, then winning four straight races (equaling the CART record held by Al Unser Jr. and Alex Zanardi) in June and early July. He could have made it six in a row, but mechanical troubles bounced him—and what looked to be a car capable of winning—from the next two races. As of Sunday, with four races left in the season, da Matta had a 58-point lead in the standings and was three wins short of the CART record for victories in a season.

Da Matta turns 29 this month and he's been on the CART circuit for only three seasons, but Gibbons says the Brazilian driver is already as adept as Emerson Fittipaldi and Rick Mears (two retired open-wheel legends with whom Gibbons had worked) were at providing critical feedback on car performance. At the same time, Gibbons has played no small role in da Matta's blazing start. Last year he was da Matta's race engineer, which required Gibbons to work up race and pit strategies. "As a track engineer, he had to worry about too many things that didn't allow him to think about just the performance of the car," says da Matta.

This year Gibbons's role was changed, allowing him to pay more attention to the cars of da Matta and his teammate, Christian Fittipaldi (Emerson's nephew), while the highly regarded Guillaume (Rocky) Rocquelin was brought in to be da Matta's race engineer. Rocquelin and da Matta hit it off, which isn't surprising considering that da Matta hits it off with nearly everyone. He's a tireless worker, but at the same time he's laid-back. He loves playing guitar and jamming with his brothers, Gustavo and Felipe, in the studio at their father's house in Brazil.

Da Matta has a knack for keeping things light. For the past two years, for instance, he has worn cartoonish cycling socks nearly everywhere, including weddings and black-tie dinners. "Every day you wonder what he's got on," says Gibbons. "You just look down and chuckle. I think the Tasmanian Devil ones are my favorite. He keeps everybody loose when the pressure's on."

The socks may inspire laughs, but da Matta is serious about cycling, which he does to stay in shape. In addition to running about 20 miles a week, he'll often disappear for hours on his bike.

"I've never seen him come in [off the track] out of breath," says Gibbons. "A lot of guys you'll see come in huffing and puffing after a few laps. [With da Matta] it's a sign of how in control of the situation he is."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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  ARTICLES GALLERIES COVERS
Cristiano Da Matta 1 0 0
Peter Gibbons 1 0 0
Alex Zanardi 9 0 0
Al Unser Jr. 23 0 0
Michael Andretti 10 0 0