Da Matta - I want to be in Champ Car next year

   by Cássio Côrtes and Mark Cipolloni
November 5, 2004

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As a guest of Newman/Haas during the Mexico City racing weekend, the Brazilian speaks out about his future plans, F1's politics and three peaceful months in his parents' house back in his hometown of Belo Horizonte.

Cristiano da Matta in Mexico City

Theoretically, going back to Champ Car after two seasons of Formula-1 racing isn't the first path of choice of a world-class driver. But Cristiano da Matta seems hardly disappointed with being back among friends in the Newman/Haas hospitality area at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. And rest assured, this is no patting-on-friends'-backs visit: da Matta and his manager, Fernando Paiva, mean business in Mexico City.

"I still have many options open, but my priority is to be back at Champ Car in 2005," says the former Toyota F1 driver. "Of course, it all still depends on sponsorship." One would assume finding the money to run a former series champion to be no hassle, but CDM prefers to keep a poker face: "You never know until the deal is signed. Really, you gotta ask Carl [Haas] about it."

After being, as fellow Brazilian (and likely future teammate) Bruno Junqueira defined at Road America, "royally screwed" by Toyota F1, da Matta has used the last three months to do something he hasn't been able to for the past ten years: spend quality time with his loved ones in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

"Yeah, I did a lot of stuff I missed doing," he starts, with a juvenile grin. "Like racing my bike and sleeping after lunch. I think my parents [da Matta's father, Toninho, was a multiple touring-car champion in Brazil] were about to kick me out of the house already. Even my girlfriend was getting sick of me." Yet there's no doubt Cristiano is a racer's racer, and he eventually admits the tough side of watching from the sidelines: "It's hard to have to watch it on TV. I miss the preparations and the excitement of a race weekend."

Although F1 is a dog-eat-dog world - "There's no comparing the atmosphere here and there," he reckons - da Matta admits that Champ Car isn't quite at the level it enjoyed when he left. "I think the 2000 and 2001 seasons had the highest level of competition in series history, and you just can't go back to that overnight. But the level of the drivers right now is really good, even if the level of the teams still has a bit to improve."

"I think the last two years were very good to me," he continues. "With all the testing there is in F1, I can say I've never driven a race car so much in my life." But how valid was that experience, given the fact all that driving seldom got Toyota beyond struggling with Jaguar and Jordan at the bottom half of the pack? He ponders for a bit before poking at his former team: "See, that's what I like about Champ Car. At the end of the day, there is a difference between the cars here. But it's never a three-second difference."

It would probably be easy for da Matta to dismiss F1 as "all politics," but 'Kiki', in the typical easy-going fashion of the 'Mineiros' (Belo Horizonte natives), carries no regrets. "Of course, in retrospective, it would be easy to say that I should have stayed in Champ Cars," he says. "But back then, [moving to F1] was the right thing to do." If anything, CDM has learned - or confirmed - that sportsmanship isn’t much of a priority inside Bernie’s circus: “We can all be pretty sure Ferrari will continue to dominate next year, and, even though it’s hard to say from the outside, we can take for granted that Michael’s way will always be done over Rubens’.”

Da Matta's manager, Fernando Paiva, has estimated the chances of a Newman/Haas deal at "eighty percent." In case those odds hold, a da Matta vs. Bourdais vs. Junqueira duel, all three running identical equipment, could be the most exciting thing to happen to Champ Car in a few years. Being part of a three-car armada would be no concern for Cristiano, at least not in the Newman/Haas team: "If Carl [Haas] says he can run three cars, then he can do it right."

And if Carl manages to run one for da Matta next year, chances are, 'Kiki' will drive it right.


Mark Cipolloni contributed to this story

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