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
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
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.
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