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
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
"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."
COLOR PHOTO: JON FERREY/ALLSPORT (DA MATTA) EASY RIDER Da Matta keeps his team's mood light.
COLOR PHOTO: RYAN REMIORZ/AP Michael Andretti
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