Opening round joy for Cristiano
12 March 2001
Cristiano Da Matta scored his second career CART victory on his debut appearance for the Newman-Haas team in the Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix beating defending CART Champion Gil De Ferran to the flag in a gruelling two-hour time limit race.
Newman-Haas Racing have a habit of winning the opening round of the Fed-Ex Championship Series especially when a river named Andretti is behind the wheel but on a day where there was no Andretti in Newman-Haas colours for the first time since 1983, Cristiano Da Matta continued that fine tradition in his debut race for the team who were also running with the Lola-Toyota chassis/engine combination for the very first time.
Da Matta's victory was his first on a road course after his first win on the Chicago short-oval last August and the 27-year old Brazilian coped superbly with a track that began to break up early in the 78 lap race, cut by two laps owing to CART's two-hour time limit on non-oval race tracks. With just one, narrow racing line and plenty of slippery stuff inches off-line, Da Matta drove a faultless race as he led the most laps and held off Gil De Ferran by a fraction under two seconds at the flag after his team-mate Christian Fittipaldi brought out a late race caution when he became the third driver to smack the Turn 12 wall.
Starting from the outside of the front row, Da Matta followed pole-sitter Kenny Brack for the opening 44 laps of the race that included two caution periods for separate wall-banging incidents and the ridiculously slippery final turn as first Max Wilson and then Roberto Moreno came to grief.
Last season's Rookie of the Year Brack, driving Team Rahal's first race with a Lola chassis for some time, was able to hang on to his lead away from each re-start and was quite content to run roughly three seconds ahead of Da Matta, Helio Castroneves and De Ferran in the two Team Penske Reynard-Honda's and Michael Andretti in the similar Team Motorola example.
However on lap 44 the Swedish driver suddenly slowed on the far side of the circuit with an inexplicable loss of power and Da Matta was through just as Brack's car regained power in time to keep him in second. To ad further confusion to the issue, Brack then quickly erased the two-second lead he had given Da Matta and by lap 47 the top two were together with Brack looking very determined to re-take the lead.
Almost too determined as it turned out as after a couple of half chances, Brack committed himself on the run into Turn Eleven on lap 52 and powered down the inside of Da Matta only to run wide on the dusty surface and overshoot the turn, almost taking Da Matta with him onto the grass.
Brack lost several seconds as he fought to regain the prepared surface and that time was to prove costly four laps later when he made his second and final fuel stop, Da Matta pitting one lap later and coming out with a sizable advantage. Brack's lost time even allowed Paul Tracy, who had risen from 14th on the grid to sixth prior to the final stops, to close right up to the Shell sponsored machine as they exited the pits and De Ferran was able to get out ahead of the Swedish driver when he made his stop on lap 58.
Moving into the picture at this stage was Dario Franchitti in the second Team KOOL Green Reynard-Honda, the Scottish driver reaping the benefits of good fuel mileage in the early going and staying on the track until lap 59, setting the fastest lap of the race on his final flying lap, 1 minute 15.403 seconds only two tenths slower than Brack's pole-time.
Ninth before the final round of stops began, Franchitti left the pits in third place and was within striking distance of Da Matta and De Ferran when news filtered through that the Scot had incurred a pit-lane speeding penalty and had to serve a drive-through penalty. The resulting 'slow' lap dropped a disconsolate Franchitti back to ninth, right where he was before the stops.
Up at the front, Da Matta looked very much in control and was able to keep De Ferran at least two seconds back as Tracy snatched third from Brack and began to close down the Number One machine. Brack also lost fourth place to Andretti when he ran wide at Turn One on lap 64, the Swedish driver battling an understeering car as well as badly graining Firestone tyres.
Any thoughts Da Matta may have had of an easy run to the flag came to an end on lap 67 when Fittipaldi brushed the wall, ending a miserable race for the Brazilian who was running way down in 17th at the time. The resulting caution period may have brought the entire field back together but it also reduced the amount of racing time remaining as CART's two-hour rule came into play.
Originally scheduled for 80 laps, the green flag fell for the final time on lap 73 with enough time left for five racing laps and, sensing the potential danger from behind, Da Matta quickly pulled out a one-second advantage over De Ferran on the first green flag lap. The gap back to second grew to two seconds the next lap as De Ferran fought off the attentions of Tracy and although the Canadian challenge was finally broken, the initial delay proved too much for De Ferran to recover and he crossed the line 1.982 seconds behind his countryman. A podium finish for the defending Champion was more than welcome after a winter in which he suffered two bad accidents and a weekend in which he managed to contract food-poisoning.
Tracy was more than pleased with his run through the field on a day where over-taking was risky at the best of times and he finished less than a second behind De Ferran and more than two second ahead of Andretti who ran a solid race from fifth place on the grid.
Brack felt he could have done more than his final fifth position, especially as Bobby Rahal had flown out to the track especially for the event while Jimmy Vasser battled inside the top ten all day and headed home a gaggle of cars in sixth place for the Patrick Racing team. Both Vasser and Tony Kanaan who came home seventh, were able to pass the ailing Castroneves in the closing stage after the Team Penske driver lost fourth gear and gradually began to eat into his clutch, eighth place at the flag not just reward for a competitive weekend.
Franchitti was ninth but in no mood to celebrate after a stupid mistake cost him a potential race win, Dario made too many of them last year and he must completely eradicate them if he is to sustain a Championship challenge as he did in 1999, this time over 21 rounds.
First rookie home in tenth position was Tora Takagi in Derrick Walker's Reynard-Toyota, the Japanese driver staying on the circuit throughout the race and deservedly heading home a rather lacklustre Nicolas Minassian in the best placed of the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing Lola-Toyota's. In fact, Minassian was very lucky to score points at all after several drivers hit trouble in the closing laps but his race was tame compared to that of his team-mate Bruno Junqueira.
The 24-year old reigning Formula 3000 Champion had been one of the more frequent spinners this weekend prior to the race and his resulting 20th starting position reflected his over-exuberance. However he was not at fault for his first lap rotation which really set the ball rolling as he was tapped in the rear by an impatient Alex Zanardi in Turn Seven, the CART rescue team taking two laps to restart the Brazilian who then got the safety tow rope caught in his left rear wheel and had to make a precautionary pit-stop to check for damage. He returned to the track in almost the exact same place he had first left it only stone last and well out of contention.
A further spin and some brief contact with Minassian of all people ensued as he fought to get back into contention but a nightmarish CART debut was brought to a premature end on lap 57 when mechanical problems caused his retirement.
Behind Minassian in the final points-scoring position was a lacklustre Max Papis who only scored a point when Scott Dixon, Bryan Herta, Michel Jourdain Jr and Adrian Fernandez hit late race problems. Dixon led the race between laps 22 and 38 on his CART debut as he, Fernandez and Herta tried a different fuel strategy to the leaders and chose not to pit with the rest of the field on lap 21 after Moreno had brought out the caution. Both Herta and Fernandez surrendered their second and third spots to Brack shortly after the re-start on lap 29 but Dixon resolutely stuck to his guns in the PacWest Racing Reynard-Toyota until making his stop on lap 38.
The 20-year old New Zealander took the final re-start in tenth but was forced to back off in the final laps as his tank ran dry, eventually finishing 13th and one place away from a Championship point. Herta came home 16th after a precautionary late stop while Fernandez, who held almost God-like status amongst the 150,000 fans that crammed their way into the stands on race-day, sadly retired his self-owned Reynard-Honda from 12th place three laps from home when he ran out of fuel.
Fellow Mexican Jourdain Jr in the Herdez Bettenhausen Lola-Ford should have inherited what would have been a tremendously popular 12th place in the absence of Dixon, Heart and Fernandez only to find himself running out of fuel and eventually dropping to 17th, the last car on the lead lap.
Of those who failed to finish, Zanardi eventually called it a day after an uncharacteristic drive that included contact with Junqueira, Andretti and Shinji Nakano while both Player's/Forsythe Reynard-Ford's suffered engine failures while running in top ten positions.
The Fed-Ex teams now have almost a month to prepare for the next round of the series around the streets of Long Beach on April 8th and although there is still a loooong way to go, you can bet that Da Matta and the rest of the Newman-Haas team will be cherishing what is by now a rather familiar feeling, leading the points table after the opening round. The question is, can they sustain it?