Panasonic Toyota Racing driver Cristiano da Matta reflects on last weekend's Japanese Grand Prix, his first season in F1, and more...

"The Japanese Grand Prix was a fantastic race for the whole Panasonic Toyota Racing team. Olivier [Panis] and I were quick when it counted and for me to finish seventh in our home race was a great result.

"I must say that I was extremely impressed with the Suzuka circuit. As a driver, to get the full Formula One experience you need to drive one of these cars around Suzuka because they are just so fast! All the fast corners mean that the aerodynamics work the whole time and there is just so much grip available to you. Suzuka is a real drivers' track and I enjoyed the challenge of driving on it very much.

"Despite the good result, our weekend didn't run completely smoothly. We had a few set-up problems on Friday, which was why Olivier and I were so comparatively slow in first qualifying. We were 13th [Olivier] and 14th, and neither of us was happy with the balance of our TF103s.

"We did a lot of work overnight on Friday and made a lot of changes to the set-up on Saturday morning, which seemed to work. Immediately we had more traction, and that improved throughout the day as more rubber went down. I don't know how often Suzuka is used, but it certainly felt very green when we arrived.

"It was really thrilling to qualify third, and I wasn't mentally prepared to be in the post-session press conference, which was a new experience, but one, which I hope to get used to next year! My lap had certainly been a good lap, although I think there was still more to come from me because Suzuka is a very difficult track to get right. I think I lost a couple of tenths through the Esses, but otherwise it was a pretty clean lap.

"However, I think I drove a really good race. My car was pretty good in all of my stints and it was good fun to race among the big boys for the second time this year - the first being Barcelona. I enjoyed my battle with Michael [Schumacher], which was a hard but fair fight. Every point is very important to us this year, so I wasn't just going to let him through because he was fighting for the world championship. But I was never going to take him off either, so it was good fun.

"It was important for the team to finish the season with a good result because it gives us a boost as we head into the winter months. Overall, I think this has been a good year for the team, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my first season in Formula One. It is the pinnacle of motor sport and it is everything that I expected: exciting, hard work and fun.

"I think my results have been a little too inconsistent for my liking, but with more experience I hope that will change next year. At least I will know the tracks as well as all the other drivers, so I can get to work straight away on a Friday with the set-up of the car and not waste time finding my way around!

"I am now back in Brazil and will be in Sao Paulo for a two-day mountain bike race this weekend, which should be really hard, but good fun because I love mountain biking. After that, I'll take life a bit slower and relax. My next official engagement for the team is back at Suzuka in the middle of November for the Toyota Motorsports Day, when we celebrate everything we have achieved this year before the 2004 season preparations begin."

Cristiano da Matta.



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