Brazilian Cristiano da Matta made his Formula 1 debut this year, after dominating the CART championship in 2002. Here he reflects on his first season in F1, working with the Panasonic Toyota Racing team, leading the British GP, scoring 10 points and loads, loads more. Get reading...

Q:
Cristiano [da Matta], the 2003 F1 season is now over. How would you assess the Toyota TF103 - it's strengths and weaknesses?

Cristiano da Matta:
The consistency was our biggest enemy this year. At some places, for no particular reason, we weren't good enough and could never relate one thing to another to understand why. I think one of the positive points has been our engine, which has been incredibly reliable throughout the season. All in all, we have a very good base from which we can create a well-rounded competitive car for next season.

Q:
Has the car achieved what you thought or did you expect better results?

CdM:
Personally, it was always going to be a tougher season because I was coming into a new series for me with many circuits of which I had no prior knowledge. On most occasions, I only had one hour of free practice on Friday morning before having to qualify. That was tough, but if you look at the results from circuits where I had driven before, I think I showed my true ability. Overall, I believe we deserved more in terms of results, but we have learned a lot during the year and we should be in very good shape for next season.

Q:
You led the British GP for 17 laps. Was the car especially good there?

CdM:
Silverstone was one of the circuits that really suited the TF103 and certainly one of the year's highlights. We tested there a few weeks' before the race and we went there knowing that the car was going to be competitive. I led the race benefiting from some extraordinary incidents on the track, which brought the safety car out. Of course, I have led races before, but it was a special feeling to be leading an F1 race for the first time in my rookie year.

Q:
Was the team's strong performance at the Spanish GP the result of a lot of testing at the Barcelona circuit?

CdM:
Toyota is still a young team with only two years of F1 experience. Barcelona was the first race of the year where everything ran smoothly for us during the entire weekend. I do not think we can attribute our sixth place in Spain purely to testing because every team tests at Barcelona. It was simply that all the pieces of the puzzle came together, like at Hockenheim and Silverstone. It is the sort of performance that we should be aiming for at every race in 2004.

Q:
What aspects of F1 have made the biggest impression on you?

CdM:
The thing that has impressed me the most is the speed everything happens - the development of every part of the car, from the tyres to the chassis and the aerodynamics. This is really amazing compared to all the series I have raced in before. Every race we have something different on the car and that's what marks the difference in F1. You definitely have to pay more attention to the development of the car. On the other hand, in other series, because you cannot play with things, there is more development on the set-up side. Definitely the car is a much bigger thing in F1 and there are so many more areas to work in.

Q:
What you think of the difference in driving standards between CART and Formula 1?

CdM:
I think the fairness in Formula 1 is good and that was well taken care of in CART too. Every time you did something crazy it was not like F3000 or F3. The level is hard to judge because in CART you run very similar cars to everyone but here you are never going to be able to judge against whoever has a better car. But there are a lot of good drivers here, for sure.

Q:
Looking back at the season, what were your personal highs and lows?

CdM:
The high point for me was just getting used to everything and getting adapted to F1. Leading Silverstone for 17 laps was the time that I enjoyed most. Qualifying in Suzuka was also very special because it was Toyota's home race, and although we went out for our runs before the rain came down, it was really thrilling to qualify third. 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! The low point, definitely, was when I was getting lapped in Brazil. I know I'm not that bad in the rain, but things were made even worse because it was my first home race in F1.

Q:
Is it easier to make progress with a car over the winter or during the season?

CdM:
Over the winter, it appears that you make more progress because the car is new and the margin for development is bigger, but at the same time you have to keep up momentum during the season. If you don't then you fall back. We dropped back a little at the start of the European season at Imola and Austria, but in the second half of the season, we really made steps forward at every race. One thing I learned very quickly is that development in Formula 1 has to be continuous.

Q:
Looking at the team overall, where can the most progress be made?

CdM:
As a team, we have grown considerably this season, but we have to constantly evaluate everything we do in order to improve in all areas. Toyota's philosophy is all about continuous improvement, which is so important in F1. We have set very solid foundations for ourselves this season, but we now have to build further on these in 2004 and from there I am sure the results will come.

Q:
How long does it take to establish a good working relationship with a team?

CdM:
It takes a little while to establish a good working relationship, but I think that the winter testing helped us develop a good working rapport before the racing season got underway.

Q:
What do you think of F1's new rules?

CdM:
From a driving point of view, I do not have anything with which to compare the new rules. I think the rules we have had in place this season have worked well and provided a better show for the fans and spectators around the world.

Q:
What can be done to improve the F1 show. And does it need to be improved?

CdM:
In my opinion, the F1 show looks quite good already and I don't see open wheel racing getting a lot better than we had this year. I think it has been a great championship. At Indy, the penultimate race, you still had three guys separated by a few points and you can't expect better than that.

Q:
What is a realistic target for 2004?

CdM:
For me the target for 2004 is to close the gap even more to the top teams. If we can reduce that gap, which I think is realistic, it will be a big achievement.

 

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