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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
For the second Champ Car race in succession, a locally-based driver brought home the winner’s trophy. Two weeks ago it was Scotland’s Dario Franchitti winning at Rockingham, England; today it was South Florida resident Cristiano da Matta winning the Grand Prix Americas in Miami from Christian Fittipaldi and Jimmy Vasser.

But da Matta did Franchitti one better. Not only did he win the inaugural Grand Prix Americas, he clinched the 2002 CART FedEx Championship with his victory, one that saw him add 20 points to his seasonal total for the win and another for leading fastest lap. With his closest rivals Bruno Junqueira and Franchitti finishing fifth and 10th, respectively, da Matta saw his points lead grow to 69 with three races remaining and a maximum of 68 points on offer (23 apiece at Surfers Paradise and Mexico City where there is a point for fastest qualifier each day, and 22 at Fontana where there is only one qualifying session).

“It’s a great feeling to win the championship,” said da Matta. “It’s impossible to explain, but it feels very good.

“Plus there isn’t a better way to win a championship than with a victory. Sometimes, when you clinch the championship with a fourth- or fifth-place finish, people forget that it took lots of wins to be in that position. But when you clinch it with a victory, it pretty much reminds people that you’ve been good all year.”

With six wins already to their credit before today, it’s no exaggeration to say da Matta and Newman/Haas have been pretty good all year. As for Miami, it was no exaggeration to say that Tony Kanaan and Morris Nunn Racing were pretty good all weekend on a track so narrow and twisting that the winning average speed established a new “low” for CART, at 68.723mph.

Indeed, for much of the weekend and the first quarter of the race it looked like Kanaan would be the local boy who made good. After capturing the provisional pole on Friday, he saw his rain dance work to perfection on Saturday to secure his starting point on the inside of row one. And given the narrow, twisty nature of the Bayfront Park Circuit, chances were good that he would stay there, barring a major mistake.

He did just that for 19 laps, heading a racey Scott Dixon as they put a lot of real estate between themselves and train of cars headed by Tora Takagi, Alex Tagliani, Kenny Brack, da Matta, Dario Franchitti and Fittipaldi. On the 20th lap, Dixon made a move to the inside of Turn One. Kanaan countered with a move to his right and the cars made solid contact, with Dixon’s Target/Ganassi Toyota-Lola shedding wheels and bodywork
before pirouetting into the wall. Amazingly, Kanaan spun and rejoined the action without losing first place . . . initially.

CART Chief Steward Chris Kneifel, however, considered Kanaan’s move too aggressive and ordered that he be sent to the back of the field. Dixon, too, was decidedly unimpressed with Kanaan.

“He fumbled off of Turn 16 (the final turn), I got a good run on him and he turned right into me, even though the corner was a good 50 yards away,” said the Kiwi. “He totally left the door open and I braked right at my usual mark.”

Kanaan, not surprisingly, saw it differently.

“You are allowed to make one move (to defend your position),” he said. “I made one move and we hit. I can’t say it was his fault; I can’t say it was my fault. I was protecting my line. I spun but because I was able to stay in the lead I get a penalty. Who am I to judge whether it’s right or not? But when you build a track like this, you have to expect people will hit each another.”

The incident triggered a full-course yellow, and Bruno Junqueira was the first to take advantage of the caution, stopping on lap 20, while Takagi, Tagliani, Brack and Jimmy Vasser—among others—waited until lap 21 to stop, thus ensuring they could go the 105 lap race distance on two more stops under the mandatory 42-lap window. Junqueira would still have to stop three more times.

With many of the leaders pitting and Kanaan shuffled back to the tail of the lead lap, none other than da Matta emerged as the leader from Franchitti and Fittipaldi.

“I saw Tora, Kenny, and Tags pitting, and we stayed out,” said da Matta. “I wasn’t quite sure about the strategy, but it was the opportunity I was looking for. I was seventh in the first few laps and Kenny was holding me up, and I didn’t know how I was going to get up to the leaders.”

Tracy was fourth, having stopped for a top-off during a full course yellow on lap four and so leap-frogging from 14th position when the majority of the leaders stopped on lap 21.

The lap 24 restart saw da Matta, Franchitti, Fittipaldi, Tracy and Jourdain pull free from the fuel-heavy Junqueira, with the top three eventually putting some distance back to the Canadian and the Mexican. Da Matta, Franchitti and Fittipaldi duly pitted on lap 42, handing the lead to Tracy for a few laps before he relinquished it to Junqueira with a pit stop of his own.

Junqueira duly led until his scheduled stop on lap 61, handing first place back to the familiar quartet of da Matta, Franchitti, Fittipaldi and Tracy. The foursome was circulating nose to tail, with Fittipaldi looking very menacing in third.

“The race was a little bit physical,” said Fittipaldi. “The first quarter was the hardest part, but after that I didn’t have any problems.


After about halfway, we were setting a good pace and the car was very good. . . it was still sliding all over the place, like everybody . . . but I was able to keep the pressure on Dario. He was all over the place. I don’t think his car was very stable, but he was driving very well.”

Not only was Franchitti’s car “unstable,” he was powerless to communicate with his crew to effect changes on pit stops thanks to a radio failure.

Thus the most menacing presence of all was Tracy. Every bit as quick as da Matta, Franchitti and Fittipaldi, he had that four lap cushion from his early pit stop and so figured to spurt ahead of them during those extra laps on hot tires and a low fuel load at the final pit stop exchange.

And Tracy was pressing. Hard. Lap 73 saw him white wall the right-side wheels on the retaining wall at the exit of Turn Five, costing him a second or two which he promptly regained over the next couple of laps.

“I probably white-walled it six or seven times during the race,” he said, nonchalantly. “I did it in that corner three times. It’s easy to do, but it’s no big deal because you’re going so slowly that it’s not going to hurt the car.”

Tracy wasn’t the only driver pressing hard. Vasser was enjoying one of the day’s better drives, carving his way from 12th on the grid to sixth by lap 63 the hard way: by passing the likes of Takagi, Brack and—at one point—Tracy on the track rather than through cagey pit strategy.

But Vasser nearly threw it all away when he failed to disengage the clutch on his second pit stop and the Team Rahal crew wasted precious seconds getting the rear wheels to stop spinning so they could slap on another set of tires. Thus, Vasser found himself shuffled back to ninth when he returned to the track.

“A lot of the race I was stuck behind guys and I had to be patient,” he said. “I either had to wait for the right chance to pass them or else push them into a mistake.

“We had that bad pit stop, when I left it in gear, and I came out behind Tony (Kanaan) who was going really slowly. So I just had to bide my time again, and then he pitted out of sequence and we got going again.”

Tracy, meanwhile, was continuing to keep the crowd entertained when he spun from Turn 15 to Turn 16 at 100mph, barely missing the walls, on lap 78. How barely? He managed to rip a piece of advertising banner off the wall with his rear wing without actually doing any damage to the wing. Non-plussed, he steered the car into a gap in the wall while traveling backward, put it in gear and rejoined.
 

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
“I was cooking through there when it swapped ends,” said Tracy. “I was lucky I didn’t break the rear wing against the wall. So I just looked in my mirrors and steered it to where I could find a gap in the all.”

Nevertheless, the spin cost Tracy something on the order of 10 seconds and, in all likelihood, any chance he had of coming out ahead of da Matta, Franchitti and Fittipaldi on the final round of pit stops.

They began on lap 83 when Fittipaldi pitted, with da Matta and Franchitti following suit on the next lap. Although Tracy regained the lead when the top three pitted, he too would stop again on lap 88 and fall back to fifth—Junqueira momentarily holding down second. That would become third when Franchitti’s bold drive came to grief with the KOOL Honda/Lola embedded in the Turn Three tire wall.

That occasioned another caution, which at least enabled Junqueira to make his extra stop under a full-course yellow but still dropped him to ninth—far away from the fourth place he would need to earn to keep his title hopes alive in the face of a da Matta victory.

The restart on lap 94 saw Junqueira dive to the inside of Kanaan in Turn One. Kanaan wasn’t about to yield, and Junqueira sailed down the escape road while Kanaan did a half-spin and then stalled. That meant another full-course yellow, much to da Matta’s consternation.

“Those yellows upset me,” he said. “I was ready to open up some breathing room, then there was another yellow and another restart.”

And on that restart, Vasser made a dive to the inside of Tagliani that carried him past the Player’s/Forsythe Ford-Reynard . . .and into the back of Tracy. The KOOL Honda/Lola spun around in front of Tagliani, who had to lift and—in a flash—Vasser went from fifth to third.

“My car was good under braking for Turn One all day,” Vasser explained. “I made a lot of my passes there today, and I got a good run on Tags on the restart. I got a little locked up but still it was going to be a clean pass, but I didn’t realize he was that close to Paul.

“I just clipped Paul. He didn’t deserve that . . . but I figure if anyone can understand it would be Paul.”

“It’s a little out of character for Jimmy,” said Tracy. “He’s not known for flying down the inside of people. He got away with it this time, though. He took me out and it probably cost Tags a spot too.”

Jourdain walloped Tracy’s nosecone in the resulting melee, while Junqueira found himself blocked by the stranded cars of Jourdain and Tracy. The CART safety team duly cleaned up the mess in time for yet another restart on Lap 101 which—mercifully—went off without a hitch.

Although there were no team orders in force, da Matta had the luxury of knowing the man behind him was both his teammate and a fellow not likely to take him out.

“There were no team orders,” said da Matta. “I felt I could handle the situation, and not be a ‘woozy’ and ask for help. Besides, I knew Christian is a smart guy and he would not do any banzai moves, plus this is a tough track to make a pass.”

Thus da Matta came home a deserving winner and champion while Fittipaldi was second and Vasser third, with Tagliani fourth and Junqueira and Jourdain recovering to finish fifth and sixth respectively.



Grand Prix of Americas results:

1) Cristiano da Matta, No. 6 Havoline/Newman-Haas Lola/Toyota, 105 laps, 2h07m:09.003sec/68.723mph
2) Christian Fittipaldi, No. 11 Eli Lilly Newman-Haas Lola/Toyota, 105, +0.734sec
3) Jimmy Vasser, No. 8 Shell/Team Rahal Lola/Ford, 105, +1.343
4) Alex Tagliani, No. 33 Player’s/Indeck Reynard/Honda, 105, +2.597
5) Bruno Junqueira, No. 4 Target/Ganassi Lola/Toyota, 105, +15.548
6) Michel Jourdain Jr. No. 9 Gigante/Team Rahal Lola/Ford, 104
7) Adrian Fernandez, No. 51 Tecate/Telmex Lola/Honda, 104
8) Michael Andretti, No. 39 Team Motorola Lola/Honda, 103
9) Tony Kanaan, No. 10 WorldCom/Mo Nunn Racing Lola/Honda, 103
10) Dario Franchitti, No. 27 Team KOOL Green Lola/Honda, 103
11) Mario Dominguez, No. 55 Herdez Competition Lola/Ford, 99
12) Paul Tracy, No. 26 Team KOOL Green Lola/Honda, 98
13) Kenny Brack, No. 12 Target/Ganassi Lola/Toyota, 70, mechanical
14) Shinji Nakano, No. 52 Alpine/Mitsubishi Lola/Honda, 66, mechanical
15) Tora Takagi, No. 5 Pioneer/Denso Walker Racing Lola/Toyota, 66, accident
16) Patrick Carpentier, No. 32 Player’s/Indeck Reynard/Ford, 34, accident
17) Oriol Servia, No. 20 Visteon/Patrick Racing Reynard/Toyota, 29, mechanical
18) Scott Dixon, No. 44 Target/Ganassi Lola/Toyota, 19, accident
 
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