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Da Matta locks up CART title

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 7, 2002

MIAMI -- It was a beautiful day, perfect for a quick drive around the neighborhood. Only one problem: It was Sunday. Cristiano da Matta had to wait until today to stop at the bank.

MIAMI -- It was a beautiful day, perfect for a quick drive around the neighborhood. Only one problem: It was Sunday. Cristiano da Matta had to wait until today to stop at the bank.

Da Matta went into the Grand Prix of the Americas, just two blocks from his sparsely furnished bachelor pad, with the 2002 driver's championship just down the road.

As his competition self-destructed through the tight, narrow 1.387-mile circuit, da Matta grabbed his seventh CART series victory of the season, the $100,000 winner's check and the $1-million bonus for the 2002 title. Only Michael Andretti in 1991 and Al Unser Jr. three years later won the title with more victories in a season (eight). Da Matta did it by getting his Lola/Toyota to the checkered flag about 3 lengths (0.734 seconds) ahead of Newman/Haas Racing teammate and fellow Brazilian Christian Fittipaldi, who lives in nearby Key Biscayne. Da Matta technically won the title in Lap 83 when he got one point for leading the most laps.

"There isn't a better way to clinch a championship than with a victory," said the 5-foot-4, 135-pound da Matta, almost dwarfed by CART's huge Vanderbilt Cup. "Sometimes if you clinch it with a fifth-place or fourth-place (finish), everybody forgets pretty quickly that you won many races before. Clinching with a win kind of makes it pretty obvious that you were there the whole year."

And da Matta, who likely will drive for Toyota in Formula One next season, said there was no funny business that kept him in front.

F1 has been embarrassed by Ferrari. Michael Schumacher allowed teammate Rubens Barrichello to win the U.S. Grand Prix Sept. 29 at Indianapolis, payback for Barrichello giving Schumacher the winning margin this year in Austria.

"There weren't any team orders whatsoever," da Matta said. "I wasn't going to ask for help, and I was very happy the team didn't say anything. ... I know Christian is very competitive, but he's also a very smart guy. He wasn't going to try any move on me."

Drivers complained during practice and qualifying about the severity of some turns, the many one-car-wide passages and, in some areas, crumbling asphalt that had to be repaved with concrete.

"They put so much sealant down through Turns 3-6, it might as well have been polished marble," third-place finisher Jimmy Vasser said.

The surface held up, but the twists and turns took their toll, with the help of some dicey driving. Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon, who started 1-2, were running that way in Lap 20 when Dixon made a move to the right. Kanaan then squeezed him into the wall.

Kanaan spun out but barely grazed the wall and was able to continue. Dixon hit the wall hard and was out of the race, finishing last. Three laps later Kanaan was ordered to drop to the rear of the field. He moved up to seventh before crashing into Andretti, taking both out of the race.

The penalty, Kanaan said, "took away every chance in the world that we had to win the race. As far as I'm concerned, I don't agree with the call. I'm allowed to make one move to protect my position ... but who am I to judge?" Da Matta, 29, can afford to spruce up his apartment now -- not that he couldn't have before. But he won't. He's pretty tight with a buck and admits it.

He has a few pieces of furniture. "A Brazilian friend sold them to me cheap when he moved," da Matta said. He also has a couple of couches, and a lot of trophies.

"Actually never spent a buck furnishing the place," he said, "because the couches I have are from my good friend Tony Kanaan. He bought himself a new house that came with some very nice couches, so he gave me his old ones. I still prefer to keep the money in the bank."

Da Matta won't be in the field for the 2003 St. Petersburg Grand Prix which, like Sunday's race, is scheduled to run downtown with views of the waterfront for a backdrop. He finally will achieve the goal he has had since arriving in the United States in 1997 to compete in Indy Lights, when he became rookie of the year.

"When I came over here I had Formula One in my head," da Matta said, "but because of budgets and sponsors in motorsports you have to dance according to the music. I wanted to dance a samba, but they were playing jazz."

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