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Taking it from the top

That's what Bruno Junqueira will try to do as he takes the seat vacated by 2002 CART champ Cristiano da Matta.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Standing only a few feet from Bruno Junqueira, and easily within earshot, Jimmy Vasser began applying the pressure everybody keeps asking about when Junqueira becomes the topic of a conversation.

"There's a tremendous amount of pressure on him," Vasser said, the sarcasm and wit more evident with each syllable. "I'm going to put more pressure on him by saying if he doesn't achieve what Cristiano (da Matta) achieved last year it could be the end of his career. You can tell him I said that."

Just did.

All joking aside, expectations abound for Junqueira and the Newman/Haas race team as the CART Champ Car World Series season begins with Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Drivers hit the track for the first time today for practices and qualifying.

The 26-year-old Brazilian takes over for countryman da Matta, who departed for Formula One after winning the championship last season and leading CART with seven wins, seven poles and 619 laps led.

"The pressure is a good thing," said Junqueira, driver of the No.1 Lola Ford-Cosworth. "I'm joining a very good team that succeeded a lot last year. I always wanted to beat them. Now I'm very happy to join them.

"We'll try to keep the championship rolling, try to keep the No.1 on the car."

Though this is only his third season in CART, Junqueira has plenty of experience.

He started racing go-karts in 1987 and quickly advanced from the region events, winning the South American Formula 3000 championship in 1997 and the 2000 FIA Formula 3000 championship while serving as the BMW-Williams F1 team's test driver.

Former CART team owner Chip Ganassi hired him before the 2001 season, and Junqueira won one race, finished fifth in his first Indianapolis 500 and was 16th in points.

Junqueira then finished second behind da Matta in the standings last season, winning two races (Japan, Denver) and finishing on the podium six times in 19 races.

"He's made some mistakes in the past that cost him, sliding past pit boxes and running over hoses, things like that," Vasser said. "He's still young, but it's time for him to start not making as many mistakes."

When da Matta bolted for Formula One, Junqueira appeared as the logical successor and lunged at the opportunity to take his place at Newman/Haas.

"Everyone has been there a long time and knows each other and knows what to do," he said. "They took a big step forward last year and they have a very good car. That helps. They care about everyone on the car from the small things to the big ones and that is really important."

Despite a host of rules changes, it has remained a very fast team.

"It is the premier ride (in CART)," Vasser said. "They won the most races last season, have a good car and have been around for a long time."

Junqueira posted the second-fastest lap (118.266 mph) during testing this month at Sebring International Raceway. Rookie teammate Sebastien Bourdais (118.781) had the quickest speed.

"There are a lot of expectations from the team and from everybody," Junqueira said. "They finished first in the championship, Cristiano is not here, I'm joining and we've been very fast during preseason tests."

This weekend could be another successful round for Newman/Haas, which performed extremely well in inaugural races and on street circuits last season.

Da Matta won the pole and finished second at Montreal, finished third at Denver, won at Miami to clinch the championship and finished second at Mexico City in the final race of the season. Then-teammate Christian Fittipaldi finished second at Miami.

"I don't think Bruno cares about the pressure," driver Patrick Carpentier said. "I don't think he's the type of guy that looks at that. I think he's going to do pretty well for himself. He's fast, if not faster, than Cristiano. He's going to be a tough guy to beat."

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