Cristiano da Matta
Updated: Sep 5, 2020
The third instalment of my latest series looking at each driver who competed in the 2001 Rockingham 500.
My next series of features will be looking at each driver who competed in my first ever major international motorsport race, the 2001 Rockingham 500, the first time the American CART Championship had raced in the UK since 1979.
Having been confirmed the previous July, the race was held in front of 38,000 people who witnessed, at the time, the fastest ever laps on a British circuit, with cars hitting speeds of over 215 mph. It was also the first full length oval race in the UK since before the war, when cars roared round Brooklands.
I was seven when I watched the action at a very cold Rockingham, I remember my parents either side of me keeping me warm. However I also remember the excitement of watching a major motorsport event trackside for the first time, having been to the official opening that May. The speed the cars hit was mind blowing and something I can still recall now.
The race was won by Gil de Ferran who executed a superb move on the last lap to beat Swede Kenny Brack. Behind the top two, Brazilian Helio Castroneves finished third on the road, however he overtook Cristiano da Matta under caution and was demoted to fourth.
It ensured da Matta finished third, who is the person next featured in the series.
Cristiano da Matta was born on the 19th September 1973 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the sixth largest city in Brazil with a population of just over 2.5 million people. Racing was in Cristiano’s blood from an early age, his father, Toninho, won the Brazilian Touring Car Champion a staggering fourteen times during his career, although Cristiano did not start competing until relatively late, first competing at the age of 16 in go-karts.
It was immediately clear that Cristiano was a talent as he won multiple karting championships and by 1993, at the age of twenty, he graduated to cars in the Brazilian Formula Ford Championship, which he won at his first attempt. It was the start of his winning ways as he continued his progress up the motorsport ladder the following year, racing in the Brazilian Formula 3 championship for Cesario Formula, again winning the championship.
The title victory prompted Cristiano to move further afield to apply his trade, joining West Surrey Racing for the 1995 British F3 season, partnering Brian Cunningham and future F1 star Marc Gene. Gene was not the only future household name in the field that season as future CART and IndyCar rival Helio Castroneves was also present racing for Paul Stewart Racing as well as Ralph Firman, Oliver Gavin, Warren Hughes and Christian Horner.
Other drivers who competing once that year included Pedro de la Rosa and Alex Wurz, two future McLaren test drivers and F1 stars.
In his first season in a field full to the brim of talent, da Matta fared well, winning once at Oulton Park and being the highest placed WSR driver. Cristiano ended the season eighth with 81 points, 22 points clear of closest teammate Marc Gene.
The progress did not stop for da Matta as he continued his rise up the junior ladder, competing for Pacific Racing in the 1996 International Formula 3000 championship. Cristiano was joined at Pacific by Patrick Lemarie where da Matta impressed once more, convincingly beating his teammate with three points finishes, finishing the year on seven points and ninth in the championship. The year was dominated by future CART rival Kenny Brack and future BMW works driver Jorg Muller, with Muller coming out on top at the final race of the season.
Continuing his tradition of moving championships each year, Cristiano switched to Indy Lights for 1997. Indy Lights is the equivalent of Formula 2 for IndyCar and at the time CART as well, giving drivers the chance to learn the techniques of ovals and road courses before graduating to IndyCar.
For his first season in the championship, da Matta joined Brain Stewart Racing, however the gird was once again included future stars including Castroneves once more, who moved to the series the previous season and Tony Kanaan, the duo battled for the lead of the championship all year, although Cristiano was not too far behind as he won three times that year at Nazareth, Vancouver and Laguna Seca, three very different circuits.
Such versatility was encouraging as he won on an oval, temporary road course and permanent road course, each with very different characteristics in his first year. Cristiano finished the season third only finishing fifteen points behind champion Kanaan, winning the Rookie of the Year accolade.
For the first time in his career, Cristiano remained in a series for more than a single season, remaining in Indy Lights for the 1998 season. He did move teams however to Tasman Racing and continued his fine form, finishing on the podium for the first four rounds of the season, including two victories at Long Beach and Nazareth once more.
Two more victories later in the year around the streets of Canada ensured he won the Indy Lights championship at his second attempt, beating closest rival Didier Andre by a very comfortable thirty-one points.
It was form which did not go unnoticed as he made it to America’s premier open-wheel series in 1999, joining Arciero-Wells Racing for his CART Series debut. At the time, the step up to CART from Indy Lights was vast, over 500 more horsepower and a considerable increase in aero however da Matta showed his potential once more as he ended the year eighteenth with two top five finishes.
Cristiano switched to PPI Motorsports for 2000, where his results dramatically improved, winning his first ever CART race mid-way through the season at the Chicagoland Speedway, beating Michael Andretti and Gil de Ferran to claim the $100,000 prize. His win in addition to an additional podium was enough to see him finish the season tenth with 140 points, a year which ensured he continued his upward trajectory, moving teams again for 2001, joining CART heavyweights Newman/ Haas Racing, partnering Christian Fittipaldi.
Cristiano’s speed in his new team was instantaneous as he won the opening race of the season around the streets of Monterrey beating compatriot Gil de Ferran and home favourite Paul Tracey. He led the most laps in the process with his form continuing to Long Beach as he finished second.
He would not finish on the podium until Rockingham following this immediate success although he finished consistently in the top ten throughout the season. Cristiano ended 2001 with two more victories around the Australian Gold Coast streets and Auto Club, finishing the year a career high fifth with 140 points, in what was a very tight championship at the top of the standings.
His winning form continued through into the next season as he won the opening round of 2002, again around the streets of Monterrey. For the first time in his CART career, da Matta remained with a team for more than a season, remaining with Newman/ Haas Racing alongside Fittipaldi.
Having won the first race of the season, a run of three mediocre results in which he finished a high of eighth was stopped abruptly as he went on a four-race winning streak, claiming victory at Laguna Seca, Portland, Chicago and Toronto, propelling him into a commanding championship lead.
A further two victories followed later in the year around Road America and Miami as he won the 2000 CART Championship, dominating the year, beating closest rival Bruno Junqueira by an incredible 73 points.
His dominance did not go unnoticed joining Japanese manufacture Toyota for their second season in F1. Cristiano was joined by experienced Frenchman Olivier Panis, the duo replacing Mika Salo and Allan McNish. His chances of securing the drive were aided as he had driven Toyota powered cars throughout his CART career, however his drive was achieved on merit, outscoring Panis in his first season in F1, ending the year on 10 points and thirteenth in the standings.
He also had some standout performances that season, leading seventeen laps of the British Grand Prix after he chose not to pit during a safety car period. Prior to his Silverstone exploits, da Matta had pressured Germen legend Michael Schumacher throughout the monsoon hit Brazilian Grand Prix, before the Ferrari driver aquaplaned out of the race at turn three, in only da Matta’s third race.
Sadly his fortunes fell away in 2004, only scoring three points before being replaced at Toyota by fellow Brazilian Ricardo Zonta after the German Grand Prix. Poor performances were not the only factors for da Matta’s removal, his critical comments in the media regarding Toyota’s competitiveness were not beneficial for his case.
It ensured he returned to America, in the now renamed Champ Car World Series following the demise of CART at the conclusion of the 2003 season. Da Matta joined PKV Racing alongside Jimmy Vasser, and although his return saw a single win at Portland, his results were not as competitive as they had been previously, finishing the season eleventh.
It would prove to be his final full season in motorsport, as for 2006, he joined Daly Coyne Racing before switching early in the season to RuSPORT. Having just finished a season high second around the streets of San Jose, da Matta was severely injured while testing at Road America on the 3rd August 2006, when a deer ran in front of the Brazilian, leaving Cristiano unable to avoid hitting it.
The deer bounced off his front right tyre before blowing Cristiano’s head rendering him unconscious with his foot planted on the accelerator. Medics quickly extracted him, where he was airlifted to Theda Clark Medical Centre before being operated on for a bleed on the brain. Da Matta was placed in a medically induced coma to allow the swelling to ease, thankfully being released from intensive care two and a half weeks later.
He was released from hospital a month later after making faster than expected progress.
On the 20th March 2008, da Matta did his first laps since his accident in a Riley Daytona Prototype showing his speed straight away behind the wheel. This was in preparation for the Rolex Sports Car Series race at Laguna Seca alongside former teammate Jimmy Vasser. It was a race which saw the duo lead ten laps, however they retired with fifteen laps remaining, eventually being classified 32nd.
He also competed in the fifteenth race of the season at Tooele finishing ninth in class. These were his only appearances in the championship returning to race once more in 2011, competing in the American Le Mans Series for Rocketsports Racing, scoring his first points in the championship at Long Beach.
These would be the last points Cristiano scored in motorsport as he retired from racing, now working for his family clothing business, Da Matta Design, in which he aids the financial and logistical aspects of the company. Da Matta Design focuses on clothing for cycling disciplines such as mountain biking and road racing as well as all the safety equipment which accompanies it, such as helmets and pads.
It is fantastic to see that Cristiano has developed a life after his career ended so abruptly, it would have been fantastic to see him race throughout the 2000s however some things are not meant to be.
However like de Ferran and Brack before who I have featured in this series, what a career he had. There are not many drivers who can say they have competed in both Formula 1 and America’s Premier single seater category, and impressed in both, winning championships throughout his time behind the wheel.
His cars were also lovely to look at, such as his Newman/ Haas Racing Lola from 2001, something I will never forget seeing for the first time at Rockingham!
Pictures: www.pinterest.com, www.crash.net, www.autoracing1.com