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Da Matta Too Slick for Field

Motor racing: Despite qualifying controversy, he dominates race and wins Grand Prix of Monterey.

June 10, 2002|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTEREY, Calif. — All the whining by Chip Ganassi wouldn't have mattered. If Cristiano da Matta had been thrown out of the Championship Auto Racing Teams series, as Ganassi had suggested after Da Matta oiled the track during qualifying, the diminutive Brazilian still would have found a way to win.

That's how good Da Matta was Sunday on the 2.238-mile layout at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Driving a dominant car and leading 82 of 87 laps, Da Matta annihilated the field in the 20th Bridgestone Grand Prix of Monterey featuring the Shell 300, finishing more than 19 seconds ahead of second-place Christian Fittipaldi, his teammate for team owners Carl Haas and Paul Newman.

It was Da Matta's sixth career victory and fourth in the last seven races dating to last season. It came the first time Da Matta started from the pole position, one that drew controversy. Da Matta blew his Toyota engine late in the Saturday qualifying session and failed to get off the racing line, fearing that he might bring out a red flag stoppage and lose his best lap time if he parked the car. Ganassi claimed the oil on the track prevented his driver, Kenny Brack, from winning the pole.

CART fined Da Matta $10,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct, and will enact rule changes that allow a driver to get off course without causing a red flag. If Da Matta had lost his best time from that session, a condition for bringing out a red flag, he says he still would have started fourth.

But even on a day when passing was difficult, it probably would not have mattered. Da Matta finished 19.087 seconds ahead of Fittipaldi, who started fifth in the 19-car field. Brack finished third.

The only time Da Matta trailed came after pitting upon encountering lapped traffic.

"It would have been very tough to get it away from me," Da Matta said of his victory.

Even Brack admitted Da Matta was dialed in.

"On speed, he was faster, but to pass on this track is pretty difficult," Brack said.

Wouldn't have mattered, Da Matta countered: "I would have passed him in the pits. We had the same situation in Mexico when I had the best car but had problems in qualifying and started fifth."

Coupled with a fourth-place finish by another Ganassi driver, Bruno Junquiera, it gave Toyota the top four positions, and provided the manufacturer's first sweep in the series. Toyota powered six of the top seven finishers. Patrick Carpentier, in a Ford-powered Reynard, broke up the sweep with a fifth-place finish. He did so by making one of the few on-track passes, slipping underneath another Ganassi driver, sixth-place Scott Dixon, on Lap 68.

While the racing was reminiscent of a parade, Fittipaldi said it was OK with him.

"That's what racing's all about, the quick cars win and the slow cars don't win," he said. "With all due respect, [defending race winner Max Papis] is a great driver, but last year he started dead last and didn't pass one guy on the track and he won the race [with a fuel economy strategy]."

With his victory, Da Matta moved into the championship series lead with 51 points.

Only one of the top four drivers going into the race scored a point, previous leader Michel Jordain Jr., who finished ninth and is in second place in the standings with 46 points. Fittipaldi moved to third with 43 points, followed by Junquiera with 38 and Dario Franchitti with 35.

Franchitti failed to get through the second turn before his day ended. He and Adrian Fernandez--making his 150th start--were casualties in the Andretti Hairpin. Jordain was tapped by Fernandez and slid crossways in traffic, and Bell, Mario Dominguez and Jimmy Vasser were collected in the incident.

Paul Tracy, who won last week at Milwaukee and finished second a week earlier at the Indianapolis 500, brought out the second--and last--yellow flag on Lap 17 when he lost his right rear wheel after exiting the pits.

Papis, tied for third place with Tracy going into to race, finished a lap down, in 13th place, the first of the non-scoring positions, and is tied for sixth overall in the series.

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