February 14, 2003

CART Champs and the Art of Formula One Driving

By Vivek Gupta

The auto racing fans all over the world would agree that Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series is the most versatile auto racing series in the world. What distinguishes it from other forms of auto racing is that it runs on all three courses: oval, road and street.

It’s difficult, however, to say that it churns out the most versatile champions as well. Those CART champions who have gone on to drive on the greener pastures of Formula One have fallen prey to inconsistency. One view could be that it’s not their fault; that they are like any other Formula One driver whose car suffers from reliability problems (except for Ferrari, of course). Or they are simply too aggressive for Formula One.

CART president Chris Pook strongly disagreed. “Absolutely not. All racing car drivers have to be aggressive if they want to succeed. Aryton Senna, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher and Jaques Villeneuve are and were aggressive. The key is to have the mental discipline to know when to use aggression and when to use finesse.”

This year Cristiano da Matta, the 2002 CART champion from Brazil, will make his Formula One debut with the Panasonic Toyota Racing when the F1 season begins on March 9 with the Australian Grand Prix. The champ, after having four full seasons of CART, acknowledged that CART cars required him to have a much more aggressive driving style, and coming into F1 he had to ease off on this a bit. He explained, “For example, in the way I use the brake pedal, sometimes I am still a little bit too hard on the brakes. But it is something I can adapt to. It just takes a bit of time and kilometers.”

But da Matta clarified, “I do think CART drivers can have a quite aggressive driving style, but not too aggressive for any other category.” You find the limit (of an F1 car) quite quickly, and if you push too hard you do not get any advantage.”

Before Cristiano, four CART champions have graduated to Formula One: Alex Zanardi who won the CART series in 1997 and 1998, Michael Andretti in 1991, Jaques Villeneuve in 1995 and Juan Pablo Montoya in 1999. While all of them had tremendous success in CART, their F1 careers didn’t quite take off as expected.

Zanardi had a dismal four years in F1 before he took the CART series by storm in 1996. After winning two CART titles, he forayed back to F1 in 1999 only to be rendered ineffective by an unreliable Williams-F1 car. Also, the Italian found hard to cope with the modern F1 car’s unforgiving nature, which didn’t suit his aggressive driving style.

“On his (Zanardi’s) return, he encountered grooved tires and an impatient team that did not give him the sort of support he needed nor the time he really needed to get accustomed to the car,” said Pook.

Michael Andretti never completed even one full Formula One season after joining McLaren-Ford in 1993. Some said the American lacked commitment to the F1 program, but Dan Knutson, who covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News gave other reasons. He said, “Lack of testing time was the main reason Andretti wasn’t a success. He just put in 600 miles of testing before the (1993) season began.”

Villeneuve arrived in F1 in 1996 immediately after his CART series win. Though he did become the first Canadian driver to win the Formula One World Championship in 1997, but since then he has found it hard to even finish races.

Montoya has come to be known as the ‘wild man’ of Formula One. The Columbian was never shy of showing his aggressive intent from the moment he secured an F1 drive in 2001 with the Williams-F1 team. He was quickly on the pace of his teammate Ralf Schumacher in his rookie season. But he failed to win even a single race in 2002 despite securing seven pole positions.

The major problem that CART drivers face when they move to Formula One is adjusting to the F1 car, which behaves very differently from a champ car. “It must be remembered that these are two completely different racecars. The F1 car is extremely sensitive, light and very nimble. Therefore smoothness and finesse are critical skills needed to make it perform to the maximum. The champ car is considerably heavier, has steel disc brakes, and runs on far harder compound tires (than those used in F1),” explained Pook.

Knutson explained, “While the car (reliability) has been a problem for both Villeneuve and Montoya, both of them are two of the best drivers in F1 today.” On the other hand, he felt Andretti and Zanardi (while in F1) tried throwing their car around a lot.

But Pook disagreed and called it just a “throwing around” perception. He explained, “The (champ car) chassis was designed for 750hp motors. However, over the last two years, two of the engine manufacturers got their engines up to 900+ hp. On road courses in slower turns, drivers were able to ‘muscle’ their cars, thus giving the ‘throwing around’ perception.” He, however, assured that this year the hp would be back to 750 and the overall racing in CART would be much more competitive.

Da Matta has already completed more than 5,000 kilometers testing the F1 car, and still has another three test sessions planned before leaving for Australia. “I have been driving the F1 car since late November and now I am feeling much more comfortable. You need extra training on the neck muscles (for F1). Using grooved tires is also a big difference in F1, but not so much of a problem,” assured da Matta.

The 2003 F1 season will feature three previous CART champions – Villeneuve, Montoya and da Matta. With the F1 teams striving for faster and more reliable cars, the reliability of CART graduates will be at stake once again.

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