In the first of our ‘Whatever Happened To…?’ features, Nicola Scrimgeour remembers the career of former Toyota pilot Cristiano Da Matta, and finds out what he did after leaving F1.
Brazilian drivers often come to Formula 1 with a certain pedigree, a sense of excitement, and Cristiano da Matta was no different. His father was Toninho da Matta, a touring car driver who won 14 championship titles, and from a young age the son seemed set to follow in his father’s footsteps, winning a number of karting championships.
Born in Brazil in 1973, Cristiano da Matta first made his mark as a 20 year old, winning the 1993 Brazilian Formula Ford Championship. A year later, he followed up his success with title success at the Formula Three Sudamericana Championship.
In 1995 he tried his hand in the British Forumla Three series, winning a race and finishing eighth in the standings. He would then go on to match this finish in Formula 3000 the following year.
Over the next few years, da Matta began to make a name for himself in North America, winning Rookie of the Year in his first season in Indy Lights and going on to win the championship itself the next time around. Success then followed in the Champ Car series, where he won the 2002 championship with 7 wins and 7 pole positions.
It was after his success in the States that da Matta showed up on the radar of Formula 1 teams, and the Brazilian managed to secure a place with Toyota for the 2003 season. In his debut season he had the measure of experienced team mate and race-winner Olivier Panis, scoring 10 championship points along the way and finishing 13th in the WDC.
Despite the solid start to his Formula 1 career, the following season was to be a disappointment for da Matta, who only managed to pick up three points before losing his seat to test driver and fellow Brazilian Ricardo Zonta after the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim. The parting with Toyota was not an amicable one, with the team not taking kindly to da Matta’s vocal remonstrations about the lack of competitiveness with the car.
In 2006, after returning to Champ Car, da Matta was seriously injured when his car collided with a deer which had run onto the track during a test. He was knocked unconscious and taken to hospital where he required surgery to remove a subdural hematoma. Because of the critical brain injury, da Matta was placed in a medically-induced coma in order to allow the swelling to subside.
A few days later, doctors began to gradually bring da Matta out of his coma, and was later transferred out of intensive care. After approximately seven weeks, da Matta was allowed to leave the hospital after making a strong recovery.
It was nearly 18 months later when da Matta made his comeback, completing a two-day test in March 2008. After a successful test, where da Matta demonstrated that he still had the skills and speed to compete, the Brazilian joined up with former Champ Car champion Jimmy Vasser to enter the Rolex Sports Car Series.
Since then, da Matta has also contested in Formula Truck and in 2011, he raced in the American Le Mans series.