Cristiano da Matta is only 5-foot-3 and 130 pounds, yet he has risen above his CART rivals this season.
The 28-year-old Brazilian driver has won two of the four races on the this season. He dominated last week's Monterey Grand Prix to take over the points lead, and he's hoping to extend it Sunday in the G.I. Joe's 200 at Portland International Raceway.
Da Matta has won four of seven races dating to last season, when he signed on with Newman-Haas to replace Michael Andretti. Da Matta started from the pole last Sunday at Laguna Seca and finished more than 19 seconds faster than second-place teammate Christian Fittipaldi.
"I think it's all coming together this season," said Guillaume Rocquelin, da Matta's race engineer. "It's the right package at the right time."
Like Monterey, Portland has a curvy road course where the opportunities to pass are few. Da Matta says the courses are the two most demanding among the series' 19 venues, but he has excelled on this kind of course. All but two of his 51 points have come on road courses, where CART contests a majority of its races.
"I have the experience on driving this kind of track. I love it," he said.
Jourdain, Fittipaldi trail
Da Matta has a five-point lead over Michel Jourdain Jr. and an eight-point lead over Fittipaldi.
Both da Matta and Fittipaldi have performed well in Portland. Da Matta was second in 2000 but took fifth because of a late pit stop; last year he was second when he was one of several drivers to spin out on the wet 1.969-mile track. He rallied to take 10th and finish in the points. Fittipaldi has three podium finishes in Portland with third-place finishes in 1996, 2000 and 2001.
"Ever since the first day I came here, I really liked this place," Fittipaldi said.
Da Matta once was a road-course specialist who tested long hours on oval during the offseason. Rocquelin said building a database on ovals was essential for da Matta to improve. Eight of the next nine races are on road or street courses, but three of the final five are on ovals.
It might make sense for da Matta to focus on the road courses to try to build up as much of a lead as possible and hold on. Team owners Paul Newman and Carl Haas haven't had a driver win the season title since Nigel Mansell in 1993.
Consistency is the key
"The important thing about the series is to score points, be consistent, always finish in the top five," da Matta said. "It's not time to put this kind of pressure on ourselves."
Da Matta credits his crew for helping him turn around a mediocre middle of the 2001 season. He won the opener in Monterrey, Mexico, but had just two podiums before taking the final two races, in Australia and Fontana, Calif.
"I'll use soccer as an example," he said, wearing green and yellow shoes in honor of Brazil's 3-0 start in the World Cup. "Sometimes they have very good players on the team, but if they don't play well together, nothing happens.
"This year we've been through this process that started last year, and we're getting better and better."