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Saturday, August 10, 2002
Updated: August 21, 7:08 PM ET
Miller: Move to F1 logical for da Matta

By Robin Miller
ESPN.com

Da Matta
da Matta
LEXINGTON, OHIO -- Cristiano da Matta is poised to follow Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya in making the climb from CART champion to Formula One.

There has been no official announcement but Christian Fittipaldi, who is headed for NASCAR next year, joked openly this weekend about two seats being open at Newman-Haas Racing in 2003 and representatives from Toyota's F1 program are here at Mid-Ohio this weekend.

Even da Matta, who currently leads the FedEx Championship by 38 points, admitted on Friday night that it was a step he'd always aspired to make.

"I don't think the racing in Formula One would be as good as it is in CART but it is a great opportunity and I think Toyota has already shown it can be competitive," said da Matta, whose F1 test last May in France greatly impressed the Toyota staff.

"If the team didn't have a chance at being competitive, I wouldn't even consider going."

After capturing the CART championship in '95, Villeneuve booked for F1 in '96 and claimed the world title in '97. Following back-to-back championships in '97 and '98, Zanardi returned to F1 in '99. Montoya earned the champ car crown in '99 and headed for F1 in 2001.

Now in his fourth season of champ cars, da Matta has already scored five wins and four poles this season. With nine races remaining, he'll be tough to overtake and, with CART's uncertain future, he'd be crazy not to jump.

"It's good for the driver and it makes our series look good that F1 teams look to CART for talent but overall it's not good for us to lose another champion," said one CART owner who requested anonymity.

Carl Haas continues to maintain his stance that the talented 29-year-old Brazilian remains under contract to him for 2003, but Toyota is prepared to buy out the remaining year.

But the price Haas is asking may be too high, and Toyota could end up waiting another year before grabbing da Matta.

"It's a logical move for Cristiano but I don't think it's a done deal yet," said Oriol Servia, who tested the Prost F1 car last year and is now Patrick Racing's full-time shoe.

There has been a steady stream of drivers in and out of the Newman-Haas compound Friday and Saturday. Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Kenny Brack, Bruno Junqueira and Patrick Carpentier are all free agents following 2002 and, with Mario Andretti pursuing his own team, Newman-Haas could field a three-car effort in 2003.

But it quite possibly won't include da Matta.