Having cleaned up in the North American scene, Cristian da Matta (who turns 38 today) was hotly tipped to be the next big thing when he made his F1 debut in 2003. But in less than 18 months, the Brazilian would be sent packing back to South America, with a 28-race career achieving little more than a trio of sixth-place finishes.
Following in the footsteps of fellow CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya in crossing the Atlantic to forge a career in F1, Cristiano joined the works Toyota team in 2003, but his career sadly followed that of other CART graduates who failed to cut the mustard in another discipline.
Despite a generally impressive rookie season in which he outscored team-mate Olivier Panis – even briefly leading the British Grand Prix – the following year took a nosedive as Toyota’s fortunes waned.
In the boardroom mentality that was – and continued to be years after – so typical of the Toyota team’s Tokyo HQ management, the drivers were blamed as the root of the problem, and da Matta found himself fired after the German Grand Prix and replaced with fellow Brazilian, Ricardo Zonta.
Da Matta vowed never to race in F1 again, perhaps rightly complaining that the sport placed too much emphasis on car performance and not enough on driver skill. Certainly the unadventurous Toyota chassis’ he drove didn’t help to showcase his talent.
He switched back to Champ Car racing and proved he had lost none of his speed, winning at Portland for PKV Racing and finishing eleventh overall in the standings. For 2006, he would join Dale Coyne Racing, before switching to RUSport mid-season, peaking with second place on the streets of San Jose.
But his motorsport career almost came to a fatal conclusion when he was involved in a freak accident while testing at the Elkhart Lake circuit. A deer jumped the fence and crossed into his path along the back straight, striking the little Brazilian in the head and knocking him unconscious.
Operated on for a subdural haematoma, he was placed in an induced coma and kept in hospital for six weeks while he made a steady, and incredible, recovery.
He remained out of the cockpit for some eighteen months,before returning behind the wheel in a successful test session in a Riley Daytona Prototype.
Fully recovered, he now competes Brazil’s truck racing championship.