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Shaw: A New Start For Old Friends

Junqueira, da Matta aiming to bring JaguarRSR to the front in GT

Cristiano da Matta Photo by Dan Boyd/American Le Mans SeriesOne of the highlights of the Tequila Patrón American Le Mans Series at Long Beach for me was the performance of the No. 99 Jaguar XKR GT. Little was expected of the gorgeous V8-powered car after a desperately disappointing debut campaign for Paul Gentilozzi’s JaguarRSR squad last year and an equally inauspicious outing at Sebring to kick off the 2011 season. Undeterred, GT newcomers Bruno Junqueira and Cristiano da Matta put their heads down and earned a legitimate sixth-place finish in the hotly contested GT category.

It’s fair to say that both drivers admitted to a sense of relief once the race was over. The former open-wheel stars had been delighted to get a call from Gentilozzi during the winter with the offer to rekindle their careers - albeit in an entirely different realm to anything they had experienced before. Nevertheless, neither had fully appreciated the extent of the woes that had been encountered in 2010.

"To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention," admits Junqueira. "I didn’t realize they were that far off the pace."

Even worse was a lack of reliability that continued to hinder progress at Sebring.

"Throughout testing and the whole 12-hour race, we weren’t able to do many laps because we had so many technical problems," notes da Matta. "So many little things happened to the car, and we all got worried because it was looking bad. We weren’t expecting it to be that tough to get the car to run."

Happily, Long Beach brought about a dramatic reversal of fortunes.

"The only problem we had was when I could not hear the engineer on the radio," says Junqueira. "It was a minor problem. It happens even in Formula 1. But we didn’t have any problems with the car in the practice session or qualifying or the race."

JaguarRSR in action at Long Beach. Photo by Dan Boyd/American Le Mans SeriesBoth drivers took advantage of the uninterrupted two-hour practice early Friday morning to become more comfortable in the car, whereupon Junqueira qualified a respectable 10th – almost two seconds slower than Joey Hand’s brilliant pole-winning lap in the well-developed BMW, but promisingly within a few tenths of veteran Sascha Maassen in the Paul Miller Racing Porsche and Tommy Milner’s GM factory Corvette.

Junqueira - a former FIA Formula 3000 champion, Indy 500 pole-sitter and three times a runner-up in the Champ Car World Series - proceeded to show even better form in the race. He settled into a comfortable rhythm, took advantage of a well-devised strategy and even enjoyed a few moments in the class lead before making his way onto pit lane...or at least attempting to make his way onto pit lane.

"My in-lap was amazing," he relates in his characteristic, heavily accented English. "I go through the hairpin and I’m coming in the pits and a P1 car pass me on the right. We almost crash! I saw him on the right and I had to turn left again to avoid him."

Junqueira hit the brakes, too, but the evasive maneuvers caused him to miss his opportunity to make the right-hand turn onto pit lane. Instead he had to complete another lap. And since he was unable to hear his engineer on the radio, he wasn’t sure he would make it.

"I tried to save fuel as much as possible, so that was a slow lap as well," he says. "I already started the lap slow and then I get on the marbles. Oh, it was crazy."

Nevertheless, make it he did. Teammate da Matta took over for the final stint and while he wasn’t quite able to match his teammate’s pace, the 2002 Champ Car champion brought the car home sixth in class, just ahead of the earlier-delayed Bill Auberlen/Dirk Werner BMW.

"After Long Beach, everything is coming much clearer to me and it’s much more natural for me to drive the car," says da Matta. "I had so few laps before Sebring that I couldn’t drive it properly, because while I was driving I had to be thinking about it all the time; and with my experience, I know that every time you are thinking when you are driving it’s not good, you’re struggling. At Long Beach everything started to become a bit more automatic. I’m still not getting a lot of mileage but I’m happy with the way I’ve been able to drive it. I think it exceeded my expectations. You know, it’s not easy but I can clearly see the road I have to keep on following."

His sentiments are echoed by Junqueira.

da Matta (right) chats with Oriol Servia. Photo by Dan Boyd/American Le Mans Series"After the way the season started it was decent," he says of the Long Beach result. "I’m used to winning races but our fastest lap was only a second off the fastest race lap so it was not bad."

Aside from the knowledge there is some light at the end of the tunnel, the two Brazilians are thoroughly enjoying their experience in the ALMS.

"I like this series a lot," says Junqueira. "When I was 25, driving for [Chip] Ganassi and [then] Newman/Haas in Champ Car, I thought maybe when I’m about 35 I would like to race in the American Le Mans Series and things like that. That was always my idea. The average [age of] single-seater [drivers] to retire is about 35. I’m 34 right now and I’m sure that I can still go there [to open-wheel] and do very well. If I have a car, I’m sure I can drive as good as the top five or six guys.

"I will drive for A.J. Foyt at Indianapolis this year and I’m excited about that, but I’m really excited about this new opportunity in GT. It’s very different, you know, but I’m feeling good. Compared [to] my teammates who are really good drivers, I was up to speed pretty fast. I still have to learn a lot because at the end of the day, driving fast is not the most important thing. It’s important for being a good endurance race car driver to [be able to do] do everything – driving fast, pit stops, driver changes, strategy, passing the backmarkers, getting passed by the ‘P’ cars... There are a lot of things that I have to learn, so it’s a process for me but I’m quite happy for where I am right now with just two races under my belt."

The learning process will be equally steep for the team and its drivers, although the camaraderie that exists between the two gifted Brazilians is likely to be an important factor as JaguarRSR moves forward with its plans to develop into a bona fide contender.

Both men hail originally from Belo Horizonte, their nation’s third largest city, and while they have competed against each other for most of their lives, they have maintained a good relationship and are excited about working together.

"It’s very nice," says Junqueira, who is three years younger than his more celebrated colleague. "I mean, him and me have been friends since we were kids and for me he’s one of the best drivers I ever race against, so I’m enjoying a lot. It’s great."

"It’s funny," adds da Matta with a chuckle, "because for many, many years in my career I was always racing [against] Bruno at different levels, you know, so now I look at the race track and many times I have to be cheering for Bruno!"

JaguarRSR in action at Long Beach. Photo by Dan Boyd/American Le Mans SeriesDa Matta and Junqueira will share the No. 99 car at the long-distance races with Oriol Servia - who like da Matta made his ALMS debut at Sebring. Spanish-born Servia has maintained a close relationship with the two Brazilians since they all lived together in Miami during their Champ Car days, and was ever-present at da Matta’s bedside during his friend’s recuperation from a life-threatening accident in 2006.

In fact, the original plan was for Servia to complete the full season alongside Junqueira - although when he made that commitment in January, Servia made it clear he was still chasing an opportunity to return to the IZOD IndyCar Series with Newman/Haas Racing. When that became a reality shortly before the start of the season, Servia called team owner Gentilozzi and recommended da Matta for the ride.

Everyone is happy. Servia is concentrating on his IndyCar ride and looking forward to his occasional GT forays, while da Matta and Junqueira are focused on bringing Jaguar back to the forefront of endurance racing.

"It won’t be easy, we know that," says da Matta. "It makes me so happy to look at the time sheet and see so many top drivers in the GT class. It’s fun to be competing against all those guys, you know? – so many guys that have done so much before and some guys who have been in GT for a long time and been successful. It’s nice to be competing at that level. It’s competitive, and you’re fighting against big car manufacturers, too.

"Long Beach was good. It was the first time to run with everybody else. We are closer. We still need some work to be done but we are definitely getting closer and now, having a big gap in the schedule, we are going to be able to put together many things for the next race, so I hope we’re going to be a step closer at Lime Rock.

"One step at a time."

Jeremy Shaw has been a motorsports writer and broadcaster since 1974, and he founded the Team USA Scholarship program in 1990. For 2011, he will be part of the broadcast team for the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón on ESPN3.com.

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