Former CART champ left to compete in Formula One.
LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) -- A lot has changed since Cristiano da Matta walked away after the 2002 season as champion of what was then the CART series.
He returns from a brief foray into Formula One to an American series that has changed ownership and name -- becoming the Champ Car World Series -- has lost many of its big-name teams and drivers to the rival Indy Racing League and is just beginning to regain some of its lost momentum after years of financial and image problems.
What remains the same as da Matta, 31, returns is the intense competition on the racetrack and the team that is on top of the standings.
The Brazilian won his CART title for Newman/Haas Racing, co-owned by Chicago businessman Carl Haas and actor Paul Newman. The defending series champion going into Sunday's season-opening Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is Sebastien Bourdais, the driver who replaced da Matta at Newman/Haas in 2003.
Bourdais the favorite
The man known as Shorty -- da Matta stands 5 feet, 4 inches and weighs about 130 pounds -- left F1 midway through last season after spending a year and a half with the new and then-struggling Toyota team.
He returns to this side of the Atlantic with PKV Racing as teammate to former CART champion Jimmy Vasser, who also owns a piece of the team.
Going into the race in the streets of downtown Long Beach, Bourdais is considered the favorite to repeat as series champion. Teammate Bruno Junqueira -- the runner-up to da Matta in 2002, Forsythe Championship Racing's Paul Tracy in 2003 and Bourdais last year -- is close behind.
But, after some strong winter testing, da Matta expects to have some say in the title battle, too.
"I think we made a lot of progress in every way," da Matta said. "We have a lot of new team members and I am very pleased with the way everybody has worked together and come together as a team. I am also pleased with the progress we made developing the cars.
"But, it is also good to remember how close all the teams and drivers were during the last few tests. Everybody was within a few tenths of a second of each other and nobody was really dominant."
Bourdais was dominant last year, winning seven of 14 races, but the 25-year-old Frenchman expects things to be tougher this year. That means a good start in Long Beach could be the key.
"If you don't finish the first races of the season, you put yourself out of contention very fast," said Bourdais, who was third behind winner Tracy and Junqueira on the 1.968-mile temporary street circuit last year. "A championship is very long and if you're not consistent, always there at the finish, you take yourself out of contention. For sure, a podium finish in Long Beach (last year) was plenty satisfying for me."
Junqueira tired of 2nd place
Junqueira, 28, from Brazil, is tired of being a runner-up.
"I wish I could win the championship," Junqueira said. "I wish it would happen. The last three years, we've been very competitive.
"It's good in one way: I was up there fighting for race wins and the championship. But it's also sad because I was so close and didn't get it. We just have to work a little harder this year. This team can win the championship."
Perennial contender Tracy returns along with new Forsythe teammate Mario Dominguez, coming off a career-best fifth-place finish in the 2004 standings.
Other returning veterans include Oriol Servia with Dale Coyne Racing, top 2004 rookie A.J. Allmendinger and Justin Wilson with RuSPORT, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who moves from the Herdez Competition team to Rocketsports, and Alex Tagliani, moving from Rocketsports to the new Team Australia.