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The Way It Is/ New Atlantic champion Raphael Matos plans to race all winter in preparation for his rookie Champ Car season

by Gordon Kirby
Raphael Matos arrived in the United States five years ago with a reputation as another young Brazilian hotshoe to watch. Matos had won a bunch of karting titles in Brazil and took his country's Chevrolet Formula Junior championship in 2001. At 21, he decided to tackle making his professional career in the United States rather than Europe and immediately impressed with his clean, aggressive driving style.

Raphael started in America with the Skip Barber system, winning the Formula Dodge National championship in '03 before moving on to the Star Mazda series in 2004 and '05. Matos won the Star Mazda championship in '05 and earned himself a ride for '06 with the Sierra-Sierra team in the revived Mazda Atlantic championship. In his rookie year in Atlantic, Matos was a serious frontrunner. He took four poles, won in San Jose and added three second places, taking fourth in the championship.

Last winter, Matos raced in the A1GP series for Team Brazil and was ready to go after winning this year's Atlantic championship in his second year with Sierra-Sierra. Raphael started the season with a great run of three wins in a row in Las Vegas, Long Beach and Houston and was the man to beat all year. He added three more wins to his tally and handily beat series rookies Franck Perera and Robert Wickens to the title.

"The biggest thing this year was looking at the big picture," Matos observed. "Even after I won the second race of the year, before the race we would have a meeting and they would say, okay, you won the last two races, you don't have to win anymore, you just have to finish the races. But then the wins would come to me and things were going the right way. I would never have imagined that I could have won six races in a season. We won half the races this season and that's just amazing."

Matos says his experience from his rookie year enabled him to put together a much more consistent season second time around. "I think the whole process moved on from last year trying to develop the concept and the team," Raphael commented. "I don't think we had a very consistent car last year. It was very difficult for me to make a consistent car, especially because I was learning the tracks, learning the car, learning how to work with the engineer. All those things made it difficult to be consistent and be up front at every race.

"That's why I think last season was full of ups and downs. One race we would be very strong and another race we would be struggling. We didn't know really which direction we should go with the set-ups. With the lack of experience from my side, it made things difficult for me.

"But this year is a completely different deal," he added. "I'm more mature. I know the tracks and I have a much more consistent car. Every time we rolled out of the trailer the car was really good and we were able to develop the car from that baseline and make things better. This year has been a learning curve for me, but I believe we've been much more competitive this year."

Matos's worst weekend of the year was at Portland in June. He messed up and spun on the opening lap of the first of the two races in Portland, then finished no better than sixth in the second race.

"Portland was a very difficult weekend for us because we didn't have a good car in the dry," Raphael recalled. "It rained in the first race and I went off on the first lap while leading the race. It was very frustrating. I had to put my head down and pass a lot of people through the race without seeing anything in the rain to finish fourth. I had to get a good result after making that mistake at the start. Then in the second race in the dry we just didn't have the pace and we finished sixth. I just tried to finish the race because we couldn't afford to lose the points lead we had built until then."

Matos put the championship on ice with a great weekend at Edmonton in July. Like Portland, there were two Atlantic races in Edmonton but this time Matos won both of them. "I would say the best weekend for us was definitely Edmonton," Matos acknowledged. "I knew that after Edmonton we would have an idea of who would have a shot at the championship, or not. And we won both races in Edmonton in a very convincing way on a very good, very fast track with no room for error.

"There's a very small window setup-wise at Edmonton and we were really good every session and were able to dominate that weekend. Winning both those races was the biggest weekend for us."

This year's Atlantic field was again very competitive with a lot of young kids and teen-aged rookies. In fact, almost three-quarters of this year's Atlantic racers were rookies. Matos is a little older and more experienced than most of his competitors this year. I wondered what it was like racing against these aggressive young kids.

"It's been a lot of fun," Matos grinned. "I knew that this year was the key year for me. I'm 25 years old and I knew this year was the year I would have to make it to Champ Car. So I needed to make sure I was going to beat these kids. Every team in Atlantic is well-funded and they have good drivers and good engineers. So it's a very competitive series and it was a big accomplishment for me beating all those guys."

Matos pauses and takes a breath. "I tell you, it was very difficult. People think our team was so far ahead of everybody but it's the little details that the team takes care of on the car so that we are consistent every time we go out on the track. That's where all the hard work in the off-season at the shop makes the difference at the end of the year.

"Look at Elkhart," he added. "We missed the setup a little bit and we started ninth. If you slip a little bit you're P15 and it doesn't take much to be a little bit off on the setup and be off the pace. But we got the brakes fixed for the race and we were able to make a bunch of places and have a good race."

Matos particularly enjoyed racing at Mt. Tremblant where he qualified and finished second to Franck Perera. "The first time I went onto the track I was so glad we were racing there," Raphael remarked. "It's the perfect track for my driving style and the perfect track for an Atlantic car.

"We were really strong on the first day and had the pole, but I don't think we made the right changes for the changes in the track conditions on the second day. The track changed a little bit. It got more grip and we were a little bit conservative on the change we made to the car and we just didn't have the pace to keep up with Franck. But I was just happy racing there. I had a lot of fun. You always want to win, but I think the biggest thing is to enjoy what you're doing."

Matos is excited about winning the Mazda Atlantic champion's $2 million prize and his rookie season next year in Champ Car. "It's definitely the biggest opportunity of my career," he said. "If I look back, I came here four years ago with nothing. I had no money and no sponsors. I had a dream that I wanted to drive a Champ car and I went to Skip Barber. Then I won the Star Mazda championship and even after winning that championship, Champ Car was still far away. I could see that I could do Champ Car but it was difficult because I didn't have the money to do Atlantic. When I signed with Sierra-Sierra, that's when I felt I really had a shot of making it to Champ Car because I knew they were a good team.

"I was a bit disappointed that we didn't win the championship in the first year because we could have. But they gave me another chance for the second year and it went pretty well. I think everything was in the right place at the right time and obviously it took a lot of hard work."

There's a quiet fierceness to Matos which is reflected in his constant thinking about making his race cars faster. "I'm a hundred percent focused and thinking about racing a hundred percent of my time," he said. "Even when I'm at home I'm thinking about how I should improve the car and how I should improve myself. I'm always talking to my engineer, brainstorming, thinking about different things about how we can improve the car. The more you look at your car and think about it, it's going to pay off in the end."

Matos says he's learned a lot from his vastly-experienced engineer Lee Dykstra and driver coach David Empringham who's a former double Atlantic champion. "Last year I think I was driving too much around the problem with the car instead of trying to improve the car and finding more speed in the car," Matos observed. "This year I was really focused in the first session at each race in improving the car and finding speed in the car because I knew if we could get the car right I would be P1. David Empringham and Lee Dykstra were able to guide me really well and to help make sure I was improving the car and not driving around the car's problems."

At this point it's not known which team Matos will race for next year but he hopes to make his Champ Car debut at Mexico City in November and also wants to do the season-closing Phoenix Champ Car race. "I'm hoping to do at least three days of testing later this year in a Champ car and I'm hoping to race in Mexico City and Phoenix," he declared. "This is my goal for this year. I really want to do those races because I want to get some seat time for next year. I think it would be great for me to start the season next year with some cooperation with the team under my belt."

Matos intends to keep sharp by racing in the A1GP series over the winter. "I'm planning on doing A1GP for Team Brazil because that will also give me more seat time and more confidence in a more powerful car," he remarked. "It's all about just keeping busy. I don't want a vacation right now. I want to keep busy because I think it will pay off for next year. I'm also involved with Mazda's LMP2 program. I may do Le Mans and I also do a lot of bicycling and a lot of physical training."

The young Brazilian drove Mazda's LMP2 car at Sebring the past two years and hopes to race again for Mazda at Sebring next spring. "It's a program that's growing. It's not the top car at all, but they're getting better and it's a great program. I would just love to be the first driver to go through the ladder system with Mazda. I made my first step in the Mazda championship and I'm glad I was the first one to get the chance. Now I've won the Mazda Atlantic championship so Mazda has done a lot for me and my career."

Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud showed again this year that the best guys from Atlantic are always ready to move up and Raphael Matos is the next in a long line of Atlantic graduates who have tackled the big-time. Matos has all the right attributes and if he's with the right team next year he's sure to make his mark. In fact, he already has.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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