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Saturday, October 23, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Raphael Matos

Raphael Matos could have used some better luck in 2010.

The 2009 IZOD IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year headed into 2010 looking to continue a three-year streak of winning awards in every series in which he competed. He had won the 2007 Champ Car Atlantic title, and followed that up with the Firestone Indy Lights crown in 2008 before scoring his IndyCar rookie award last year.

One of the hottest young drivers in the sport had a new advisor, as former Indianapolis 500 champion and countryman Gil de Ferran bought into the Luczo Dragon Racing team, renaming it de Ferran Dragon Motorsports in the process. The team also added a limited program for Davey Hamilton, who brought Hewlett-Packard funding to the team full-time. Both driver and team set goals for a top-10 points finish this year after running 13th last year.

Matos opened the season in his native country of Brazil, where he took a career-best fourth place finish, second-best among Brazilian drivers in the event. He followed that up with three laps led and an eighth place run at St. Petersburg, where he had crashed out in 2009. Through the first quarter of the season, Matos maintained ninth place in points, easily within the team's goal for the year.

But next on the schedule were Kansas and Indianapolis, two tracks at which the team had failed to finish in 2009. Matos survived Kansas in 16th place, but for the second year in a row failed to complete the sport's biggest race. Not long after losing a wheel in the pits, Matos slammed the outside wall on lap 73, and his day was done. His crash, combined with Hamilton's first-lap incident, meant the team would scramble to prepare a single car for the next two oval events.

It took a return to the road courses for a reversal in Matos' fortunes, as another fourth-place finish came at Watkins Glen. But Toronto saw an accident with E.J. Viso kill any momentum the team may have had.

Mid-Ohio saw Matos' fourth and final top-10 of the season, as he came home seventh, but the rest of the year wasn't much to write home about. Back-to-back DNFs at Sonoma and Chicago were less than conducive to maintaining his position in points, as he dropped all the way down to 15th in the order. In each of the final three races, the team finished outside the top 15 as well.

When all was said and done, Matos finished 14th in points, despite qualifying no better than 10th all season and producing half the amount of top-10s he had in 2009.

Indeed, declining qualifying performance was a decisive factor in Matos' 22-point decrease from his rookie season. 2009 saw Matos start no worse than 18th, as he qualified in the top 10 seven times for an average of 11.8. This year, Matos started 20th or worse five times, never making it to the Firestone Fast Six as he had in 2009, resulting in a 16.5 average start. His average finish also dropped to 15.7 from 12.8 in 2009.

With the hopeful addition of a full-time teammate and mentor for 2011, Matos' prospects may improve markedly, but only if the team is able to expand and thus retains him. With Tony Kanaan on the market, there have been rumors that Matos may be replaced, as nobody knows the status of Matos' multi-year contract with the team. But the addition of the fellow Brazilian and former IndyCar champion to the team, if in a second car, should help Matos improve as a driver dramatically next season and beyond.

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