Alessandro Balzan celebrates with team (Scuderia Corsa/Ferrari North America)

Scuderia Corsa reflects on Ferrari’s second straight Rolex GT title

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For the second consecutive season, Ferrari has captured the championship in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series’ GT class. That gives the Scuderia a perfect 2-for-2 strike rate in the years it has entered with the GRAND-AM spec F458 Italia, before 2014 arrives and GRAND-AM and the American Le Mans Series take the green flag as the newly merged Tudor United SportsCar Championship.

Scuderia Corsa followed AIM Autosport/Team FXDD’s championship-winning ways of 2012. This year, Alessandro Balzan took the title in dramatic fashion in the season finale at Lime Rock Park. Balzan entered the title decider down four points to the Magnus Racing pair of Andy Lally and John Potter, but avoided trouble as the Magnus Porsche was hit by another car on just the second lap of the race. With second place, his ninth top-five finish in 12 races, Balzan emerged as champion ahead of Lally and Potter by 10 points.

“I was never relaxed during the race since things were always happening in front of us, behind us, or next to us,” Balzan said after the race. “The DP’s were passing us and sometimes it was a nightmare because you know that you are leading the championship but you also know that you are losing so much time in traffic.”

Scuderia Corsa team principal Giacomo Mattioli explained Balzan rose to the challenge in his first full season of Rolex GT competition.

“The thing that really convinced me is his track record,” Mattioli said. “This is now five years in a row he’s won the championship: Porsche Cup three years, Ferrari Challenge and now Rolex GT. I knew he wouldn’t crack under pressure, and wouldn’t do, shall we say stupid things.

“What I was surprised by is how quickly he has learned and adapted to tracks, and to tires he didn’t really know. That beat even my expectations. It’s a telling talent. That’s hard to do and it’s not easy to predict how quickly he’ll pick up a track. I’ve never seen anyone else do that within 3-4 laps.”

Balzan had several different co-drivers in 2013 – Alessandro Per Guidi for two races, Jeff Westphal through Watkins Glen and Leh Keen the last five races – and had to mesh his style with whoever else was sharing the seat of the No. 63 Ferrari F458 Italia. They only won once, but had the best finishing record in the field.

“The chemistry between the drivers is a key ingredient, but the chemistry among the team is a bigger ingredient,” Mattioli said. “Pretty much every driver who has raced for us has felt welcome and comfortable and grown in very quickly. One big component with Alessandro is he is a super nice guy. He’s easygoing, he makes everyone comfortable, and he gelled with Jeff and Leh. I couldn’t have scripted it.”

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Mattioli (left) and Mattiacci (right) (Scuderia Corsa/Ferrari North America)

Nor could they have scripted the fact that the team could enter into Rolex GT and win the title in its first full season. Mattioli and Ferrari North America president/CEO Marco Mattiacci have a strong relationship and to win in front of Mattiacci was great for both individuals.

“My background has been in working with the factory,” said Mattioli, who was born and raised in Modena and eventually came to work for Ferrari in North America. “We have had the opportunity to see – shall we say, both sides of the fence: the corporate and retail ends of it. I have a unique perspective to be able to reflect and understand the factory requirements. Marco and I have had a friendship for many years, but we are very in tune on the business side.”

“The manufacturer championship is very important for Ferrari, because it demonstrates not only the phenomenal performance, speed, balance, but also the reliability of the 458 Italia,” Mattiacci said immediately after the race. “To win it for the second time, against the high level of competition in the Rolex Series in the United States, is an achievement we are very proud of.”

Balzan reflected on the title, too, as this was his first full season racing in the U.S.

“I am very happy for the team. Everyone at Scuderia Corsa, really deserved it,” he said. “It’s really crazy to think we are champions in the first year. I have to thank Giacomo because he believed in me, otherwise I would have never gotten the seat. I’m a 100% Scuderia Corsa product, and it is a dream for a little Italian driver coming from Italy that is now living in Modena.”

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Team shot (Scuderia Corsa/Ferrari North America)

Looking ahead to 2014, Mattioli confirmed Scuderia Corsa will return to defend its title.

“It’s definitely exciting and very interesting, the first year, because it’s easier said than done when you mesh two different series and so many classes,” he said. “We’re staying in GTD. The goal is two cars for the full season.

“We are very happy to be involved with the Tudor United championship. I think there will be a lot of competition again, coming from Porsche, coming from other manufacturers. But we’ll be there with the 458 package.

“For a driver – this is not me saying it – but the opportunity to race for Ferrari is the top,” he added. “I think our drivers feel the same, we are very lucky to be involved with Ferrari and there are few things in life you cannot separate. It’s part of the DNA of the company. If you want to represent Ferrari at any level – retail, business, dealer – you need to race. It’s exciting, it’s fun.”

Schmidt Peterson confirms all-Canadian lineup of Hinchcliffe, Wickens

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The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team is going for a diet of denim, maple syrup, pace and politeness in its 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series lineup, with an all-Canadian pairing of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens confirmed for next season.

Hinchcliffe was known to want a driver of Wickens’ caliber alongside him in the second seat after three less-than-fruitful seasons with James Jakes (2015), Mikhail Aleshin (2016) and a combination of drivers (Aleshin, Sebastian Saavedra, Jack Harvey) rotated through the second car the last three years.

Recent changes have brought them to this point and now leads them to becoming full-time teammates for the first time in a decade, since the defunct country-focused A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008.

Hinchcliffe has re-signed with Schmidt Peterson after three seasons with the team. His first was shortened due to his near life-threatening injuries sustained in an accident in practice for that year’s Indianapolis 500. A rapid and welcome recovery followed throughout the second half of 2015 before his comeback to action in 2016, with an Indianapolis 500 pole and a couple near-misses on wins that followed. In 2017, he won Round 2 at Long Beach but faltered in the second half of the year through a litany of mechanical woes and bad luck.

Wickens, meanwhile, faced an uncertain future when Mercedes-Benz announced earlier this year it would withdraw from DTM at the end of 2018. One of Hinchcliffe’s long-time friends, Wickens hasn’t raced full-time in North America in more than a decade since they were both in Formula Atlantic in 2007, at separate teams (Wickens at Red Bull Forsythe Racing and Hinchcliffe at Sierra Sierra Enterprises). As he pursued his Formula 1 dream and had a wealth of success in the junior series, he never got a proper shot, and has since gone onto several successful years with Mercedes in DTM.

A ride-swap between the two of them came together earlier this year where Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda at Sebring’s short course, while Hinchcliffe then flew to Italy to sample Wickens’ Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM after the St. Petersburg season opener. Hinchcliffe ended 13th in points in IndyCar, Wickens ninth in DTM this year, both with one win each during the year. Wickens also had a Friday to sample the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda at Road America this year, but had to relinquish the seat once Aleshin returned from a visa issue.

“Not only am I really excited to be able to say I’ll be back with SPM for next year and beyond, but I am also really looking forward to being teammates with one of my oldest friends,” said Hinchcliffe.

“Robbie and I grew up racing against one another, eventually took different paths, me staying in North America in open-wheel cars and him going off to Europe in sports cars, but it’s pretty neat that we both ended up here and we get to live our dream of being professional racing drivers, together on the same team.

“I think 2018 is going to be a great year for the SPM organization, from having Robbie here to the team’s new partnership with Honda and the 2018 aero kit; I just can’t wait to get back on track and bring some good results home for the Arrow Electronics crew.”

Wickens added: “This is an entirely new chapter to add to my racing career, and I am really excited for this opportunity that Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has given me.

“I think everyone knows the story by now that James and I grew up racing against one another in go karts, and to make it to the largest open-wheel racing series in North America together as teammates, it’s crazy to think about.

“I am very thankful for the six years I had with everyone at Mercedes and DTM; those are memories I will cherish forever. I can’t wait to truly see what the Verizon IndyCar Series is all about!”