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.”

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.”

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.”

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’

Photo: Chris Estrada, NBC Sports
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NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”