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Victor Franzoni seals Pro Mazda title; delivers Juncos a double

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Victor Franzoni has completed a weekend sweep in the pair of Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races at Watkins Glen International, and secured the 2017 Pro Mazda title in the process.

The Brazilian driver led flag-to-flag from pole in tricky conditions with mist peppering the 3.37-mile circuit, and the track damp from earlier rain, for his seventh win of the year in the No. 23 Juncos Racing entry. His win Saturday came following a pivotal pass of title rival Anthony Martin for the lead on the outside into the Bus Stop.

This capped off the run for the Mazda Renesis rotary engine and the existing chassis before the new Tatuus PM-18 enters the series next year, the second rung on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.

More to the point, Franzoni has now secured the Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship valued at more than $790,000, to move into the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2018.

“I am so happy, but there are so many things in my mind right now. It’s unbelievable. So many people helped me to get into Pro Mazda this season,” Franzoni said. “I grew up five or 10 years in my career this season. The difference for me was Juncos Racing this year, they gave me such a great car. The fight with Anthony was incredible. He’s really, really good. I had to push so hard to stay with him. We were so close in every single race and pushed to the limit all the time. This was the hardest season of my life, because I knew I could not make a mistake. We both did a great job and I think we both deserve to move forward. I want to thank everyone at Mazda, Cooper Tires and Andersen Promotions.

“There were so many things on my mind on that last lap that I couldn’t focus. The team told me to be careful when the white flag came out, and suddenly, I couldn’t drive! When I saw the checkered, it was so great. To know where I will be next year now is the best thing in the world. I didn’t get just prize money today, I got hope.”

With this win, Franzoni will join Kyle Kaiser in winning a title for Juncos Racing this year, giving Ricardo Juncos bragging rights as the first team owner and first team to win two MRTI titles in the same season. Kaiser will only need to start today’s Indy Lights season finale to score enough points to secure that title.

Franzoni entered the day with an eight-point lead over his closest title rival, Martin, and with Martin needing to win and hope Franzoni finished off the podium to realistically be able move ahead to bring the title back within his grasp.

Martin, however, was hamstrung as it was by starting fifth in his No. 8 Cape Motorsports entry after being assessed a two-spot grid penalty for running the checkered flag during qualifying late Saturday afternoon.

While he made it up to third place on the opening lap, Martin’s title hopes evaporated when he spun off at Turn 1 trying to pass Carlos Cunha’s No. 81 Team Pelfrey car for second place. Martin lost several seconds to fall more than 11 back of Franzoni in the lead, and resumed on track just ahead of Nikita Lastochkin’s No. 80 Pelfrey car, repaired after yesterday’s accident with teammate Robert Megennis.

Although Martin gained five seconds over the next three laps, he was unable to get any closer to Cunha for second, and was forced to settle into third.

“I was pushing 150 percent out there with the championship on the line. It sucks to be the first loser, as I call it, but I gave it my all,” Martin said.

“I didn’t leave anything out there. I’m very disappointed not to take the championship but I had a great time this year. I was a Mazda Scholarship driver, which is something I never thought I would be when I first arrived in America.

“To come this far and to not take the championship is bittersweet. The season has been one big bumpy rollercoaster. Victor and I traded the lead I don’t know how many times, and we had some intense battles. Congratulations to Victor and to Juncos Racing. Consistency wins and they were just a little more consistent than me.”

Up front though Franzoni enjoyed a comfortable drive to the win by 1.5903 seconds over Cunha, who scored his fifth straight podium to end the year, and his first runner-up result of the season with the race’s fastest lap of 1:59.8161 set on the final lap. All of his five prior podiums were third places. The 20-lap, 40-minute race ran to the checkered flag without a caution flag.

Martin’s third place, was, fittingly, his first third place of the year and only the second race where he didn’t finish first or second.

But with Franzoni having won seven races and finished second in the other five, the Brazilian is now the one who will don a Soul Red Mazda in Indy Lights next season.

Ferrari teammates Vettel and Raikkonen fastest in rainy final practice at Australian GP

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen went one-two in the final practice session ahead of qualifying at the water-logged Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel set a best-lap time of 1 minute, 26.067 seconds, more than 2.4 seconds faster than his teammate in second.

Both Ferrari drivers switched from their intermediate tires to the super-fast, ultra-soft tires for the final few laps of the session, testing conditions on the track after a day-long downpour left it slick and filled with small puddles.

Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton did not opt to try out their soft tires, sticking to the intermediates for the entire session. They had the seventh- and eighth-fastest times, after topping the leaderboard in practice in dry conditions on Friday.

The heavy rains subsided by early afternoon, allowing the track to rapidly dry during the third practice session and making conditions safe for drivers to test their soft tires.

Still, only a few drivers completed a timed lap with the softer compounds, with Mercedes, Red Bull and most of the others staying with their intermediates.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson had the third-fastest time of the session on ultrasoft tires, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on intermediates.

Hamilton remains the favorite to capture his fifth straight pole position at the Australian Grand Prix in qualifying later Saturday. He had the fastest laps on ultrasoft tires in the two practice sessions on Friday, though Verstappen was right behind him.

Verstappen and Vettel both slid on the slick track early in the third practice session, but maintained control and completed their runs without incident.

Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, had the sixth-fastest time of the session. The Australian’s chances of winning his fifth career Grand Prix on his home track in Melbourne took a hit late Friday when he was assessed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

The Australian driver was penalized for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday’s second practice session because of debris on the track.