Franzoni and Juncos. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Juncos Racing’s title double caps surreal year for team

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A year ago, Ricardo Juncos and his Juncos Racing team entered the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with far more questions and uncertainty about its future than it did at this year’s season finale at Watkins Glen International.

Twice a champion in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires ranks, Juncos was staring down the barrel of its first winless season in the series, and was all set to end its program and sell off its equipment following a challenging, disappointing campaign.

Additionally the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires program had fell from title contention after Spencer Pigot brought home the 2015 championship. Kyle Kaiser had won his first couple races in the series but still made a few too many mistakes to have a realistic shot at capturing the crown. He debated whether he’d move into IndyCar and the team’s second driver, Zachary Claman De Melo, opted to leave after one year and move to Carlin for 2017.

For good measure, the team had its state of the art, 41,000-square foot new shop in downtown Speedway, Ind. it was all set to move into – all while not knowing what the state of its MRTI efforts for 2017 would be, and what the scale of its potential Verizon IndyCar Series program could be.

Although the shop’s grand opening occurred in early December to coincide with the Performance Racing Industry trade show, all that was settled on the driver front was Kaiser and Nicolas Dapero in Indy Lights. Meetings began between Juncos and INDYCAR, particularly Jay Frye and Mark Sibla, to see the team begin its entry into the primary series and fulfill his dream.

PRO MAZDA’S LAST-MINUTE RUN

All the while, Pro Mazda was only there as a back-burner option with the equipment sold and no plans to run… until the week before the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla.

That’s when after a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway where Victor Franzoni and gentleman driver and automotive dealer Jeff Green out of Peoria, Ill. helped launch a story that will go down in open-wheel ladder history lore.

Jeff Green was the unsung hero of the Pro Mazda season. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Franzoni, the 21-year-old Brazilian, had planned for another year of Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda competition with ArmsUp Motorsports, where he overachieved for the Sheboygan Falls, Wis.-based team in 2016, before the Pro Mazda opportunity arose thanks in large part to Green’s support.

“We were in a tough situation looking at February and March when we decided three days before St. Pete to do Pro Mazda,” Juncos told NBC Sports. “Actually I was thinking, how can I avoid firing my guys? They have families and you’re always thinking about it.

“We actually tried to do GTS in Pirelli World Challenge (with Maseratis)… and we put out some news about it. But we didn’t do it and it didn’t happen.

“We had the IndyCar program coming but we didn’t know how to use my guys. I used the Pro Mazda guys for IndyCar. And we were able to do that without losing concentration on both our Indy Lights and Pro Mazda championships.”

Franzoni elaborated on how late in the game this all came together, but he was used to it given his previous three years in the Mazda Road to Indy.

“I had a big sponsor, then two terrible years in Europe, then I lost that. The Mazda Road to Indy was my only option, and my only place for hope,” Franzoni told NBC Sports. “In Europe, they don’t care for the drivers. They only care for the money. You pay; it’s done!

“But I’ve had help every year here. Afterburner was big help, M1 Racing was a big help, then ArmsUp was a huge help. But then Juncos gave me an amazing year.”

Green, Franzoni and Martin in St. Pete. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Franzoni and Green’s relationship grew at the outset of the year as Green acquired the equipment, advancing into the series from vintage racing, and saw the potential and effervescent smile from Franzoni to keep him going. And considering some of Franzoni’s teammates in Europe, in Formula Renault, a quote that followed next said a lot.

“For sure he’s the best teammate I’ve had… and I’ve had Daniil Kvyat and Ocon before!” Franzoni laughed. “I’ve had a lot of big names as teammates. But he was the best one for sure. He helped me a lot this year. Without him, the team wouldn’t have come back for the series.”

MONTH OF MAY PUSHES BOTH DRIVERS TO POINTS LEADS

The months ahead were crucial for Juncos Racing’s push towards its massive success in both series while also preparing for its landmark moment after 15 years in North America – making its debut in the Indianapolis 500.

Franzoni banked a pair of runner-up finishes in St. Petersburg behind Anthony Martin, but it was a weekend sweep at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that asserted himself as a true title contender. It followed on the team’s successful Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test where Franzoni and Juncos, working together for the first time, set a track record.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Additionally, Kaiser, the 21-year-old out of Santa Clara, Calif., had ironed out the mistakes that had plagued his first two seasons in the series and opened the year with great consistency. Finishes of sixth, fourth, second, second and third before his first win of the year on the IMS road course propelled him into the points lead in mid-May.

“I’ve always had huge confidence in the team. I have a ton of faith in their ability,” Kaiser told NBC Sports in May. “We’re never satisfied. The first two years, we struggled a lot here. We said we’d figure it out. This year, we were pretty quick the whole weekend. I love their drive and passion to get better, wherever we are. This will be a huge month for the team.

Kaiser elected not to run the Indy 500 this year as well with Juncos, instead focusing solely on Indy Lights – a move that ultimately paid dividends.

“You gather it up and remember the objective – it’s to win the Indy Lights championship. I wanted to, but it didn’t all line up, so it’s not the right time,” he said.

Franzoni added on the same weekend, “We tested, which was super important. We don’t have anymore tests planned. So it’ll be difficult here to the end of season. This was my second race with Juncos Racing. We need this for the championship.”

Despite the “any more tests” line, Green and Franzoni completed a one-day test at Watkins Glen later in the year, which paid huge dividends down the road.

Juncos Racing has debuted. Photo: IndyCar

Meanwhile, Juncos Racing completed the Indy 500 with both cars, Pigot coming home 18th after fighting an ill-handling car and Sebastian Saavedra overachieving for a solid 15th. With the former KVSH Racing equipment, this result was a culmination of Juncos’ dream, not fully secured until the checkered flag flew.

“The Indy 500 when we finished the race was everything,” Juncos said. “Starting was good, as I saw the ‘500 several times from outside. But inside, it’s very different. We were making history for my own country. But there’s so much tension. We had to finish and when the checkered flag flew, that was a relief. I will remember it forever.”

SUMMER TITLE BATTLES PUSH BOTH DRIVERS TO BRINK

Martin (8) and Franzoni (23) had an intense battle today. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Franzoni had Martin to deal with and the weekends at Road America and Mid-Ohio brought significant tension between the two of them at times.

Franzoni politely as possible accused Martin of blocking him at Road America, halting a potential last-to-first charge and ending a hard-luck second. Meanwhile, Martin felt aggrieved at Mid-Ohio when trying to lap Green, but instead thinking Green had spun on purpose to allow Franzoni through to the lead – as it was Green was actually trying to let both of the leaders through unscathed but just lost the rear end.

Kyle Kaiser with Peter Dempsey after victory in Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Kaiser hadn’t solidified his stamp on the title until Toronto, as he had pressure from any of Nico Jamin, Colton Herta, Santiago Urrutia, Matheus Leist, Zachary Claman De Melo or Aaron Telitz – but none of them having had a consistent enough run to quite supplant it. Either through unreliability or mistakes, each of those other six drivers fell out of the picture, and Kaiser’s weekend sweep north of the border all but assured his title.

All the while, Juncos – at the helm – never lost focus of either program with sole attention back on the MRTI after the Indy 500 bow.

“That guy knows how to handle pressure!” Kaiser told NBC Sports at Watkins Glen. “He can be everywhere and take care of so much stuff to be a great team owner. Any stress he may have had in the Pro Mazda program, I haven’t had to worry about any of that in the Indy Lights program all year. It’s been great. He does a good job at separating the two.”

Franzoni, meanwhile, described how tough Martin pushed him over this summer stretch of races.

“Anthony was the best and worst guy to fight for championship,” he reflected. “As a driver he’s exactly like me, which is the problem! He’s so aggressive and fast. No mistakes. He’s good at setup. Fast all the time. It’s like competing with myself. It’s difficult. Any other driver would be easier for both of us to beat.”

THE GATEWAY TO TITLE SUCCESS

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The final oval for Indy Lights and the lone one for Pro Mazda – the 1.25-mile Gateway Motorsports Park – proved the ultimate test for both programs in their title pursuit, and it left Juncos concerned after a tough Mid-Ohio weekend. Kaiser’s pair of 12th-place finishes brought the field back to him while Franzoni trailed Martin and was behind on pace during the weekend.

“The lowest point this year was probably right before Gateway,” Juncos admitted. “We thought we couldn’t do it. We managed to do both. The formation of IndyCar team was a lot of stress, but I knew it was going to happen. These titles, we didn’t.”

What followed in both races was both huge gambles and huge tour de forces from Kaiser and Franzoni that all but assured them the titles heading to Watkins Glen.

Juncos made a radical setup change to trim out – Franzoni admitted post-race he went ahead with it despite zero confidence – and promptly passed Martin for the lead, and the win, on the outside of Turns 1 and 2. That netted him the title lead in Pro Mazda.

“Gateway showed how confident he was in the whole combination of the team, with the way we work and express our thinking,” Juncos said of Franzoni. “When you believe in yourself and the team and the setup, the driver will get it and it’s a combination. If there’s not the trust, you lose a bit.

“We didn’t have an option. When you don’t have an option, and I know myself, you just have to make it happen.”

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Kaiser, then, delivered a statement, bounce back drive after Mid-Ohio. Fourth place came after a couple great passes, surviving incorrect tire pressure, a few near misses and a deep exhale. With a 31-point lead leaving, Kaiser needed only to start at Watkins Glen to clinch the title.

“Gateway was definitely the closing weekend. That weekend really sealed this,” Kaiser said. “We knew anything could happen here and we’d be fine. We just had to start the race. We executed, and we did what we needed to do. I wanted to get on the podium but knowing where I was, being fourth with three laps to go, I just had to bring it home.

“That restart, I almost put it in the wall but I didn’t – I saved it! That was a season-saving catch, for sure.”

SEALING THE DEAL IN STYLE AT THE GLEN

Before Watkins Glen, Juncos Racing had made two other pieces of news. The team announced a purchase of three Tatuus PM-18 cars for the 2018 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires season. Additionally, it announced it’d be collecting donations for trucks of supplies to then drive from Indianapolis to Texas for Hurricane Harvey relief.

On track, Kaiser’s final race was simply about surviving – seventh wasn’t the ultimate result but knowing his race was in the rain and the importance of bringing the car in one piece, it was fine for him to cap off four years of growth with the team, the last three in Indy Lights.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

But Franzoni’s weekend, first passing Martin for the lead on the outside in Saturday’s race, then crushing it in the wet on Sunday, was the stuff of legend that will be looked back on so fondly.

The dream for all three parties – Juncos, Kaiser and Franzoni – has been achieved, with Juncos becoming the first team to win two MRTI titles in the same year.

Kaiser and Juncos celebrate title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

For Juncos, these titles come after taking on a year with significant financial risk – and coming out the other side with everything achieved. He hailed every member of his team, and family, as family. As it stands now, he plans for an IndyCar program of at least three and up to five races next year, with or without Kaiser alongside.

For Kaiser, his title propels him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, which was an unlikely thought for those who saw him at the start of his MRTI career but shows how well the ladder works.

For Franzoni, it means he has his next season confirmed more than a week before the new year, and after a year of being a go-kart mechanic, sharing rooms, coming with his family and assisting the BN Racing team throughout its campaign, he now has his best shot at IndyCar. He expects to stay with Juncos Racing in Indy Lights next season, although that won’t be formally confirmed until Mazda Motorsports posts its scholarship driver release after December.

“Ricardo’s not only a team owner but he’s really a good mechanic and engineer. It’s a family,” Franzoni said. “Everyone, the engineers, mechanics… they all came from when they arrived in U.S. and started in go-karts. We have the same history, but in different ways. They started so small in go-karts, and made a great team; I started without money, also in go-karts. Now we’re together in Indy Lights. It’s the same kind of career. It’s why he believes in me and helps me.”

Juncos added, “It’s the best weekend ever so far. We’ve won championships in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights before, but both this year in the same year we did the Indy 500, it’s been amazing.

“We gambled big time. We knew it. Sometimes if I think more, I wouldn’t do it! Many things in my life I do without thinking. It was a huge risk. I talked to my wife, we said let’s do it, and here we are – we’re champions.”

Hamilton: Abu Dhabi ‘the last race with good-looking cars’ in F1

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Lewis Hamilton believes that this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be remembered as the last race with good-looking Formula 1 cars ahead of the introduction of the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection for next year.

Officials from the FIA and F1 Strategy Group confirmed earlier this year that the Halo would be fitted to all cars from the 2018 season in a bid to improve safety standards, with the deaths of Justin Wilson and Jules Bianchi putting head protection high on the agenda for the series’ chiefs.

Hamilton has long made his opposition to the Halo clear, believing it will ruin the look of F1 cars, and echoed his thoughts ahead of the final Halo-less race in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

“It’s the last year of looking good I think in the cars. It’s the last race where the cars will look good,” Hamilton said.

“I think next year, it’s all downhill from there in terms of how they look.

“But safety will go up at least, and maybe it could be successful in some way.”

Hamilton’s F1 title rival Sebastian Vettel was less bothered about the change, believing the field will adjust and move on.

“The cars will look different next year. Everything I’ve seen so far looks different, but on the other hand it is something we all get used to,” Vettel said.

“But no doubt the cars look better now, but we’ll get used to it, and we’ll work on the aesthetics so it can be better. It is less of a big deal.”

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo shared Vettel’s view, saying: “I don’t think it’s gonna be as dramatic as most people make it out to be.”