Franzoni toppled Martin for Pro Mazda crown. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Pro Mazda title, hope achieved for Victor Franzoni after epic battle

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Victor Franzoni’s racing career in North America could make a great movie down the road. The 21-year-old Brazilian has, like a talented baseball prospect, always been on the fringe of making it full-time but been in dire need of that last-minute call-up to make it happen.

None of his four years in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires have gone to plan. All saw late deals materialize – some even during the season – but his talent persisted regardless even if he didn’t have the funds to make such a season happen.

Now though, Franzoni’s a champion within the MRTI after his toughest in-season battle with a worthy adversary in Anthony Martin.

The two combined to make Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires’ final year with its venerable chassis, now in its 13th season, and Mazda Renesis rotary engine a memorable one.

Both drivers admitted at the season finale weekend they needed each other in pursuit of the title and the $790,000 Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship that came with it for the champion to move into Indy Lights.

“I think both as a driver and a person, I grew a lot. I had to push myself 100 percent without any mistakes,” Franzoni told NBC Sports. “I didn’t do more than 15 mistakes all year, all sessions. I knew if I did any, Anthony would win. I had to be perfect all season.

“I had to push myself for good feedback for the team. It’s not just sit and drive. You have to give good feedback. There’s so much work. I had to be perfect on everything. I had to learn the track fast and adapt without doing any mistakes. It was difficult. I learned so much.”

Martin agreed. Asked if there was anything he could do differently, the Australian had a deadpan answer on par with his countryman, Will Power.

“Yeah, won the championship,” he laughed. “But I don’t know. Every time I go out there I give it my all.

“In actuality, I don’t think so. Juncos and Victor just came out on top and congratulations to them. They’ve been super consistent. Consistency wins; that’s a motto I go by. And I wasn’t as consistent as Victor.

“Last year I learned about handling the pressure. It’s immense fighting for championships and the Mazda scholarships. I learned more from last year and it’s made me a lot better today.”

Both drivers gave it their all in pursuit of this year’s title and with finishes of first or second in every race, Franzoni prevailed.

Martin was left to rue missed opportunities on a handful of occasions. His two worst finishes were third (Watkins Glen) and fourth (Indianapolis race two), which wouldn’t stand out as bad under normal circumstances but did this year as Franzoni won both times. Just in those two races, Martin lost 24 points to Franzoni – and he lost the title overall by just 18 markers.

Team Pelfrey, which won the last two Pro Mazda titles with Aaron Telitz and Santiago Urrutia, failed to win a race or mount a serious challenge this year that interrupted the Franzoni-Martin battle.

The tense rivalry nearly boiled over into war at a pair of permanent road courses.

Franzoni, who smiles as frequently as Daniel Ricciardo in Formula 1, struggled to do so after race two at Road America when he believed Martin had blocked him and denied him a victory. The win there was Martin’s third of the year and stopped Franzoni’s three-race winning streak in its tracks.

The next event weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, it was Martin’s turn to feel aggrieved. Attempting to lap Franzoni’s teammate Jeff Green in race two of three there, Martin tracked out wide when trying to pass him around the outside of the right-hand carousel. The gap on the inside left room for Franzoni to dart through while Green spun back across the road on corner exit, balking Martin’s pace. Martin felt the move was a dirty one when it had just been a mistake by Green, who was doing his best to get out of the way and not affect the title fight.

Heading to Gateway, Martin seemed poised to capture the momentum and had the pace in hand. But a last-minute setup gamble by Franzoni’s Juncos team – with no guarantee it would work – shifted the pendulum back to his corner once again. With the pass for the win achieved, Franzoni had the edge heading to Watkins Glen.

Then a peerless doubleheader win there followed, Franzoni first pulling a move to the outside of Martin in race one, then crushing it in the rain in race two.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

His team boss, Ricardo Juncos, was thrilled at how well Franzoni handled the pressure of championship weekend.

“He surprised me even more today. He held the pressure. Normally for South Americans that’s the hardest part!” Juncos, the Argentine, laughed. “We are more emotional, and that plays against us all the time.

“But the last two races and Gateway showed how confident he was. 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.”

Franzoni thanked Martin for pushing him all season, and reflected on his journey over these four years in the aftermath of Watkins Glen.

“Anthony was the best and worst guy to fight for championship,” he said. “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.”

As for making his dream come true 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,” he said. “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.”

Franzoni and Juncos weren’t even meant to be in Pro Mazda this season.

Several months later, they’re champions after a surreal year, and an epic battle where they prevailed over worthy adversaries.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

F1 2017 driver review: Kevin Magnussen

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Kevin Magnussen

Team: Haas
Car No.: 20
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P7 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 19
Championship Position: 14th

Kevin Magnussen’s move to Haas proved to be a win-win situation for both parties through 2017 as they banished the struggles of the previous Formula 1 season.

For Magnussen, the move came after a difficult one-season stint with Renault who despite offering him a way back into F1 after a year on the sidelines were unable to produce a car allowing the Dane to fight far up the order.

Haas had not expected to be able to be that much further ahead, but Magnussen nevertheless immediately offered an uplift in performance after replacing Esteban Gutierrez, who failed to score a single point through 2016.

Magnussen picked up Haas’ first points of the season with a solid drive in China, and was able to capitalize on the bonkers Baku race to take P7, which would ultimately be his best result of the season.

Consistency was a real issue for Haas throughout the year as it continued to have teething problems most new teams encounter, and while Magnussen was more able to drive around the problems than teammate Romain Grosjean, he lacked the ultimate pace of his teammate.

That said, Magnussen’s season highlight came in Mexico, a track Haas expected to be its worst of the season. The ex-McLaren driver qualified on the last row but produced a stunning display to finish eighth, soaking up pressure from Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton late on.

The signs are positive moving forward. Next year should be Haas’ best yet thanks to the stability in the regulations, presenting a good opportunity for Magnussen to prove his star quality.

Season High: Taking P8 in Mexico when Haas expected to be slowest.

Season Low: Lagging home P15 at Spa as Grosjean hit the points.