Segal, Balzan and Nielsen. Photo courtesy of IMSA

History all around for Nielsen, Balzan, Scuderia Corsa with GTD crown

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The biggest compliment you can pay to Christina Nielsen in the wake of becoming the first female driver to win an IMSA championship is not using that “female driver” line as the primary descriptor.

If instead, you say the 24-year-old Dane has joined the ranks of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship champions, and then note, oh yeah, and she happens to be female, then that’s a more proper way of going about it.

Nielsen, who just two years ago was a regular in IMSA’s Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama and only made selected endurance race starts for TRG-AMR in the first season of the merged IMSA series before advancing into the WeatherTech Championship full-time last year, is now one of the series’ newest champions.

And she’s done so with her full-season co-driver Alessandro Balzan, the talented and yet still underrated Italian who was back full-time with Scuderia Corsa this year after a one-year hiatus and has banked his second title in four years.

Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa, itself, adds the GT Daytona title to its banner season where the team also won the GTA title in Pirelli World Challenge with Martin Fuentes, and the GTE-AM class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Nielsen and Balzan’s third driver Jeff Segal, then its 2015 GTD champs in Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler.

Rather than list all the stats, Scuderia Corsa did the job for us via this Instagram post:

The fact the team repeated in GTD this year spoke to a lot of factors about how well the team operates, and how good of an environment they provided for Nielsen this year.

Bell and Sweedler left the team to shift to the new Lamborghini Huracán GT3, which was expected to be fast, but with a new team in O’Gara Motorsport comprised of a number of ex-Dorricott Racing personnel. That O’Gara squad lasted exactly one race and Bell and Sweedler scrambled from there to put together a program for the remainder of the year, and instead only did two more races in IMSA.

By contrast, Scuderia Corsa meshed its new parts well, as it still maintained the same core leadership group of Mattioli, technical director Roberto Amorosi, managing director Eric Bachelart and sporting director Stefan Johansson. The team upgraded from the venerable Ferrari 458 Italia GT3, which it ran at the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, to the new 488 GT3 starting at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

And with Bell and Sweedler out, Balzan was the natural replacement to come back as the full-season Gold or Platinum-rated driver, and Silver-rated Nielsen switched after two years with TRG-AMR.

The new group clicked instantly. A sixth place at the Rolex 24 with the old car was the perfect low-key, successful result to sign off the old 458, and with two one-off entries finishing ahead of them there weren’t many points hurdles to overcome from there.

Sebring was, if possible, a turning point even though it was only the second race of the year. Segal scored the debut pole for the new 488 GT3, and despite occasionally miserable conditions the three drivers were incredible all race. Balzan brought the car home to the finish and a debut win, marking Nielsen’s first at this level as well.

Further podiums in Monterey and Detroit followed before another endurance race win – this time at Watkins Glen in the six-hour – and after Bell, Sweedler and Segal had seamlessly won Le Mans in the interim. Balzan, too, ran in Scuderia Corsa’s GT Le Mans car at Long Beach and per IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam, that makes him the only driver who competed in every IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race this season – each of the four classes occasionally missed a round.

With a total of seven podiums in 11 races in the stacked GTD class, which had anywhere from 12 to 22 cars entered per race, there was no stopping the team en route to the title. Nielsen and Balzan won by 27 points over Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating, which was the largest class margin of victory within four classes.

The No. 63 won a stacked GTD field. Photo courtesy of IMSA
The No. 63 Ferrari won a stacked GTD field. Photo courtesy of IMSA

A smart strategic play to run Nielsen the opening three hours at Petit Le Mans to get her her minimum three hours drive time was enough to ensure they had the title in the bag.

It capped off a whirlwind weekend for her, with the media attention and extra coverage added to her primary focus and task at hand, which was wheeling the hell out of the No. 63 car.

“It did seem a bit long in the first couple laps… because we knew there were still two hours and 50 minutes to go!” Nielsen told NBC Sports. “But it was definitely tough battling because everyone knew I had something to lose. I was a bit more careful than normal. It was hard racing for a 10-hour race, in GTD, like many of the others.

“I always had the championship on my mind. I wanted to get this done. I had to get my drive time in. Otherwise, I couldn’t relax.”

Relax may have been said there, but this has been a crazy year spent living in Southern California and bouncing between her IMSA role with her European Le Mans Series effort as well, racing a Ferrari F458 Italia GTE car for Formula Racing.

“I’ve been traveling quite a lot actually. It’s been a busy season,” she said. “But it’s been nice. I really like the weather. It allows you to do a lot of outdoor stuff. I think it’s been a great place to network for sponsor opportunities.”

She’s been able to handle all the travel and all the racing with the help and support of her team, particularly paying tribute to Balzan.

“I’ve learned so much from him as a driver and person,” she said. “His focus and approach to racing is very professional. The key is we have a great group dynamic; they’re supportive, sweet, funny and want to bring the best out of it.”

Balzan, who’s been with Scuderia Corsa largely since the start, first really noticed Nielsen when she won a GTA class race in Pirelli World Challenge for Kevin Buckler’s TRG-AMR team on Buckler’s home soil of Sonoma – tops among 11 drivers in class in a 26-car GT field. She finished 13th overall, behind a number of factory GT drivers.

“Last year, I already had put my eyes on Christina in Sonoma,” Balzan explained. “I was coaching NGT Motorsport and the Cisneros brothers in Pirelli World Challenge. I remember she won that race… and I followed the GTA class, and it was impressive how consistent she was over one hour in Sonoma. Every lap, no mistakes; and that’s at a track where it is very easy to make mistakes! She drove a great race.”

“It was very good for us immediately in Daytona even with the 458; it was a very nice race to get to meet Christina and get going,” he added. “Once we got the 488, it was a big step. She was comfortable here right at the beginning. Last time we won in 2013, but the team has improved a lot.”

He won the 2013 Rolex GT title with Scuderia Corsa, which came as a surprise at the time considering how youthful both driver and team were within sports car racing at the time. Now though, they’ve clearly established themselves.

“What is great on this team that’s not easy to find elsewhere is we are all pushing,” Balzan said. “But if we go the wrong direction, we calm down, we use our brains, and fix the situation and understand completely the problem.”

Nielsen, additionally, has found her footing within the championship. As she’s younger and less experienced compared to many of her peers – some of which in the GTD class are essentially two full pros in a meant-to-be pro and lesser experienced driver class – she’s raced hard but fair thus far, and feels more accepted.

“I think it’s taken a bit of time to earn people’s respect, I would say,” she said. “But it’s a pleasure to race so many of the field in GTD. If you treat others nicely, they’ll do the same… and that’s how you can work within multi-class racing.

“I’ve really enjoyed racing this year. We always race to the edge. Sure, maybe there’s a bump and a grind here. It’s been really great.

“As a driver it’s great to be in position we’re in… and yes, it’s good to represent females.”

F1 tests: Mercedes innovates with wheel adjustment system

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images
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MONTMELÓ, Spain — Veteran Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest time on the second day of Formula One preseason testing on Thursday, but Mercedes still garnered more attention by introducing an innovative wheel adjustment system.

On-board footage showed defending champion Lewis Hamilton pulling the steering wheel back and forth on the front straight to apparently change the angle of the front wheels on his Mercedes car.

The team stayed tight-lipped about the car’s new feature but guaranteed it was “safe” and “legal.”

“I probably won’t shed a great deal more light than what you saw on the TV but yeah we have a system in the car, it’s a novel idea,” team technical director James Allison told F1 TV. ”We’ve got a name for it, it’s called DAS, if you’re interested, and it just introduces an extra dimension for the steering, for the driver, which we hope will be useful during the year. But precisely how we use it and why we use it, that’s something we will keep to ourselves.”

Allison said governing body FIA knew in advance that the team was introducing the new system.

“It’s something we’ve been talking to them (about) for some time,” he said. “The rules are pretty clear about what’s permitted on steering systems and we’re pretty confident that it matches those requirements. I’m pleased we got it on the car, it seems to be useful, and we’ll see over the coming days how it benefits us.”

Hamilton said he was still trying to get used to the system, but praised the team for coming up with the innovation.

“I’ve only had one morning on (it, so) I don’t really have a lot to talk about with it. We’re trying to get on top of it, understand it, but safety-wise no problem today and the FIA are OK with the project.

“For me it’s really encouraging to see that my team is continuing to innovate and stay ahead of the game, and I think that’s down to the great minds in the team and so hopefully that’ll work to our benefit.”

Hamilton led the time charts on Wednesday but was only ninth-fastest on Thursday.

MORE: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas fastest in Day 1 of F1 practice
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The 40-year-old Raikkonen, who has a chance this season to break the record for most race starts in F1, was fastest with a time of 1 minute, 17.091 seconds in his Alfa Romea. He was 0.2 seconds quicker than Sergio Pérez with Racing Point. Daniel Ricciardo of Renault was third.

Raikkonen caused a red flag near the end of the afternoon session when his car stopped on the track with an apparent mechanical issue. The Finnish driver had spun earlier in the session, as did Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes, Romain Grosjean of Haas and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri, formerly known as Toro Rosso.

Grosjean had the most laps among the 13 drivers who went to the track on Thursday, with 158.

Bottas was the slowest driver of the day, while Sebastian Vettel was sixth-fastest with Ferrari.

Pérez had set the quickest time in the morning session. The Mexican driver had been third fastest on Wednesday, behind Hamilton and Bottas.

Drivers will be back on the track on Friday to close out the first week of testing. Teams will have another three days to test next week.

Preseason testing has been reduced from eight to six days to help compensate for the record 22 races on the calendar, including a new Vietnam Grand Prix and the return of the Dutch GP. Midseason testing also has been eliminated.

The season opens on March 15 at the Australian GP.

The Barcelona-Catalunya track will host the Spanish GP on May 10.