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

Segal, Balzan and Nielsen. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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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.”

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Formula E team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – McLaren Racing

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”