Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Franzoni, Martin Pro Mazda title tilt heats up at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – For the first time in the 2017 Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires season, the gloves are officially off between two title combatants, after an intense, high-pressure weekend split in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

For Victor Franzoni, a win and a second place served as a disappointing weekend for Juncos Racing, because even despite starting last in Saturday’s race two, he very nearly could have won.

Quite by contrast, second and first for Cape Motorsports’ Anthony Martin was even better than he might have hoped for, with a clear pace deficit to Franzoni this weekend but able to doggedly hold him off in race two.

Franzoni dominated Friday’s race one, which was pretty straightforward. Still though, after red flags caught Franzoni out before qualifying race two, he wasn’t as happy as he usually is.

“The quali was unlucky. We tried a strategy and it didn’t work!” Franzoni told NBC Sports. “But the whole team and I were like, ‘Let’s forget the quali. Let’s focus on what we can do today after quali one.’

“Juncos Racing gave me the great car. It was a big fight. After I got by Anthony, I could go away. It was good. Everything was fine. This was my first win in Road America. Tomorrow is gonna be fun, but I’m really confident. I think we can fight for the win tomorrow.”

Martin put up a valiant fight early in the race but was unable to hold onto it.

“I thought if I’d do anything it’d be the first few laps. as I gave that a red hot shot,” Martin told NBC Sports. “We battled quite hard. I knew he had a better and quicker car than me. I consolidated that I would be in second, looked after my tires. It’ll hurt your tires. I jumped into second and looked after the tires.”

Saturday’s race two, meanwhile, was a barnburner. The second 30-minute race of the weekend saw three yellow flags but Franzoni on a charge from 15th up to second.

Franzoni made it to third by Lap 4 of the eventual 11-lap race. But while the first yellow aided his charge and brought him just two car lengths away from Martin on the first restart, the next two yellows interrupted that process because he’d need to catch up Martin and attempt to pass him again.

“All the unlucky came together,” Franzoni said Saturday. “The race being 40 versus 30. Starting last. Three yellow flags! Everything came down to this not being my race.”

The Brazilian said he still could have hunted down Martin from last on the grid even without the aid of a yellow flag.

“I think with green the whole race, it was possible to do. The car was really really fast. When the first yellow came it was OK, and I thought, ‘Now it’s easier,’ but not the other ones!”

But it was after the restarts that Franzoni thought Martin drove over-aggressively, making his car wider to keep the faster Franzoni behind him.

At Turn 5 in particular, the two drivers had one moment where they both went in deep, overshot the corner entry, and Martin and Franzoni both ran wide on exit. There was another moment exiting Turn 5 where Franzoni got a run up the hill to the inside while Martin moved across to defend there.

The two drivers explained their respective vantage points.

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

“I was almost four wheels in the grass. He didn’t give me space,” Franzoni alleged. “There were two times in Turn 5, and I tried outside. He threw the car on me. It was not so nice.”

Martin said, “Knowing that Race Control and everyone is watching, you don’t want to get caught out and make a mistake. So I tried to make it difficult for him to get past me. We both went extremely deep into Turn 5, and we both overshot it.

“We’ve raced each other a few years (in the Mazda Road to Indy). We’re not gonna do anything stupid to each other. I tried to keep him behind me. Things happen. But nothing happened that catastrophic. It was a tough race for both of us. It worked out well for both of us.”

Martin, who led the entirety of the second race, had to exert some key mental training to stay focused for the restarts. With caution laps being so long at the 4.014-mile circuit, Martin knew he had to keep his head in the game.

“It felt long. All the safety car laps take so long! I looked at the dash and thought, ‘It’s a 5-minute lap, we at Spa or something?’ It was pretty crazy the whole race. Mentally very difficult, but we were able to keep him behind.”

Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course comes next the end of July for Pro Mazda after another month break in this season’s condensed schedule.

And it’ll be an important weekend. With three races and Franzoni only seven points clear of Martin, 174-167, it will be imperative to maximize the mark.

Martin enters high on confidence having completed a triple-race sweep in USF2000 with Cape there last year, and with Cape having also delivered a weekend double in Pro Mazda with Nico Jamin driving.

“We know we have a great car at Mid-Ohio but Juncos does as well,” Martin said. “He’s had a half a championship of experience in Pro Mazda – this half – but the team are pushing me to my limit. They’ll implement the correct driving style.

“Mid-Ohio really suits me. I love that track. It suits my style a lot more than these last two tracks.”

Juncos, though, always fields a strong car at Mid-Ohio too and Franzoni will be hoping his car will be just as strong there.

“I had such good equipment. I could have won this race,” Franzoni said. “It’s OK. We’re still leading the championship. I’m disappointed because we had a really big gap and really good car.

“I thought we could use this weekend better to get all the points. It wasn’t so difficult. We’re in good shape but I’m sad because we didn’t win.”

Lewis Hamilton takes F1 pole in dramatic Russian GP qualifying

Russian pole Lewis Hamilton
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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SOCHI, Russia — Lewis Hamilton took a step closer to equaling the Formula One win record Saturday by clinching pole position at the Russian Grand Prix, after narrowly avoiding early elimination when Sebastian Vettel crashed.

Hamilton charged to a track-record time of 1 minute, 31.304 seconds, beating the Red Bull of Max Verstappen by 0.563 for his fifth straight pole position. Hamilton can achieve his 91st career win in the race on Sunday, matching the record held by Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was beaten into third by Verstappen’s fast run at the end of the session and was .652 off Hamilton’s time.

The long run from the grid to the first significant turn means Bottas could yet threaten to overtake Hamilton at the start Sunday using the slipstream from his teammate’s car.

“It’s nice being on pole but here is probably the worst place to be on pole,” Hamilton said.

“This year you’re seeing that our cars are more draggy and there’s more tow this year than we’ve seen in other years. So I generally expect one of (Verstappen and Bottas) to come flying by at some point. I think I’m just going to focus on my race and run the fastest race I can.”

Bottas earned his first win at the 2017 race in Russia after starting third and overtaking the two Ferraris ahead of him at the start.

Verstappen and Bottas both start the race on medium tires, which could give them an edge in terms of pit strategy over Hamilton, who is on soft tires, which wear much faster.

“I’m just going to have to nurse those tires for as far as I can. These guys, if they get by, they’re going to be pulling away,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen said he was delighted to start second.

“I wasn’t expecting that and of course it’s great for us. If we can get a good start tomorrow you never know what can happen,” he said.

Vettel lost control of his car over the kerb on the inside of the 90-degree, right-hand turn four and spun into the wall, before the Ferrari bounced back onto the track. Teammate Charles Leclerc was following closely behind and narrowly missed the wrecked car, driving over its discarded front wing.

“Oh my God, that was very, very close,” Leclerc told his team over the radio. Leclerc qualified 11th and Vettel 15th as Ferrari failed to reach the top-10 shootout with either car for the third time in four races.

Vettel’s crash meant the red flag was waved while Hamilton was trying to set his first valid lap time to make the third session – after his first attempt was earlier ruled out for going off the track.

After the track was cleared and the session restarted, Hamilton had to rush his out-lap to make it over the line in time for another flying lap with just a second to spare.

“It was horrible,” Hamilton said. “Heart in the mouth.”

Hamilton was also asked to report to race stewards over another incident in which he went off the track in the first part of qualifying. No further action was taken. It was found Hamilton didn’t gain an advantage because the lap time wasn’t counted.

Hamilton is the runaway championship leader with a 55-point advantage over second-place Bottas and 80 over Verstappen. If he can earn four more pole positions in the last seven races, he would be the first driver to 100 in F1 history.

Earlier in the third and final practice Saturday morning, Hamilton set the pace with a time of 1 minute, 33.279 seconds that was 0.776 better than his Mercedes teammate Bottas, who had been quickest in the first two sessions.