Victor Franzoni seals Pro Mazda title; delivers Juncos a double

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Victor Franzoni has completed a weekend sweep in the pair of Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races at Watkins Glen International, and secured the 2017 Pro Mazda title in the process.

The Brazilian driver led flag-to-flag from pole in tricky conditions with mist peppering the 3.37-mile circuit, and the track damp from earlier rain, for his seventh win of the year in the No. 23 Juncos Racing entry. His win Saturday came following a pivotal pass of title rival Anthony Martin for the lead on the outside into the Bus Stop.

This capped off the run for the Mazda Renesis rotary engine and the existing chassis before the new Tatuus PM-18 enters the series next year, the second rung on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.

More to the point, Franzoni has now secured the Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship valued at more than $790,000, to move into the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2018.

“I am so happy, but there are so many things in my mind right now. It’s unbelievable. So many people helped me to get into Pro Mazda this season,” Franzoni said. “I grew up five or 10 years in my career this season. The difference for me was Juncos Racing this year, they gave me such a great car. The fight with Anthony was incredible. He’s really, really good. I had to push so hard to stay with him. We were so close in every single race and pushed to the limit all the time. This was the hardest season of my life, because I knew I could not make a mistake. We both did a great job and I think we both deserve to move forward. I want to thank everyone at Mazda, Cooper Tires and Andersen Promotions.

“There were so many things on my mind on that last lap that I couldn’t focus. The team told me to be careful when the white flag came out, and suddenly, I couldn’t drive! When I saw the checkered, it was so great. To know where I will be next year now is the best thing in the world. I didn’t get just prize money today, I got hope.”

With this win, Franzoni will join Kyle Kaiser in winning a title for Juncos Racing this year, giving Ricardo Juncos bragging rights as the first team owner and first team to win two MRTI titles in the same season. Kaiser will only need to start today’s Indy Lights season finale to score enough points to secure that title.

Franzoni entered the day with an eight-point lead over his closest title rival, Martin, and with Martin needing to win and hope Franzoni finished off the podium to realistically be able move ahead to bring the title back within his grasp.

Martin, however, was hamstrung as it was by starting fifth in his No. 8 Cape Motorsports entry after being assessed a two-spot grid penalty for running the checkered flag during qualifying late Saturday afternoon.

While he made it up to third place on the opening lap, Martin’s title hopes evaporated when he spun off at Turn 1 trying to pass Carlos Cunha’s No. 81 Team Pelfrey car for second place. Martin lost several seconds to fall more than 11 back of Franzoni in the lead, and resumed on track just ahead of Nikita Lastochkin’s No. 80 Pelfrey car, repaired after yesterday’s accident with teammate Robert Megennis.

Although Martin gained five seconds over the next three laps, he was unable to get any closer to Cunha for second, and was forced to settle into third.

“I was pushing 150 percent out there with the championship on the line. It sucks to be the first loser, as I call it, but I gave it my all,” Martin said.

“I didn’t leave anything out there. I’m very disappointed not to take the championship but I had a great time this year. I was a Mazda Scholarship driver, which is something I never thought I would be when I first arrived in America.

“To come this far and to not take the championship is bittersweet. The season has been one big bumpy rollercoaster. Victor and I traded the lead I don’t know how many times, and we had some intense battles. Congratulations to Victor and to Juncos Racing. Consistency wins and they were just a little more consistent than me.”

Up front though Franzoni enjoyed a comfortable drive to the win by 1.5903 seconds over Cunha, who scored his fifth straight podium to end the year, and his first runner-up result of the season with the race’s fastest lap of 1:59.8161 set on the final lap. All of his five prior podiums were third places. The 20-lap, 40-minute race ran to the checkered flag without a caution flag.

Martin’s third place, was, fittingly, his first third place of the year and only the second race where he didn’t finish first or second.

But with Franzoni having won seven races and finished second in the other five, the Brazilian is now the one who will don a Soul Red Mazda in Indy Lights next season.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”