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

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

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

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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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 Racing 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 Formula E 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 team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

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. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

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.”