Photo: Scuderia Corsa

Scuderia Corsa resets after another title; adds MacNeil, WeatherTech

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Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa team has built up a pretty impressive reputation and record over five years. After debuting in 2012, the team won the 2013 GRAND-AM GT class title with Alessandro Balzan and has now won three straight IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class titles, with Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler in 2015 and now two in a row with Balzan and Christina Nielsen in 2016 and 2017.

Balzan’s had different co-drivers before and will add another new one to his plate in 2018, Cooper MacNeil having been confirmed Tuesday with WeatherTech Racing support for the team’s Ferrari 488 GT3 next season.

MacNeil has struggled to find the right similar championship-winning pedigree in the merged series after going back-to-back in the American Le Mans Series’ GTC class in 2012 and 2013 with Jeroen Bleekemolen, and has won only one race in the last four years. Whether it was with Leh Keen and Alex Job Racing or this year with both a Porsche and a Mercedes at Bill Riley’s usual title-contending operation, MacNeil, a true Silver-rated driver, has been unable to scale the same heights.

MacNeil joins the champs. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Moving into the team where he competes in Ferrari Challenge and was also in a GTE-spec 488 car with Bell and Sweedler at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, and finishing third in the GTE-Am class, provides him arguably the best possible situation to re-enter the championship-winning frame in the series now sponsored by WeatherTech.

“We raced this year with Scuderia Corsa at Le Mans and finished third co-driving with Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell,” MacNeil said. “I also race the full season of Ferrari Challenge with them and am in the hunt for the championship with two races left. It was a natural for us to transition into the Ferrari with our experience with the brand this season. I am looking forward to driving with Alessandro and we will be looking to equal the success the team had this year in IMSA and finish a couple places better at Le Mans too.”

Gunnar Jeannette, MacNeil’s 2017 full-season co-driver, and 2017 Michael Shank Racing driver Jeff Segal will round out this car’s lineup at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Segal is a Ferrari GT specialist, having won all of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, 24 Hours of Le Mans and Sahlen’s 6 Hours of the Glen in a Ferrari. He shifted to Shank’s Acura NSX GT3 program this year.

Balzan and Nielsen. Photo courtesy of IMSA

For Balzan and Nielsen, it’s an end of an era after two very successful years where the measure of both championships was achieved by a wealth of consistency. This year, although the pairing won only once at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, a run of six straight podiums after a season-opening DNF at Daytona owing to an engine failure put them in a hole they’d need to dig out of.

“Already looking back now, six podiums in a row was kind of unreal!” Balzan told NBC Sports. “Plus we’ve gone all top fives except for one sixth. It was crazy. Scuderia Corsa always gave perfect car and strategy. We always stayed out of trouble. It was great.

“Winning at Laguna Seca was special. We’d started top-10 but I really wanted to win, as we were so close at the Glen and so close at Mosport before a technical issue. It was our home race and where I started racing with Scuderia Corsa five years ago. To win in front of our 200 guests, in a Ferrari in our 70th anniversary, was special.”

Balzan was key to note before the deal was struck to keep him with Scuderia Corsa next season, without Nielsen, he’s not actually a Ferrari factory driver despite the outward appearance as such.

“My history in the U.S. has always been with Scuderia Corsa and Ferrari. A lot of teams think I’m factory – I’m not – I’m proud to race Ferrari as an Italian American, but I have no straight connection.

“Making my debut with them at Le Mans this year, and with Christina and Bret (Curtis) was a dream come true. I had never been there before. I always said, if I go there, I go there to race… so I was a Le Mans beginner and a virgin! We had a lot of challenges there but Le Mans is Le Mans, and it was a beautiful thing… we learned a lot.”

Nielsen now faces an uncertain future as she looks to continue racing in IMSA and in North America. The Dane who now lives in Los Angeles has rapidly established herself over her three full-time seasons in contending for the title in all three years, and winning two of them. A Sebring win in 2016 in the debut of the 488 GT3 – driving with Balzan and Segal – stands out as a big win among others.

Winning in the second year of the car proved a testament to her ability and that of the team to note it wasn’t down to a car advantage.

“It feels amazing. It’s always easy to point fingers at first year with the car. But to do it a second year in a row, to know it, and go against a bunch of manufacturers, very professional teams and to be able to beat that feels absolutely amazing,” she said.

“To be in strong contention for championship, you can have one really bad DNF, and we had our’s at Daytona. We had no chance to do it again the rest of the year basically and we executed it.”

With the hope that Nielsen can land elsewhere on the GTD grid next season – she’s certainly deserving of a shot – it’ll be an intriguing subplot to see whether she or the revised Scuderia Corsa lineup will remain atop the GTD heap.

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

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