Indy Lights test rewarding for top three 2017 Pro Mazda finishers

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After finishing in the top three of the 2017 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires, Victor Franzoni, Anthony Martin and Carlos Cunha were busy this weekend testing cars in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires – the top level of the Mazda Road to Indy – during the Chris Griffis Memorial Test that wrapped up Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Franzoni, winner of the $790,300 Mazda scholarship for claiming the Pro Mazda championship last month, tested for Juncos Racing, the same team with which he won the Pro Mazda title. His first time in the No. 23 Dallara IL-15/Mazda Indy Lights car came Saturday morning and he easily felt the differences between the cars.

“It’s almost no comparison, it’s completely different,” said Franzoni. “The Indy Lights car’s got much more power, more braking and higher cornering speeds, so it’s really different and with the turbo it makes it more difficult to learn but it was good.”

Turning higher speeds around the track is much more physically demanding for a driver, Franzoni admitted.

“I was already doing more training than I normally do,” Franzoni said. “Normally, I was doing one hour of training, now I’m doing two hours, but now I think I have to go to three hours because the car’s not easy for the body. I’m feeling pain all over my body.

“In the first run, I had to stop a little bit early because I couldn’t feel my hands any more. They were in so much pain because I was nervous, so I was holding the steering wheel too hard.”

After two days of testing on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course, Franzoni wound up third fastest of the 12 Indy Lights drivers who tested. His best lap came in the eighth and final session, 1 minute, 15.7953 seconds (115.844 mph). The 22-year-old Brazilian was less than a tenth of a second off the quick lap of the weekend and fastest of the seven Indy Lights newcomers who tested.

Still, he knows there’s work to do.

“I think I could be a little bit more aggressive,” Franzoni said. “When you’re trying to find the last tenth, it’s crazy difficult, you’re almost using the grass in every turn. You have to be crazy aggressive on the brakes, you have to press really hard, my legs are hurting really bad.

“So it’s (being) aggressive, you have to drive it hard. If you don’t drive it hard, you’re going to be really slow so that’s fun, that’s what makes the car good."

Anthony MartinMartin finished second to Franzoni in the Pro Mazda battle this season. The 22-year-old Australian drove the No. 27 Andretti Autosport entry in the Indy Lights test.

“It’s definitely a huge step up,” said Martin. “It’s about six or seven seconds a lap (faster) and that’s a lot. You’re going a lot faster, you’ve got a lot more grip and a lot more power, so everything’s just so much quicker.

“It’s a nice challenge that I love and you just have to warm up to it nice and slowly and make sure nothing goes wrong. We’re doing everything we can, feeling really comfortable, so that’s the major thing.”

Martin’s best lap of the weekend was 1:16.5185 (114.749 mph). The 2016 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda champion had a different physical reaction to the car than Franzoni.

“It wasn’t as physically demanding as I thought it would be,” Martin said. "Obviously I’ve been training leading up to this so I feel like I’ve been well prepared. Physically right now, I’m feeling really good. I’m feeling really comfortable and I feel like I’ve hit the right spot with my routine, so I think I’m going to keep working on the same stuff, a bit on my neck and a little bit here and there, but the major thing is working on my cardio and trying to keep my weight down as much as I can.”

While Franzoni and Martin won every Pro Mazda race in 2017, Carlos Cunha was right behind the pair, closing the season with five consecutive podium finishes to wind up third in the point standings. Testing for Juncos Racing, the 18-year-old Brazilian was the only driver to step into cars in both Indy Lights and Pro Mazda this weekend.

“In the first (Indy Lights) session, it was really cool because I was really enjoying the session,” Cunha said. “The car is really, really strong and the engine is amazing, the aero is incredible and when you’re going on the straight you’re like ‘OK, I’m going 172 mph, awesome!’”

Carlos Cunha and Victor FranzoniCunha’s top lap in the No. 31 Juncos Racing Indy Lights car was 1:16.1585 (115.291 mph), sixth-best overall. He was also second fastest in Pro Mazda testing in Juncos’ No. 1 entry (1:20.0236, 109.732 mph).

Driving a race car isn’t just about what takes place behind the wheel. The debriefing exercise and going over data takes time and is more involved as a driver climbs higher in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires.

“When you see how the guys in the team work and how professional you need to be all the time,” said Cunha (at left in photo with Franzoni), “how you need to see the data and see the onboard (camera), you need to be much more professional than in Pro Mazda and you need to step up the level in everything – in your driving, in your data and you need to be more focused.”

A total of 5,321 laps – just shy of 13,000 miles – were completed by the drivers testing in all three MRTI levels over the two-day weekend. The fastest overall laps turned in each level were: Nico Jamin in Indy Lights, 1:15.7171 (115.963 mph) in the No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing entry; Oliver Askew in Pro Mazda, 1:19.8920 (109.903 mph) in the No. 8 Cape Motorsports entry; and Darren Keane in USF2000, 1:25.1424 (103.126 mph) in the No. 36 Newman Wachs Racing entry.

Mazda Road to Indy’s next official sessions will come at its spring training at Homestead-Miami Speedway from Feb. 23-26. All three levels open their 2018 seasons with doubleheader race weekends in conjunction with the Verizon IndyCar Series opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 9-11.

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