Conquest Racing with Ferrari claimed their second podium of the season at NOLA Motorsports Park this past Saturday in Race 1 of the Fanatec GT World Challenge, with Manny Franco and Alessandro Balzan aboard the #21 Corsa Horizon Ferrari 296 GT3 in the Pro Class.
It was not an easy weekend for the American-Italian duo, as they had to overcome a number of challenges. Both practice sessions on Friday went relatively well, with the team adjusting the Ferrari 296 GT3 and fighting along the way ahead of qualifying.
On Saturday morning, Manny Franco took command of his machine and clocked in the second-fastest lap time of the qualifying session, which set the starting grid for Race 1. Alessandro Balzan then took over for the second qualifying session and set the fifth-fastest lap time of the Pro Class, with the team lining up 15th overall on the grid for Race 2 on Sunday afternoon to close out the weekend.
With Race 1 being delayed due to heavy rain, the event started much later than anticipated, and on a very damp and slippery track. Though conditions were dicy, with many other competitors struggling to adapt, Franco drove with masterful confidence and skill, never letting the leader out of his sights and making a move for the lead in the opening lap.
Franco ultimately settled into second place, fending off the competitors behind as the team prepared for the driver change as the halfway mark of the race approached. A flawless pit stop and a smart strategy from the team choosing to mount new sticker tires on a slippery conditions saw Alessandro Balzan returning to the track in third position. Balzan went on to claim the fastest lap of the race with 30 minutes remaining on the clock. Though the Ferrari excelled in corners and braking, Balzan was quickly caught by fellow competitors as straight line speed wasn’t the team’s strength at NOLA. The BMW of Bill Auberlen overtook Alessandro, but in the closing lap of the race the Ferrari prevailed to reclaim second place.
“The first 10 minutes were quite exciting when dealing with the changing conditions and the tire temperatures,” stated Manny Franco at the podium. “Overall, I think there was a lot for me to learn, especially since it was my first time driving the Ferrari 296 GT3 with the rain tires on. That’s some important data for our team to have and I’m glad to have gained that experience. I think my part of the race went well and we were able to build up a good gap compared to the cars behind in third and fourth in the Pro Class. In the end we brought home second place and we can be very happy with that.”
Alessandro Balzan echoed his teammate’s thoughts; “We are very happy with the result, it was a hard-fought battle all the way to the finish line. We knew the other cars were quicker on the straights and that it would be hard to defend on the restarts because of the long run leading into turn one. Corsa Horizon and Conquest Racing gave us an incredible race car, we were working hard all weekend to give ourselves the best chance at scoring a good result. I had a lot of fun in the mixed conditions, most of the track was drying up but some spots were still wet, and that’s where the Ferrari 296 GT3 excelled in comparison to other cars since the braking was so amazing. It was Manny’s first time racing in wet conditions, and to see him driving so comfortably into the first corner after heavy rain was incredible to witness.”
Race 2 took place under bright sunny skies in the rising heat of the Bayou. This time around, Alessandro Balzan jumped in the car first to take the green flag. There was a lot of argy-bargy across the entire field, but Balzan stayed out of trouble and moved up into podium position as the team prepared to hand off the car to Manny Franco for the second half of the race.
A lengthy driver change made the task a little more challenging for Franco, but he kept his composure and focused on chasing down the cars ahead. A full course caution late in the race allowed the field to get grouped more closely together again. Unfortunately, Franco spun in the closing stages being pushed off line by a competitor and lost time as he returned to the track. He crossed the finish line fourth in class, collecting valuable points in the team’s championship fight.
“I still think Race Two went well overall,” Franco reflected. “We had a bit of issues in our driver change and I got caught up in some traffic that I had to work through. Since I knew we were at a disadvantage when it comes to straight line speed, I decided to focus on trying to overtake in the corners. I made a good couple of passes and had some side by side battles, which was great. Unfortunately once I spun into the gravel that was pretty much the end of the race for me. It was a tough way to end the race and the weekend, but it was a very fun stint until that part. We’re hoping that COTA will be a better round for us and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”
“I am happy with how we worked together,” added Balzan. “We improved the performance and set up of the car from Sonoma and we learned a lot over the course of this second round. I gave everything I had in these two races, and we’re working hard to try to squeeze all we can out of this car to maximize our performance in order to be even more competitive.”
The next round of GT World Challenge will be held in Austin, Texas at Circuit of the Americas from May 19-21.