Making of a Champion: Alessandro Balzan
Thursday, November 30, 2017

The fifth in a series of articles highlighting each champion driver in the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, “Making of a Champion” shares some previous experiences and “backstory” that led to this driver becoming a champion.

With three championships since 2013, Italian driver Alessandro Balzan is one of the more recognizable drivers in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship to IMSA fans. But it wasn’t all that long ago – 2012 to be exact – when Balzan and the Scuderia Corsa team burst onto the North American sports car racing scene, seemingly out of nowhere.

It was a GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in early September, just a few days after the announcement of the historic merger between GRAND-AM and the American Le Mans Series. Balzan and the Scuderia Corsa team turned up at the iconic California road course with their No. 63 Ferrari 458 and champion racer Olivier Beretta as the co-driver, and announced their presence with authority with a pole position for Balzan and a fourth-place race result.

“I had a lot of Italian racing experience, many championships with front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive cars, but the real racing for my career started in GRAND-AM,” Balzan recalls. “I loved that series. I remember when I was in Laguna.

“Forget about the pole, that’s for me, but the first time we were driving Laguna Seca, coming down from the downhill (AKA “The Corkscrew”), it was like, ‘Oh my God. I saw this in Gran Turismo, and now I’m racing here for real. This is already a dream. However the weekend will go, it’s already my dream.’”

It’s a dream Balzan has been living ever since. The following year, he claimed the final GRAND-AM Rolex Series GT championship in the same No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari, taking his first victory at Kansas Speedway.

Since then, he’s won a couple of crown jewels in North American endurance racing – the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring and the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen. He also has won races at Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and just this past season earned his first win back where it all began at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. That victory was the cherry on top of Balzan’s second consecutive WeatherTech Championship GTD title alongside co-driver Christina Nielsen in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3.

“For me, the keyword for all of Scuderia Corsa’s success – and I’ve had three championships with them in four seasons – was ‘execution,’” he said. “Execution from the drivers. Execution from the pit crew. We never made any mistakes that were costing us the race.

“I can’t even remember that we did something wrong all year with Scuderia Corsa. I can’t even remember one driver change that went wrong with me. I think this is kind of insane, because, when you start to put all the races together that I did with them, I think we have almost 50 races. It’s insane that everything goes so smooth.”

He also gives a lot of credit to Scuderia Corsa owner Giacomo Mattioli and Technical Director Roberto Amorosi and their strategy of taking what each race gives them. They also provide a calming influence for the drivers.

“They really make us comfortable,” Balzan said. “Many races, these two would say, ‘Guys, we are top five. We are good. We are cool. Don’t worry. We don’t want the podium, we don’t want to go for the win. Today, we have a car to be maximum of top five, let’s try to do P5. If we do P6, we are happy with P6, because we always have our eye on the championship.”

Balzan believes that this approach has given the team an advantage over its competition. And in a series as competitive as the WeatherTech Championship and a class as competitive as GTD, that makes a big difference.

“I think Michelotto and Ferrari build an amazing car that is really comfortable, basically, on every track,” Balzan said. “I saw other teams that were competitive one weekend before, fighting for the win, and the next week they’re not even able to go P10. For me, that’s a little bit strange. Maybe they are pushing the limit too much, and they are losing the right way on the setup or the strategy. Maybe they are gambling a little bit too much.

“We don’t gamble. We never gamble, and I don’t think we ever will gamble. We want to be in control. You really have to understand, on every weekend, what you can really do. What is the limit of the car? What is the limit of your drivers also? We have real targets. We have a mission, but it’s not crazy.

“There are so many drivers out there, or teams, that are blocking after 20 minutes of the race, like at the Six Hours of The Glen. Why would you want to take a risk after 20 minutes of a six-hour race? Why are you doing that? I’m not doing that. There is no chance. I say, ‘You know what? I’ll wait and maybe I will see you later and then we will handle that.’”

Those are skills that Balzan has learned and developed since what he calls his “professional” racing career began in the U.S. 

“The first time I raced here in the U.S., I had no idea,” he said. “I was coming from only sprint races, 30-minute races, all-in from the first lap to the last lap and risking everything to the end. The view about managing yourself, the team and everything around you, I learned from Joe LaJoie, our strategist and race engineer. I have been racing only for Scuderia Corsa, so that is a big credit, honestly.”

Balzan has found a home in the WeatherTech Championship. In 2018, he will be joined by a new co-driver, Cooper MacNeil, as he goes for his third straight GTD title, and the team’s fourth in a row, as it also took the 2015 GTD title with drivers Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler.

He’s also found a home in the United States.

“I’ve been living in the States from the end of 2015,” Balzan said. “I love this country, I respect this country, and for me, I see my future here. I want my future here. I love living here, even if I’m Italian. When I’m missing my family, I just take a plane, I go back, I say ‘Ciao’ to my family, my nieces and everybody, stay there one or two weeks and then come back.

“It’s a dream. I’m really focused to keep doing this. I see my future here also after I stop racing. I want to be involved in it and to live here. For me, I truly believe IMSA was the future at the beginning, and it is the future right now.”