Alessandro Balzan says he’s “more than excited” to be back competing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class this weekend at Motul Petit Le Mans.
The Italian driver is set for his first IMSA appearance since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, having last driven the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo 2020 in January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona season-opener.
Eight GTD races later, Balzan is back in the car for the 10-hour endurance round at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, which he is contesting alongside Cooper MacNeil and Jeff Westphal, who qualified the car second in class for today’s race.
The double IMSA GTD champion, who is standing in for Toni Vilander, told Sportscar365 that there’s “more pressure” on his shoulders to pick up where he left off at Daytona.
“I’m more than excited to be back,” said Balzan, who also recently contested the Indianapolis 8 Hour round of GT World Challenge America powered by AWS in a GT3-class Squadra Corse Ferrari.
“A big, big thanks to David MacNeil and WeatherTech, Cooper and Scuderia Corsa, which has been my family here in the U.S.
“When the news came out, I was overwhelmed with how many people were saying, ‘hey man, we missed you!’
“It makes a little more pressure because you want to start where you left off.
“Hopefully we will have a good result. Cooper has been driving really well. He’s been impressive in Ferrari Challenge and impressive in practice.
“We have been working with the car. It has changed a lot with the cold temperatures. The Ferrari likes the cold temperatures, but it changes the behavior of the car a lot.”
Balzan, who is celebrating his 40th birthday today, explained that he used Thursday’s practice sessions to get his “confidence back” after the long break since Daytona.
“For me, practice was [used] to learn the Michelins,” he said.
“I have spent more time with the [GTWC America] Pirelli of late, so I had to change my driving style quite a bit, and that’s where Cooper and Jeff helped me a lot.
“The first session was breaking the ice and finding out how different the Michelins are.
“In Practice 2 we made big changes to the car and all the drivers liked it. Then in the final session the team said they wanted to focus on driving a nice race car, and that’s when I got my confidence back.
“The tire degradation in the beginning was very hard for me to manage, so I really had to change my driving style to respect the rear tires.
“I’ve been watching the [previous] six-hour race here. These prototypes are tough. This is one of the hardest races on the calendar.”
Balzan reckons one of his primary tasks today will be adapting to the pace of the quicker prototype classes around the narrow and compact 2.54-mile Road Atlanta course.
Balzan’s last race sharing the track with DPi and LMP2 cars came at a Daytona course where optimal speed sections on the bankings and straights enabled the prototypes to pass the slower GTs with less risk.
“The problem is when you have similar speeds, where the prototypes have to make divebombs or very late moves,” he said. “This is a track that historically has a lot of yellows.
“It’s tough because we go fast and it’s fine when you’re flat out with the racing line to yourself, but it’s a completely different animal when you have a prototype going in front of you.
“You lose the downforce and it can be very tough to manage and stay on track.”
Hunger Still There for Full-Time IMSA Return
Balzan added that he’s found a “new energy” since returning to competition after breaking away from full-time racing for 12 months in 2018-19 for health reasons.
When asked if he’s hoping to convert this enthusiasm into a full-season IMSA ride next year, Balzan agreed but stressed the importance of focusing on Petit Le Mans first.
“The one year that I had to take off because of my medical situation was actually very good for me, because I realized how lucky I was to be able to race and win with Ferrari,” he said.
“The two amazing [title-winning] seasons with Christina [Nielsen] were great. Before, I would say that racing and traveling is tough. Then when you don’t have it, you appreciate much more what you’re missing.
“I have a new energy. I realized I miss racing and I want to keep racing full-time.
“I’m not crazy or desperate to do a good race: I want the WeatherTech Racing team to be happy. Then if they want to do something in 2021 I’m available.
“If not, it’s a great opportunity for me. I’m really focusing 100 percent of my energy on this race and nothing about the future.
“The mission is to finish strong with no mistakes. That’s already a hard task to do.”
Ryan Myrehn contributed to this report