The Ferrari Challenge series may be designed for amateur drivers, but it’s run like a professional series, from race preparation to driver development. As a result, some racers use it as a springboard to the pro ranks—and this year three longtime Challenge racers moved up to the Blancpain GT World Challenge America.
In early 2018, after several years racing their 488 Challenges with Ferrari of Long Island, friends Chris Cagnazzi and Brian Kaminskey decided to buy a 488 GT3. “We thought, ‘Let’s get the car and have some fun with it,’ and that was that,” says Cagnazzi.
That May, the pair purchased a new, never-used GT3 in the U.S., then sent it to Michelotto, in Italy, for upgrades. In September, Cagnazzi and Kaminskey flew to Maranello for a shakedown test at Fiorano, by which time their plans had changed.
“I had started to do some research into the Blancpain series,” Cagnazzi recalls. “I had been racing in the Ferrari Challenge for five years, and it’s a wonderful, extremely well-run series; Ferrari does an unbelievable job with it. But I was looking for a new challenge, another level of race car, and the GT3 really appealed to me. I wanted to race another Ferrari because I am a huge Ferrari enthusiast, and Blancpain was appealing because there was a pit stop and driver change and racing against professionals. So I said to Brian, ‘I’m going to race this car,’ and he said, ‘I’d love to do that!’”
Since Ferrari of Long Island only competes in the Ferrari Challenge, its Director of Motorsport, Peter Spinella, started a new team, One11 Competition, to support Cagnazzi and Kaminskey.
“We went to Michelotto, and I sent a crew there for training,” Spinella explains. “We were very familiar with the 488 Challenge, but the GT3 is a completely different car, a pure racing car. The transmission is completely different, it has different telemetry, different suspension components, a different ignition system, and way more depth in the ABS and traction control.”
All of the mechanical and electronic changes make setting up and working on the GT3 a very different experience. “The car is almost built to be taken apart,” Spinella says. “The time to remove the transmission is cut in half. The suspension is quicker and easier to set up. It’s much easier to work on, but there are so many different systems, processes, and timelines to understand. Diagnosis is completely different, too.”
All of this activity caught the attention of another longtime Challenge racer, Alfred Caiola. [We wrote about Caiola’s efforts in the FORZA Tifosi Challenge in issue #149’s “Battle of Champions.”—Ed.]
“I was originally going to participate in Ferrari Challenge in 2019, but then two of my teammates picked up a GT3,” says Caiola. “I’d been to the [Ferrari] factory and Michelotto before, but I was intrigued by the process and this was kind of the next item on my bucket list, so I decided to join them. I ordered my own GT3 and got to be back with my racing family again!”
WHILE THE BLANCPAIN GT World Challenge America is new for 2019, the series is actually an evolution of the Pirelli World Challenge. The PWC was purchased last year by the SRO Motorsports Group, which runs several GT3 and GT4 series around the world under the Blancpain banner, and reformatted to match.
The season would kick off at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas in late February. After their GT3 arrived in the U.S. in November 2018, Cagnazzi and Kaminskey tested it at NOLA Motorsports Park, in New Orleans, Louisiana, then tested again in January at Homestead, Florida.
Caiola’s car didn’t arrive until February, which left him time for only one test, at COTA, the week before the race. “We had one kinda wet day and one partial dry day of testing and that was it!” he says, laughing.
Despite his limited seat time, Caiola was extremely impressed with the new car. “The 488 Challenge is a great car, as sort of a track-prepared street car, but the GT3, as a ground-up race car, is a completely different animal,” he explains. “There’s almost no comparison! It’s got a proper balance between power, grip, and aerodynamics, and the way it’s all executed makes it an ultra-intuitive, completely predictable car to drive. In the Challenge car, you’re managing more weight and going faster with less assistance from the grip and aero, which makes it more challenging to drive.”
“The Challenge car has 670 horsepower and the GT3 has about 500, so there’s a considerable difference in how they drive based just on that,” confirms Cagnazzi. “In a lot of ways the GT3 is easier to drive, and things like the braking system and traction control are a lot more advanced. The traction control has two dials, one to set when it goes on, the other to set how invasive it is. Where the Challenge car has four settings on each side, the GT3 has 10, so you can make much finer adjustments.”
One11 Competition arrived at COTA on Wednesday for two days of testing and practice before qualifying. It was the first professional race for the team, as well as three of its four drivers, and no one knew quite what to expect.
“The series was very welcoming, but this was a big step up for us, moving into the professional ranks,” Spinella says. “We felt like we were prepared and ready to compete, so it was all about getting into the groove of the series, the competitors, the environment. That was our only anxiety going in.”
“I had an idea what it would be like, but you don’t know what you don’t know,” says Cagnazzi, who would compete in the Am-Am class with Kaminskey. “In the Challenge series, I knew the drivers, I knew their behavior on the racetrack, but when you go to a new series, with drivers you’ve never raced with, you don’t know. In a corner, do they give you room or will they try to box you out?”
“The first distinction in my mind was that I wouldn’t be in a spec series any more, that I’d be competing against all the marques,” adds Caiola. “It’s a very different environment. And I knew the experience out on track would be more intense and competitive, but also more experienced and measured. A Pro driver might come out and swamp you but it would be predictable, where the Challenge series has more of a blend of drivers and more unpredictability.”
Helping Caiola prepare for his Pro-Am debut was his co-driver, professional racer Matt Plumb. The two had met in 2018, when Plumb coached Caiola in the Ferrari Challenge.
“We really melded together well, so I thought, What better way to improve my skills than to drive with a Pro who’s spending the same amount of time in the car as I do?” Caiola says. “Plus, he’s about the same height and weight as me, which would help with the pit stop.”
While much of the weekend would be familiar, the mandatory pit stop would be a new experience for the Challenge racers. Not only would they have to stop to change drivers and tires, and refuel, they’d do so under the clock.
“There’s lot of different maneuvers to sort out in a short period of time,” says Caiola of the mandatory stop. “You’ve got the belts and the quick releases for water and radio, you have to make sure the buttons are within reach, and you have to hit the driver ID [which records on the telemetry which driver is in the car].”
“We knew the pit stop was going to be challenging, so we practiced about an hour and a half on Thursday and Friday nights,” Cagnazzi recalls. “But we’d find out in the race that the adrenaline and everything going on all changes it.”
THE BLANPAIN COTA WEEKEND started with two Saturday morning qualifying sessions. Each driver would qualify in one session and start one of the weekend’s two races. Kaminskey chose to qualify first and would start Race One, but Caiola had to qualify first.
“In Pro-Am they make the Am qualify for the first race,” says Caiola. “That way, all the Ams are racing the Ams, and all the Pros are racing against the Pros.”
Kaminskey and Cagnazzi each qualified third in their session in the #19 Ferrari. Caiola qualified ninth in the #99, while Plumb qualified seventh.
“What’s really interesting for me, between Matt and me, is that the ideal car setup for each of us is different,” Caiola muses. “Finding the balance in the car so each of us can extract our best laps is something of a compromise. But racing with a Pro is cool for me; I can aspire to learn his driving style, as well.”
The Pro-Pro, Pro-Am, and Am-Am GT3 classes all run at the same time, in a 90-minute race split by the pit stop.
“I was always a good starter in Challenge because I could sit back, wait for anyone ahead of me to bunch up, maybe touch, and then take advantage,” explains Caiola. “Here, because the overall skill level was higher, everything was that much tighter, that much later under braking, and I got swamped at the start by four or five cars! But I got back by all those positions over the next two laps, passing them one by one. That was so cool, so satisfying.”
Caiola and Plumb finished eighth after an otherwise uneventful race. Kaminskey and Cagnazzi surprised themselves and the entire team by crossing the line third in class.
“Our expectation was just to get through the weekend, survive, see what we learned, and experience it all,” says Cagnazzi. “We had no expectation whatsoever of getting a finish like that!”
Sunday started out just as impressively for Cagnazzi. “I got a very clean start and was able to gain seven spots in the run to the first corner,” he says. “It’s great to race the other manufacturers, like Audi, Porsche, Mercedes, Bentley. Every car has its own capabilities, and looks and sounds different on track. The Mercedes and the Bentley sound very deep and throaty, where the Ferraris and Audis and Acuras sound different. Visually, as they’re going through the turns, they all look a little different, the way the body moves.”
Cagnazzi worked his way up to second in class before being hit and spun by another car. He recovered, but things went further downhill when it was time to pit.
“When I came into the pits, there was a car in the slot before us so I couldn’t see our guys clearly,” Cagnazzi explains. “I missed them and ended up about a car length past our pit box, so our mechanics had to push me back.”
Kaminskey’s stint was even worse. “After the pit stop, Brian got hit by another car—driven by another Ferrari Challenge driver, I might add!” says Spinella. “That damaged the wing and a rear wheel, knocking out the toe, and made the car undrivable. We just couldn’t continue.”
Over in Pro-Am, Plumb and Caiola enjoyed another uneventful race, finishing the day in seventh place. “I think I could have gotten my times down by a second, as I was just coming off a 10-day stomach bug, but it was a great experience,” reflects Caiola. “I really have to hand it to Pete [Spinella], he didn’t leave a stone unturned. We have great techs, but he upgraded their tools and mentality, and they went from there. He put in a lot of hard work and I think it showed. I can’t think of one hitch.”
“From a new-team perspective, it went extremely well,” concludes Cagnazzi. “The crew we have is very experienced, but more important they’re extremely dedicated: They want to get it right and they want to win. This crew really cares about safety and performance, and they’re really competitive. It’s just phenomenal.”