Ashton Harrison takes GT World Challenge America class title at debut
One year after her victory at debut in GT World Challenge America, Ashton Harrison made history once again and, at her second 8 Hours of Indianapolis, clinched the ProAm championship title and was awarded Rookie of the Year.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway continued to be a crucial place in the career of Ashton Harrison: after an impressive rise through the ranks of sports car racing and a proven winner in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America, where she also became the first woman to win the World Finals, Harrison made her SRO debut last year at the 8 Hours of Indy, final round of the GT World Challenge America.
In her one off, Harrison stunned the world and took class and overall victory, before joining full time the championship in a ProAm entry with experienced racer Mario Farnbacher, in the #93 Racers Edge Motorsports Acura NSX Evo.
Ashton, who continues to run combined seasons in the Lamborghini one-make series - also with championship ambitions - delivered once again and showed that the 2021 victory was no coincidence: with a stunning season, she added four more class victories to her name and headed to the season finale at Indianapolis second in the championship almost tied on points with the Wright Motorsports Porsche of Charlie Luck and Jan Heylen.
At the grand finale - run in conjunction with the Intercontinental GT Challenge event, that saw some of the world's top GT3 crews joining the field - Harrison and Farnbacher were joined by two-time IMSA GTD champion Christina Nielsen, who brought her all her experience to help Harrison and Farnbacher secure the title.
But Harrison and Nielsen were not the only women on the GT World Challenge America's grid at Indy - and not even the only women to team up in the same team: Erin Vogel was joined by the 2021 Rookie of the Year and ProAm championship runner up Taylor Hagler, who had just won her second back-to-back title in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge just one week before.
At the wheel of the #43 RealTime Racing's Acura NSX GT3 Evo, Erin Vogel and Taylor Hagler - joined by Vogel's regular teammate Michael Cooper - shared a car for the first time. After a difficult first part of the season - mostly spent adapting to the new Acura platform and its adjustments - Vogel and Cooper showed their true potential at Watkins Glen, where they stepped on the class podium and were fourth overall. From then on, the strong duo was often hit by bad luck despite displaying significant progress in each round.
Furthermore, the 8H of Indianapolis saw the return of Samantha Tan Racing to SRO competitions, after the Canadian outfit had missed several race meetings due to the global logistic difficulties that resulted in a lack of spare parts following an unfortunate accident at the VIR round. Tan competed in Europe in selected races of the CREVENTIC 24H Series and made her debut at the iconic 24 Hours of Spa, where she displayed impressive pace and racecraft in one of the most competitive fields in motor racing.
“Indy is going to be a party!" - commented Samantha Tan, whose team also competed in GT America and TC America, as well as the Fanatec eSports event over the weekend.
"I'm so happy to be rejoined by most of our 24H Spa lineup, Nick Wittmer and Harry Gottsacker, for the Indy 8H."
"We have some unfinished business and will be pushing all weekend to get onto that top step. Altogether, I’m super excited to be making our return to Indy with the entire STR family!”
In the three-session qualifying, the #34 Conquest Racing Ferrari - at its debut in the series -
took provisional pole, with both the #93 Racers Edge Motorsports Acura of Harrison/Farnbacher/Nielsen and the #38 ST Racing BMW M4 GT3 of Tan/Wittmer/Gottsacker making it into the super pole shootout.
It was not a lucky session for RealTime Racing's Vogel/Cooper/Hagler, who couldn't do better than P15 - and then had to start from the back of the pack due to a carry-over penalty from the previous round.
“I didn't have great luck in my qualifying, my early laps weren't representative because I had out of class traffic coming through, one of whom spun across track right in front of me, and the other eventually became a part of that incident on lap 3", commented Vogel.
"But Michael and Taylor both had good runs in qualifying, and we feel that our biggest strength is a consistent car that doesn't fall off toward the end of a stint.”
In the pole shootout, Jules Gounon topped the timesheets for the #33 Winwards Mercedes, ahead of the Ferraris of Balzan and Rovera - as the #23 Ferrari scored ProAm pole. Mario Farnbacher was seventh overall and second in class, while the #38 ST Racing driven by Nick Wittmer was tenth fastest and led the Silver Cup.
The story of the race
The race of the three teams featuring female drivers was off to a great start in the opening stages: Farnbacher took the early lead in ProAm and held sixth overall; Wittmer had a brilliant first stint to move into fifth place overall, and Michael Cooper, behind the wheel of the #43 RealTime Racing's Acura, navigated through the field, charging back after starting from the very back into the overall top ten in a matter of minutes.
In the pole sitting #44 Mercedes, Ward kept the lead from Balzan and Mapelli.
There was soon drama for the #93 of Farnbacher though, who received a drive through for sending the #3 KPAX Lamborghini of Misha Goikhberg into a spin: the battle for the title in ProAm was soon in jeopardy and the #13 Triarsi Competizione Ferrari of Conrad Grunewald took the class lead.
After less than one hour of racing, the two Ferraris of Mapelli and Balzan would gain the overall lead, demoting the #33 Mercedes of Russell Ward to fourth when Daniel Serra - 14th at the start in the #71 AF Corse Ferrari - joined the top three.
After an unreal first stint, Michael Cooper took the lead in ProAm from last on the grid, just before the first round of pit stop started. He would settle in second in class, behind Domink Baumann (#75 Akkodis Mercedes).
Ashton Harrison got in the driving seat of the #93 Acura after Farnbacher had almost gained back most of the positions lost with the penalty, rejoining the track in P11. She battled with the #94 Bimmerworld BMW of Richard Heistand and had to give up one position.
Meanwhile, the fight for second overall heated up, with Balzan, Beretta and Morad being joined by the ST Racing BMW of Nick Wittmer: he would move into third place after passing Alessandro Balzan. The Italian driver, in fact, lamented a power steering issue that cost him several positions.
At the second hour of racing, Antonio Fuoco led the pace for the #71 AF Corse Ferrari, ahead of Daniel Morad (#77 Craft Bamboo Mercedes), Michele Beretta (KPAX Lamborghini) and Harry Gottsacker (#38 ST Racing). Michael Cooper was steadily in second place in ProAm when he completed his remarkable double stint and handed over to Erin Vogel. From fourth in class, Ashton Harrison pitted and Christina Nielsen started her first driving shift of the day. “It was a good first two stints getting up to the lead” - Cooper said. “The car was working really well, and we were just trying to get out ahead of everyone else and hopefully catch a yellow early on.” Unfortunately, luck turned its back again to the RealTime Racing's crew and Erin Vogel was hit and spun by the KPAX Lamborghini of Jordan Pepper, a Pro entry. While there was no major damage to the #43 Acura, Erin lost several positions - and the lack of cautions didn't help her in recovering lost ground. “It was really exciting to watch Michael drive pretty much from the back of the field to first in class” - Vogel commented. “Unfortunately, when I got in the car, there were a lot of other class cars that had drivers who were faster than me, so I lost a couple of positions there." "Then I got punted by a car that wasn't even in our class, which put us back another couple of positions.”
There were some turns of events also in the Pro class, where Ellis and Beretta made contact with approximately 5 hours to go; the KPAX Lamborghini appeared wounded, with significant damage to the right-hand side.
In the championship-contender Crowdstrike Mercedes, Ben Keating also hit trouble and was forced to pit with a radiator issue.
Antonio Fuoco pitted from the overall lead, having opened a safe gap. But all went wrong for the #71 Ferrari when Ulysse De Pauw made contact with the sister car of Pierre Ragues at Turn1, ending up with a penalty.
The drive through handed the first place to Daniel Juncadella - who had taken over the #77 Mercedes from Daniel Morad.
The first Safety Car neutralization arrived after the midway point, when the race of the #1 KPAX Lamborghini went from bad to worse: after contact with the BMW of John Edwards, Caldarelli pitted with a tyre puncture and left the wheel in the hands of Marco Mapelli.
Mapelli would end up making heavy contact with the wall at the final banked corner when a tyre went down at speed, causing the first full course yellow.
Having pitted during the caution, the #71 AF Corse Ferrari driven by De Pauw closed back the gap to the leading Mercedes of Juncadella, effectively gaining back the lost time by the previous drive through.
Harrison and Nielsen alternated behind the wheel of the #93 Acura, safely retaining fourth place in ProAm - consistently ahead of their main championship rival - the #45 Wright Motorsports Porsche of Charlie Luck - who was hit and spun around.
An incident between the #23 Triarsi Ferrari of Rovera and the #63 Mercedes of Assenheimer at Turn 1 further promoted Harrison to third in class.
Erin Vogel's recovery was hampered by two drive through penalties for pit stop violations mid-way through the race; the American racer handed over to Taylor Hagler for the final part of the race in P7 in class.
After a really strong and clean race for the #38 Samantha Tan Racing's BMW, driver/owner Samantha Tan got behind the wheel and was as high as second overall.
A brilliant first stint by Wittmer, consistent lap times by Gottsacker and equally solid driving from Tan brought the BMW M4 GT3 to settle in sixth overall, solitary leader in the Silver Class.
After a second neutralization - for a misplaced tyre barrier at Turn 6 - Marciello and Fuoco battled at the top of the leaderboard and the Ferrari driver surprised the rival as the latter tried to find a way past lapped traffic. After six hours of racing, Antonio Fuoco led Marciello, Foley and Gounon - who was setting the fastest lap of the race but had slipped over one minute behind the leding trio.
A brilliant battle for first place followed, with Marciello launching an attack on Fuoco with approximately 90 minutes to go: Fuoco was forced into a mistake, but the Italian held on. One lap later, though, Marciello's move would be successful and the #77 Craft-Bamboo Mercedes was back in the lead.
The troubled race for RealTime Racing continued when Taylor Hagler was collected by the Crowdstrike Mercedes of Ben Keating; the contact resulted from a harmless spin by Hagler, who was then hit by the incoming Mercedes. After being stationary in the garage for over 10 laps, Michael Cooper rejoined - but a damaged splitter would ultimately bring an end to Vogel/Hagler/Cooper's race.
“I think I was doing pretty good, I was running consistent 1:25’s out there and we were working our way up and closing the gap" - said Hagler, who was recovering steadily after the penalties. "We were on our own lap, but it was still fun to go out there and run.”
“I got a little loose in the corner, spun to the left and they decided the best place to go was to the left and they hit our car,” Hagler said. “That was pretty much it.”
“The car got hit right before my final stint and the crew put it back together” - added Michael Cooper. “I started to feel a vibration because the splitter was coming apart. We tried to come in and fix it again, but with 20 minutes left and 50 laps to the next car behind us we just called it a night because it wasn’t worth the risk.”
The sun set over RealTime Racing's race - as well as on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as the race entered for the first time in its night final hour.
The final stints were marked by the two battles for pro and ProAm victories: Raffaele Marciello was enduring pressure from Antonio Fuoco, while Bill Auberlen (#94 BimmerWorld BMW) had moved ahead of the long-time leading #75 SunEnergy Akkodis Mercedes of Bauman after their final pit stop and took ProAm honours.
Fuoco attempted one final attack on the final lap, but Craft-Bamboo sealed their first race win of the season, as Marciello crossed the finish line taking victory at the 8 Hours of Indianapolis.
With third place in ProAm, Mario Farnbacher, Ashton Harrison - with help from Christina Nielsen - were crowned 2022 ProAm GT World Challenge America champions.
"I don't have a whole lot of words right now, I'm still in shock", commented Harrison.
"This year has been incredible. I'm so excited for Racers Edge, Acura and HPD", she continued. "It's been a roller coaster year."
"Mario [Farnbacher] and I have kept our heads down all year; and Racers Edge has given us a great car. I didn't know it was going to come down to just five points [between first and second], but we did it and I'm just super excited to have had this moment with this team."
With four class victories and eight ProAm podiums, Ashton Harrison was also named 2022 Rookie of the Year.
"I'm especially happy for Ashton", echoed Farnbacher. "To see where she started at the HPD Academy a few years ago to where she is now, she's made some mega steps forward so I'm really proud for her. Thank you to HPD, Acura Motorsports, Racers Edge and finally Christina [Nielsen] for joining us this weekend."
In the closing stages, there was trouble also for the 6th placed ST Racing BMW, as a fuel issue during the final pit stop forced the team to a further stop - but Nick Wittmer was able to hold on and crossed the finish line in ninth place overall, winning the Silver Cup class in yet another strong performance by the Canadian squad at their return to SRO.
"Really proud of us", Samantha Tan commented. "Despite the issues we faced at the end, we had strong pace throughout, running as high as second overall, and showing the talent we have on this team."
"Looking back at this year, I have nothing but respect and pride for my co-drivers and my team."
Despite the early end, RealTime Racing was classified seventh in class after a very strong first part of the race, before a series of hardships denied the driver trio of a potential class podium - almost in a summary of their whole season.
“We were still going along pretty well but another car hit us when Taylor was driving, so we ended up parking it a little early” - Vogel summed up. “The crew did a great job getting the car back together. It looked like it was going to be okay, but in the end, some pieces we couldn’t replace were starting to come apart.
“I want to thank RealTime Racing for an entire season of fun and for the hard work that they’ve put into this program for us” - she added. “I’ve enjoyed working with them so much."
"I wish we had been able to end the season strong. We were so close! Thank you to ShiftUpNow and Bell TechLogix for their support. Thanks to GT World Challenge as well for another great season. I always enjoy being in this paddock.”
The 2023 season is scheduled to get underway on February 24 at NOLA Motorsports Park.