Ashton Harrison takes second win in GTWC America, Vogel scores first top5
It was another strong weekend for the women of GT World Challenge America, as Ashton Harrison claimed a first and second place in ProAm and an overall podium - while Erin Vogel had really solid drives and bounced back from a difficult qualifying to score her first top five of the season.
GT World Challenge championships - both in Europe and US - are featuring some extremely competitive female entries in 2022: the American series, in particular, had two female class winners in 2021 and currently three women contesting for ProAm podiums and victories among the extremely competitive field.
At the season opener in Sonoma, HPD alumni Ashton Harrison (Racers Edge Motorsport Acura) claimed her first podium of the season, with second place in class in Race 2. In her only previous appearance in the series, Harrison had made history by becoming the first woman to win outright in GTWC, when she took an impressive victory at GT3 debut at the 8H of Indianapolis.
Samantha Tan - another history-maker - also had a good start of her season, gaining 12 positions in her stint in Race 2 to finish fourth. It was Samantha Tan Racing's debut in GTWC America, following an historic win at the 12H of Mugello which brought the Canadian outfit under the global spotlight for claiming the first worldwide victory for the new BMW M4 GT3.
In her second year in the series, Erin Vogel - the first woman to take a class win in SRO at GT3 level - moved to the Acura NSX platform, always partnering Michael Cooper. The strong duo had to battle a few challenges on their first weekend but managed to finish just outside the top-five as they continued to learn the machinery.
The second round of the 2022 season was initially scheduled at the new Ozarks International Raceway, but was later announced it would move to NOLA Motorsports Park, New Orleans.
Unfortunately, Samantha Tan and her team could not join the grid last weekend, as the squad fell victim of the global supply-chain:
"Due to the continuing supply-chain challenges resulting in delayed delivery of crucial spare parts and equipment, we are very disappointed to announce that we will not be at GTWC America at NOLA nor Ferrari Challenge Watkins Glen", wrote Tan on her social media profiles. However, she announced her team's first participation at the upcoming 24H of Spa Francorchamps, as she will make her European series debut.
Drivers prepared for the 2.75-mile circuit with some sim time and studying data and onboards, as Vogel explained: “When I go to a new track I watch a lot of video and study track maps, primarily".
"I'll do a little sim time, but I try not to focus on that too hard because sometimes it can give false impressions", she continued. "It's great for learning a layout and some general characteristics of a racetrack, but it can be dangerous to assume you have it down just from driving it on a sim."
Despite some setup issues, the Realtime Racing's driver struggled with the clutch at Sonoma and thus focused on this issue ahead of the NOLA weekend.
“We had a few problems with it at Sonoma and will need to practice a few pit stop launches to really have that part of the equation down pat", said Vogel. "Despite our setup struggles in Sonoma, I was feeling like I read the car intuitively and have learned its language now, so I know we have the potential to do well at NOLA.”
The weekend started on a high for Harrison, who claimed the ProAm pole position by just 0.006 seconds for the first race on Saturday. On the other hand, it was an unlucky start for Vogel, who had to face a fuel pump wire failure on Friday practice and was robbed of valuable track time ahead of qualifying. She would set the eleventh fastest time in Q1, while Cooper was tenth for the starting grid of Race 2 after the second qualifying session.
Cloudy skies with impending rain marked the start of the first race of the weekend.
The #1 KPAX Lamborghini of Michele Beretta - who is now teaming up with compatriot Andrea Caldarelli after a line up switch - took overall pole position, ahead of the US Racetronics Mercedes AMG GT3 of Steven Aghakhani and the second KPAX Lambo of Misha Goikhberg. Fifth overall was the ProAm pole sitting Acura driven by Ashton Harrison, while Erin Vogel took the start from the eighth row of the grid.
At the start, Beretta had a good getaway, while Aghakhani hesitated but held second. The race was soon under Full Course Yellow after an incident involving Sonoma winner and ProAm championship leader Charlie Luck (#45 Wright Motorsports Porsche), who hit Smithson (#8 DXDT Racing Mercedes) and was then collected by the Zelus Lamborghini of Jason Harward.
Meanwhile, Harrison was battling wheel to wheel for the ProAm lead with Chandler Hull - who eventually got by - and Erin Vogel had already gained four places, moving into 12th position overall and seventh in class.
The green flag waved again with 1 hour and 18 minutes to go; Beretta had a perfect restart, ahead of Goikhberg - who leapfrogged the Mercedes of Aghakhani - and Michael Dinan (Turner Motorsport BMW). The battle for third allowed the KPAX drivers to check out.
Having made it to third place, Dinan was then not able to open a gap and had to defend from the return of Aghakhani; after the Turner Motorsport's driver went wide at Turn 5, Aghakhani saw a gap and went for the move - but carried a bit too much speed into the corner and spun, dropping to seventh overall.
Erin Vogel overtook David Askew at the restart, but then she was under pressure from her former teammate. The driver/owner of the #63 Mercedes made a small mistake and was passed by Jeff Burton's Lamborghini, leaving Vogel some breathing space.
Ashton Harrison caught up with Hull in the ProAm lead; both were not far behind the Pro entry of Michael Dinan just before the pit window opening.
Race leader Michele Beretta pitted with 50 minutes to go, strong of a 20 second lead.
Harrison handed over to Mario Farnbacher from second in class, while Erin Vogel completed an outstanding first stint and left the #43 Realtime Racing Acura NSX in the hands of Michael Cooper. Vogel was the biggest mover in the first half of the race, as she gained 8 positions. With consistent lap times, Erin had managed to open a gap on the ProAm entries behind her.
“It was a little wild on the start,” Vogel said. “It's never fun starting at the back of the field because there are almost always bound to be incidents and you just have to hope you can avoid getting collected."
"Fortunately, I was just able to avoid the collision in Turn 3 having gained a few positions and then was also able to take advantage of the restart for more gains.”
After the pit stops, Andrea Caldarelli retained a 20-second lead over Jordan Pepper and Loris Spinelli (US Racetronics Mercedes) was able to recover to fourth after his teammate's spin. Bill Auberlen inherited the lead in ProAm, ahead of Farnbacher.
Spinelli was on fire and caught up with Robby Foley (Turner Motorsport BMW) for the overall podium. With 20 minutes to go, the battle intensified and, after a series of smaller contacts, Foley and Spinelli collided and the #96 BMW M4 GT3 ended in the gravel with damage, bringing out the Safety Car.
At the restart, Michael Cooper - who had defended masterfully throughout his stint from the attacks of Ryan Dalziel in the #13 Triarsi Competizione Ferrari - held fifth position in ProAm, conquered thanks to the fastest pitstop across the field. But the class positions at the top changed when Mario Farnbacher tried a move around the outside on Auberlen and both were passed by Colin Braun (#4 CrowdStrike Racing by Riley Motorsports Mercedes), who committed to the inside line and took the lead.
Caldarelli was able to open a safe gap once again and brought the #1 KPAX Lamborghini across the line to secure a 1-2 for the team, ahead of Jordan Pepper. Braun's move gained the #4 crew the ProAm victory as well as an overall podium and preceded Harrison/Farnbacher. The Racers Edge Motorsports' duo were second in class, claiming another podium.
With fifth in ProAm, Erin Vogel and Michael Cooper scored theri best result of the season so far, after a really solid race.
"It feels really good to finish in the top five today after a really tough qualifying and honestly a tough weekend so far overall” - Erin explained. “I'm so proud of the team for their effort and for the quick pit stop - we had the fastest stop out of the whole field and gained a couple more positions there."
"I’m very proud of Michael for holding fifth through the whole second half of his stint with the Ferrari in his mirrors. It was hard work today and it feels good to have earned a top five through solid racecraft even without the speed we're looking for.”
While race 1 remained dry, the rain did eventually come just before the start of Race 2 on Sunday, meaning that the track conditions were tricky when the lights went out. After an unlucky race 1, Loris Spinelli started from pole overall in the US Racetronics Mercedes, lining up alongside the ProAm entry of Giacomo Altoè (TR3 Racing Lamborghini).
Spinelli had a perfect start, while Bryan Sellers (DXDT Racing Mercedes) was up to second, followed by Mario Farnbacher (Racers Edge Motorsports Acura) - the latter gaining two places before Turn 1. Having gained a position on the grid for the penalty handed to the Wright Motorsport Porsche following the Race 1 incident on the opening lap, Michael Cooper took the start of race two from ninth in class - but he was involved in contacts that dropped him to last.
“I got pushed off in the brake zone for Turn One by a Lamborghini and basically fell back to last place,” Cooper said. “It was a battle to recover from there and turn the car over to Erin in a decent position.”
The opening minutes proved to be challenging for the low grip and water spray; from seventh on the grid, Jordan Pepper was quickly up to fourth, while Race 1 winner Andrea Caldarelli was stuck in sixth place.
A battle for the overall lead between Altoè and Spinelli saw Farnbacher finding a gap and advancing to second place - first in ProAm. He then had to defend from the fast charging Lambos of Altoè and Pepper but the German was able to hold on as the track dried up.
Caldarelli overtook Sellers for fifth with 50 minutes left on the clock and started to hunt down his KPAX teammate Pepper, just before pitting as soon as the pit window opened.
Meanwhile, Michael Cooper had made it up to P9 in class and P13 overall with a strong recovering stint. With another perfect pit stop by the Realtime Racing crew, Erin Vogel was back out on track in eighth place.
Loris Spinelli was back on pit road on lap 30 - but a wheelgun issue at the pit stop would cost US Racetronics the overall lead. Steven Aghakhani rejoined in 10th position and started an impressive charge. Ashton Harrison, who got behind the wheel of the #93 Racers Edge Motorsports Acura NSX, then found herself in the overall lead; with impressive lap times, Harrison was among the fastest drivers on track - only second to Michele Beretta, who eventually caught up with her and got past on lap 35.
The rain intensified again and Harrison continued to set amazing laps, opening a gap of over 20 seconds to third placed Misha Goikhberg in the #3 pro KPAX Lamborghini.
Despite close battles throughout the field - including a three-car scrap that saw Charlie Luck being turned by George Kurz after a mistake by Ziad Ghandour - the race remained green, which allowed Harrison to continue extending her gap.
The extended green-flag period was not, on the other hand, ideal for Erin Vogel, who was running alone for the first part of her stint, with little chance to catch the cars ahead.
She then had to defend her eighth place from Jason Harward (Zelus Motorsports Lamborghini), but showing again good racecraft, Vogel held on.
Michele Beretta took his second win of the weekend, with Ashton Harrison and Mario Farnbacher finishing second overall and on the top step of the ProAm podium. It was Harrison's second class win in GT World Challenge America.
“I had a great time. My team is so incredible, [Farnbacher] does an amazing job every time he’s in the car, and our pit stops are perfect. I’m so thankful for this.” Harrison said.
“When Jim, our engineer, came over the radio and said, ‘You’re leading,’ I didn’t even know we were in the lead, so it was a really cool moment overall.”
“Usually, using slicks in the rain is where you can make a difference, and I think that was our advantage in the beginning, where we could sneak around some people, and we did.” Farnbacher added. “In the end, we just saved the tires all the way around the stint and were consistent with no mistakes."
"I think that was the key to bring [Harrison] the car in a good position. She did a really good job, and the crew did an amazing pit stop. Really proud of this.”
Steven Aghakhani completed a brilliant recovery from tenth to third overall after he passed the KPAX Lamborghini of Misha Goikhberg with ten minutes to go.
Chandler Hull / Bill Auberlen were fourth and second in ProAm, while George Kurtz / Colin Braun completed the ProAm podium.
In difficult conditions, Erin Vogel stayed focused and had another solid run to finish P8 in class, again gaining three places from their starting position.
“We started getting a few sprinkles in the middle of my stint, which was really only enough to dampen the braking zone in Turn One,” Erin explained.
“At the same time, the overall leaders caught and lapped myself and the Lamborghini of Jason Harward, allowing Jason to close the gap to me. I was able to hold him off until the checked flag, and as I told Peter Cunningham: ‘there were places where he was quicker, so I knew I just had to drive smooth, and there were places where I was quicker, so I knew I just had to drive smooth.’ After the race, Jason told me ‘I was just hoping that you'd bobble so I could get past, but you never did.’”
Ashton Harrison now sits in second place in the drivers' standings, while two solid drives at NOLA earned Erin Vogel sixth in the points table.
The next GT World Challenge America round is scheduled for June 17-19 at VIRginia International Raceway - the venue where Vogel claimed her first class win last year.