Ashton Harrison wins 8H of Indy at GT3 debut, Hagler takes podium
The 8H of Indianapolis rounded out an historic season for female racers in SRO. After the rise of Erin Vogel and Taylor Hagler, Ashton Harrison stunned with a double victory at GT3 debut in the season finale.
One of the most anticipated events on the endurance calendar, the 8 Hours of Indianapolis rounded out the 2021 SRO America championships with a thrilling race at the capital of American motorsport.
Run in conjunction with the second round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, the GT World Challenge America season saw Erin Vogel and Taylor Hagler completing their rookie season in GT3 and at the top of the SRO GT universe Stateside.
Vogel stepped up to the series after one year in GT4 America, where she laid the foundations for a successful career in GT racing. Her progress has been impressive and the American racer quickly got up to speed in the DXDT Racing's Mercedes AMG GT3 that she shares with Michael Cooper, also her driving partner in the previous season.
At VIRginia International Raceway - only her race weekend in the series - Erin became the first woman to win a race in GT3 in SRO America, as she claimed the ProAm victory after a stunning race. Vogel's debut season continued with more ground-breaking achievements, such as the class pole-position at Watkins Glen and two more podiums at Watkins Glen and Sebring.
"It’s a great way to end the race season with the 8 Hour." - Vogel said. "The energy you have walking into the speedway is palpable. It just has so much history and it’s exciting to be there. The racing will be really good. I’m excited to have some European teams over and mixing up the field."
Heading to the longest race of the season, Erin Vogel and Michael Cooper were joined by Thomas Merrill, a podium finisher in IMSA this year, where he is entering the four Endurance Cup races.
"I’ve been admiring Erin’s racing career as it has progressed for a while now and was honored to be asked to join the team." - commented Merrill ahead of the 8 hour race. "With the group of people we have involved, I see no reason why we can’t be fighting for the win."
Taylor Hagler's maiden season in GT3 was something equally outstanding. The Texan driver, after a very positive championship in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, was selected to be part of the Honda HPD development program and completed extensive testing, which translated in one of the most exciting campaigns for Hagler, who is also leading the IMSA series in TCR class. Hagler stepped on the class podium at her first GT3 outing at Sonoma, then adding 6 more top-3 finishes ahead of Indianapolis, including three victories. She shared the #93 Racers Edge Motorsport Acura NSX GT3 machine with fellow HPd members Dakota Dickerson and Jacob Abel, who alternated as Taylor's teammates throughout the year. At Indianapolis, the three drivers joined forces. “This season has been one of the most challenging but rewarding parts of my racing career,” said Hagler. “It all comes down to eight hours. The Indy 8 Hour will push me as a driver to keep focused for long stints and the team to stay consistent on each pit stop." "The entire Racers Edge Motorsports, as well as my co-drivers, have worked so hard day in and day out to give us the best chance possible.” In addition to her Indianapolis 8 hour run, Hagler brought the Hyundai Elantra N line TCA to SRO debut, as she combined a double commitment and entered the final race of TC America as well, taking a fourth place in TCA class in Friday's race. But at the season finale, Erin and Taylor were not the only women on track, as Ashton Harrison and Pippa Mann also joined the grid - respectively in the #77 Compass Racing Acura NSX GT3 Evo and the #7 Porsche Cayman GT4 for OGH Motosports with NOLA Sport. Harrison, a new addition to the HPD program, has impressed in the Lamborghini Supertrofeo North America, where she consistently finished on the AM class podium. Alongside Compass Racing's regular in GT World Challenge America Matt McMurry and Mario Farnbacher, Ashton Harrison was set to make her GT3 racing debut, eager to apply what she’s learned at the HPD Driver Academy. “The HPD Academy has given me a great foundation with the NSX, and I can’t wait to be in the car in race conditions" - Harrison explained. “The whole experience has been so positive thus far, and has definitely helped me move to the next level with GT3. I can’t thank my sponsor Harrison Contracting and my team Wayne Taylor Racing enough for supporting me to partake in such a great event with Compass."
"We’re truly excited to have Ashton, Matt and Mario together in our Richard Mille NSX for the eight-hour race at Indianapolis" - remarked Compass Racing Team Owner Jill Beck. "All are at various stages of their driving careers with HPD, and it highlights Honda’s commitment to creating a ladder that can be climbed to the top level of sportscar racing here in North America."
British racing star Pippa Mann - a seven time starter at the legendary Indianapolis 500 - made her return to the Speedway, this time to make her first start in SRO.
In her second international GT4 race of 2021 - after the successful effort at the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring Nordschleife - Mann teamed up with Sean Gibbons and Sam Owen: the two drivers have been competing in the #7 NOLASport entry in the SRO GT4 America SprintX championship.
"I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to join Sean and Sam in their car for this event, and to be returning to action at Indianapolis Motor Speedway" - said Mann. “While traveling the opposite direction down the front straight might take a little getting used to, I’m stoked to be back on the track for another major sports car event this season, this time in my adopted home town."
Usually featuring two 90-minute races per race weekend, the GT World Challenge America season officially concluded at the 3 hour mark of the 8 hour race, with double points being awarded.
Qualifying was promising for the women of the series: Hagler and teammates qualified in P13 overall, third among the Silver Cup entries, with Ashton Harrison lining up in fifth place in the same category. After wet practice sessions, Erin Vogel was also in the top-three in qualifying, as the #19 DXDT Racing's Mercedes took the start from third among the ProAm field. Pippa Mann had a more troubled start of the weekend and had to line up from P38 overall, P12 in the GT4 class.
In very different conditions from Friday practice, Mann's qualifying attempt was in fact halted by a red flag first, before her following laps were heavily hampered by GT3 traffic.
It was in fact quickly clear that traffic management would be critical in a 40-car multi-class field - and Sunday's race was the ultimate proof.
The early hours of the race were action-packed but relatively clean compared to the closing stages. At the start, the #51 Ferrari of Pier Guidi/Ledogar/Nielsen led overall from pole, with the Italian marque looking the strongest contender on the long run.
In the GTWC America 'race within the race', the #33 Winward Racing Mercedes driven by Philip Ellis at the start took the lead of the pack and into the first FCY, brought out by a contact by the Zelus Lamborghini and the Inception McLaren - which would be protagonist of a very troubled race.
Meanwhile, Ashton Harrison had managed to snatch second place in the Compass Racing Acura and the #6 KPAX Lamborghini. The championship-winning sister car dropped back for a puncture but remained in the lead lap.
From 13th on the grid, Taylor Hagler was also behind the wheel of the #93 Acura for the opening stint and she solidly moved up the order, gaining the top of the GTWC America contenders at the first hour mark. She completed her first 45-minute driving shift and handed over to Dakota Dickerson in ninth overall and third in Silver Cup.
Hagler was followed by Harrison, in a female 1-2; Erin Vogel was also behind the wheel of the #19 DXDT Mercedes and the American driver had a good stint, also moving up towards the front of the ProAm field. Pippa Mann completed the first stint as well, gaining positions to bring the #7 Valkyrie Porsche Cayman GT4 in P10 in class before the first driver change.
At the second Full Course Yellow - triggered by the beached #61 AF Corse Ferrari, Alessio Rovera (#71 AF Corse Ferrari) found himself in the lead, ahead of the #99 Mercedes of Maro Engel and the early pacesetter Nielsen in the #51 Ferrari. The new leader, though, would be handed a drive through penalty for pit infraction, paving the way to the #59 McLaren and, successively, to the #89 Team AKKA Mercedes of Daniel Juncadella.
Erin Vogel's race, unfortunately, came to an early end towards the final minutes of the second hour when she had moved into P15 overall and third in ProAm, after a really solid first part of the race. The damages from a contact unfortunately proved to be too extensive for repairs.
The #25 Audi of Markus Winkelhock hit the overall lead into the third hour, but Antonio Fuoco (#71 AF Corse Ferrari) soon fought back.
After a second stint by McMurry, Harrison climbed back in the #77 Compass Racing Acura and brought the car across the virtual finish line at the 3-hour mark, becoming the first woman to claim an overall victory in SRO GT World Challenge - at her first entry in the series and at GT3 debut.
Taylor Hagler had also returned in the driving seat of the Racers Edge Acura and was third across the line, securing her eighth podium of the season. The result earned Taylor the second place in the championship standings, behind Jan Heylen and Fred Poordad (Wright Motorsport). From there, the #77 and #93 crews continued to compete for the Silver Cup in the 8H of Indianapolis.
At the half-race mark, The AF Corse squad continued to lead, while the #25 Audi received a drive through for pit infringement. Second was the second Ferrari - which also would be handed a penalty after contact with the GT4 leader - followed by the #3 KPAX Lamborghini. Raffaele Marciello (#89 Mercedes) was also making big progress.
During Pippa Mann's second stint, the British ace hit trouble after having recovered to sixth in GT4: an ABS failure caused the tyre to delaminate and damaged the front radiator. Mann limped back to the pits and the NOLASport crew worked hard to send the car back on track.
“I’m gutted we had the ABS issue, but it was just a freak thing where some pick-up that had accumulated inside our wheel well over the course of the race broke free and attacked our wheel speed sensor." - she explained. "I’m thankful it happened on a safe part of the racetrack, and that there wasn’t any further damage to the car beyond that caused by the tire delamination."
Hagler completed her final stint of the day and pitted, leaving the #93 Racers Edge Acura NSX in the hands of Dakota Dickerson and Jacob Abel after another clean run.
At the restart, the battle for the overall lead saw Raffaele Marciello (#99 Mercedes) gaining the top spot, albeit under pressure from Patric Niederhauser (#25 Audi) and Callum Ilott (#71 Ferrari). A heated duel for the lead, then, gave the Ferrari driver the chance to snatch the lead and the Briton continued to hold off Niederhauser until the final hour.
In an incident-filled second half of the race, Ilott seemed able to pull away, but drama hit when he made heavy contact with a GT4 car at Turn 1 and retired.
GT3 and GT4 cars colliding remained an issue throughout the race, with the speed gap being particularly a problem at this circuit. Pippa Mann described it as "by far the toughest endurance race I’ve ever competed in" - which is a rather telling representation.
"The speed difference between us and the GT3 cars felt massive on this race track and there were just so many of them", Mann continued.
“When one of your primary goals for your team coming into the race is not to get hit by a GT3 car, that tells you something of what we were all dealing with out there – for them trying to navigate their way around us, and for us trying to compete in our race within their race. While speed and class differences are very normal in endurance racing, at this track, this weekend, it was certainly a major factor for all of the teams and drivers."
The AF Corse Ferrari were out of contention and surprisingly, two Audis led: the #37 WRT of Dries Vanthoor took the lead after a fuel-only final pit stop, but received a drive through penalty for “ignoring instructions from race control to slow down to safety car speed", promoting the #25 Audi Sport Team Saintéloc of Patric Niederhauser.
The action was quickly neutralized once again when the #99 Mercedes of Jules Gounon and the #58 McLaren made contact and retired. Gounon was trying to recover from another early contact which had dropped the Craft-Bamboo team down the order whistl in contention for overall victory.
Meanwhile, Matt McMurry led the Silver Cup field in the #77 Compass Racing Acura - but was spun around by the Ferrari of Alessandro Pier Guidi and dropped to second in class.
After eight hour of intense racing across all classes, Niederhauser-Haase-Winckelhock took the overall victory for Saintéloc Audi, ahead of Marciello-Juncadella-Boguslavskiy in the AKKA Mercedes and the #3 KPAX Lamborghini driven by Caldarelli-Pepper-Bortolotti.
In Silver class, the #26 Saintéloc Audi of Aurélien Panis, Lucas Légeret and Nicolas Baert took the chequered flag, but were later handed a 53-second time penalty for pit-infringement, which meant that Ashton Harrison, sixth overall at her first race in GT3 machinery, doubled up with another victory in the Indy 8H.
“I'm just thankful for this opportunity, this is my first GT3 race and I'm so thankful to Acura, HPD and Harrison Contracting for supporting me, and allowing me to do this." - she said.
"It's been great working with Compass, as coming from other series, they've been so helpful with this learning curve. Thankfully, I've been here [at the IMS road course] before in smaller cars, but there was a definite learning curve with the increased aero and horsepower of the NSX. But Acura and the HPD Academy have been great. I've been working to put what I learned there into practice here this weekend.”
The Racers Edge drivers capitalized on the other competitors' mistakes and continued to climb the order, finishing third in class - in yet another podium finish for Taylor Hagler.
“To end the season with, not one, but two podium results makes me truly speechless" - said the young HPD talent.
"I didn’t start the day confident and felt like I had room to improve on my next stint", she continued. "I think I did just that and was able to help put us in a good position for Dakota [Dickerson] and Jacob [Abel] to bring it home."
"This season has been a whirlwind and I am so proud to represent Racers Edge Motorsports" - summed up Hagler. "These results, and the results of the entire season, are because of the preparation and hard work they put into this program. Thank you to everyone who has believed in me along the way and to my parents for supporting this crazy dream of mine. Wow, what a season."
While it wasn't the result she had hoped for, Pippa Mann and the Valkyrie OGH Motorsports co-drivers managed to bring the #7 Porsche Cayman across the finish line, rewarding the efforts of the Nolasport mechanics. They were classified in ninth place among the GT4 entries.
"I’m very grateful to the hard work from the Nolasport crew for getting us back out on track to finish out the race, but I’m still gutted our chance for a better result ended this way" - said Mann.
"Sean [Gibbons] and Sam [Owen] both drove great stints out there, and we were quietly sticking to our plan, ticking off the laps and moving forward. I would like to thank them both again for the invitation to join them for this race. Also, thank you to Bell Techlogix and Indy Women in Tech for coming along on this eight hour adventure with me."
The unfortunate end to Erin Vogel's rookie GT3 campaign takes nothing away from her impressive season, with lots of positives to take. At her second full-year in SRO, Vogel continued to improve at a steady pace and excelled in the mix of a really competitive grid.
"I really had fun here this weekend. It was great driving with Michael and Thomas, and it was great having Thomas on the team with us." - Erin said. "We qualified very well and knew we had some good pace for the race."
"Unfortunately, things just didn’t work out to our plan. I’m happy to cap off a great season with a lot of podiums. I feel like it was a wonderful debut season for us in this car and I’m looking forward to more of that in the future. Thank you to DXDT Racing for providing a great team and program to make this possible."
"It was Erin's first season in a GT3 car and she's really come a long way." - stressed Michael Cooper. "Her pace has improved a lot in the second half of the season. Her performances at Sebring and here at Indy pace-wise were really impressive and I'm looking forward to doing more of this next year and fighting even further up the grid."
The 2021 GT World Challenge America season turned out to be a really history-making one for women in motorsport. The championship highlighted talents such as Vogel and Hagler, often sharing the ProAm podium - and ended on a high with the victory at debut for Ashton Harrison. One step at a time, the future looks promising.