Despite bad luck, Heart of Racing all-female crew display potential in GT4 America's debut
While a heartbreaking first lap incident took them out of contention while in second place in class in race 1, Hannah Grisham and Rianna O'Meara-Hunt had a solid recovery drive on Sunday, in an overall highly promising GT4 America debut which showed plenty of speed in practice and qualifying.
Following a driver selection for female drivers only that eventually brought nine finalists to a shootout in Arizona, the Heart Of Racing team selected its first all-female crew for the 2023 Pirelli GT4 America's season: Hannah Grisham, 22, from the United States, and Rianna O'Meara-Hunt, 21, from New Zealand, emerged as the two best candidates for the #26 Aston Martin Vantage GT4 seat.
Initially, one candidate was expected to graduate to full-time driver with the team, but the performance of O'Meara-Hunt and Grisham convinced the Heart of Racing to promote both to an all-female team. The program represented another important step for the development of young female drivers in sports car racing, and O'Meara-Hunt and Grisham kicked-off their season at Sonoma Raceway, California, last weekend.
“I’m so excited for my first race at Sonoma with The Heart of Racing,” said Grisham. “It’s a real full-circle moment since I have raced karts at the kart track at Sonoma as a kid and now I’m racing there in cars. I’m ready to kick the season off with a talented, great teammate and a new team for my first SRO start!”
Since the selections, the two drivers had the chance to test the Aston Martin GT4, ahead of their first start as teammates.
“I’m really excited heading into Sonoma and getting this new adventure underway,” said O’Meara-Hunt, who starts her first North American series . “Coming somewhat into the unknown, a new country, new series, new car, new drivers, new rules, new tracks, I have been working hard since the announcement to prep to the best of my ability and to ensure the transition is as seamless as possible."
"I know with the support and experience of The Heart of Racing family I am in great hands and am pumped to head out on circuit to show what the No. 26 Aston Martin can do”, Rianna added.
The weekend was off to a very promising start for the Heart of Racing's duo, who were second in the Am class in practice, then set again the second fastest lap of their class in Q1.
Unfortunately, Hannah Grisham's first stint was over before it started: at turn 2 on the first lap, the #26 Aston Martin was hit from behind, spun around and collected by some of the following cars, putting an early end to her first start in Pirelli GT4 America.
“Saturday’s race was definitely a difficult one for us,” said Grisham. “We had a pretty decent starting position and just ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time. I got hit by somebody else and there wasn’t much I could do and unfortunately it took me out of the race."
The race remained green and Jesse Webb (#34 Conquest Racing Mercedes AMG GT4) retained the lead from pole position, leading the NOLASPORT Porsche of Matt Travis and the ACI Motorsport Porsche of Francis Selldorff. The first safety car of the season was deployed following several contacts through the 42-car field that had left some damaged cars stranded on track.
Webb accelerated away once again with 49 minutes to go, with positions at the front relatively unchanged, but the action was short lived as another crash in the midfield took out the #428 Van der Steur Racing Aston Martin and the #54 Black Swan Racing McLaren.
The pace car returned to the pits mid way through the race, just one lap before the opening of the pit window. The NOLASPORT Porsche managed to get in the overall lead by leapfrogging the Conquest Racing Mercedes, after a dominant first stint by Webb. With a perfect pit stop, Jason Hart found himself ahead of Michai Stephens.
The #7 ACI Motorsport Cayman driven by Andrew Davis had also emerged in second place after a different pit stop strategy and reduced the gap to the leaders, but the #47 NOLASPORT Porsche of Matt Travis and Jason Hart held on and crossed the finish line with a 5 second margin to win the first race of the season, ahead of Davis/Selldorf and Stephens/Webb. After the race, though the #7 ACI Motorsport Porsche was found to be non-compliant at scrutineering and dropped to last, promoting Conquest Racing and Random Vandals Racing to the overall podium.
The 42 car field lined up once again for the second race on Sunday, this time with Kiwi Rianna O'Meara-Hunt in the car for the opening part of the race, starting from P34 overall and 12th in class following a big effort for the team to fix the damages from race 1. The #47 Nolasport of Hart had a great start from overall pole position, while John Geesbreght passed Kay van Berlo for second. While initially dropping down to P39, O'Meara-Hunt was able to avoid some incidents and climbed back to P36 overall and 13th in the Am class. While Hart and Van Berlo had a comfortable advantage, the pack ran at unbelievably close gaps from P3 to P33, in a hectic first stint of constant position changes until the first FCY, brought out by the overall second-placed Porsche of Kay van Berlo. But, as the saying goes, yellow brings yellow and at the restart two separate incidents forced the safety car to neutralize the race once again - just as the pit window opened. One lap after the green flag, the mandatory pit stops started: Rianna O'Meara-Hunt completed her first ever GT4 America driving shift and handed over the #26 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage to Hannah Grisham. Grisham rejoined P34 and immediately engaged in fierce battles. She overtook the #35 Conquest Racing Mercedes at the chicane, gaining P11 in the AM class. A big incident between Roland Krainz and Charlie Postins meant that the last drivers still having to pit dived into pit lane before the third caution was called. With barrier repair underway, the safety car led the pack throughout the second part of the race and AM entry Terry Borcheller took victory in the #20 Toyota GR Supra GT4, after a penalty for the #999 Hanley Motorsports Toyota which had not served its pit stop. The #50 Povoledo Racing Aston Martin and the #37 Skip Barber School Toyota followed, with the #22 Techsport Racing Nissan completing the ProAm podium. While Hannah Grisham could only run two laps under green, the Heart of Racing duo gained eight positions to finish P26, seventh among the Am entries. “We had a bit of bad luck in race one, but for my first race on Sunday I think it went well,” said O’Meara-Hunt. “I was being a bit hesitant at the start with it just being new drivers and a new track and maybe a bit too cautious, but overall it was a really good race. The team has been awesome to work with and we’ve got the car in a really good place and quality.” "The team recovered really well and I think for our first weekend we did pretty good overall and we can only go up from here" - echoed Grisham. "The whole Heart of Racing squad did a great job and worked really hard to get the car ready for us from Saturday’s incident. I really can’t thank everyone enough.” The GT4 America drivers will be back in action from April 28-30 at NOLA Motorsports Park for the second double-header of the 2023 season.