Erin Vogel recovers to P5 in Race 1, unlucky weekend for women of GTWC America
With a strong recovery drive in Race 1, Erin Vogel returned to the top-5 at VIR, in what turned out to be an overall tough weekend for the women of GT World Challenge America.
One month after the second round of the 2022 season at NOLA Motorsports Park, GT World Challenge America Powered by AWS made its annual visit to VIRginia International Raceway for one of the most anticipated events on the calendar.
With its fast and undulating corners, the 3.27-mile road course is in fact among the fans and drivers favourites - and additionally carried a special meaning for Erin Vogel, as the driver of the #43 RealTime Racing Acura returned to the track where she made history last year, becoming the first ever woman to win in GT3 machinery in a SRO-sanctioned series.
“I still try to approach each race weekend in the same way: without expectations!" – commented Vogel before the race. "Anything can happen in racing, the best plans are easily thwarted, and even poor planning or a struggling car can be elevated through luck and circumstance."
"Of course, we're always chasing the win, and I absolutely love VIR as a racetrack and as a venue, so I'm very much looking forward to racing there and, as always, I hope we are successful!” – she continued.
Similarly, RealTime Racing also enjoyed great success at VIR in the past, having claimed six GT World Challenge victories over the years.
“The NSX has always had good speed", commented Michael Cooper, who has shared the car with Vogel since the beginning of her SRO journey. "With VIR having a few long full throttle runs, we are hoping that plays into our hands this weekend.”
After winning at her debut in 2021, Ashton Harrison clinched two ProAm podiums and yet another win in her first full-time season in GTWC America, having previously competed in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo North American series. At the wheel of the #93 Racers Edge Motorsports Acura NSX GT3 Evo, Harrison is expected to be a strong contender for ProAm wins all season long, together with experienced racer Mario Farnbacher.
The VIR round also marked the return to GTWC America of the #38 BMW M4 GT3 driven by driver/owner Samantha Tan. ST Racing was in fact forced to miss the NOLA round due to a spare parts shortage caused by the global supply chain difficulties. Tan – who was the first ever customer to receive the brand new BMW M4 GT3 globally and would then bring it to its first international win at the 12H of Mugello.
Having also expanded her program in GTWC America, Tan had a strong run at Sonoma, where she gained over 12 positions in an impressive second race – and was eyeing her first class podium at VIR.
On a very hot Friday, the weekend was off to a promising start for Samantha Tan and teammate Nick Wittmer, who led the timing sheets in Practice 1. Harrison/Farnbacher were sixth overall, while Erin Vogel and Michael Cooper had a more troubled day: after a P10 in ProAm in FP1, the RealTime Racing duo were forced to sit out FP2 due to an electrical issue.
Harrison showed great pace from FP2 and, coming into qualifying, the Racers Edge Motorsports' lineup impressed with a 5th place in class for Saturday's race and overall pole position for Race 2. Samantha Tan Racing claimed a P7 and P5 in the two qualifying sessions, while Vogel and Cooper – who could take part in the sessions after a good effort by the RealTime Racing's crew to fix the issues - struggled a bit more to find the right setup and were 12th in both Q1 and Q2.
They would try a different approach on the setup just before the start of Race 1 – and the gamble paid off.
On another sunny day at VIR, Michele Beretta took the start from overall pole position in the #1 KPAX Lamborghini Huracan GT3 and led the pack into the first corner. Behind him, Steven Aghakhani (US RaceTronics Mercedes) had a slower launch and was overtaken by Misha Goikhberg (KPAX Lamborghini) and the Turner Motorsport BMW of Michael Dinan – the latter coming from the third row of the grid.
Behind the wheel of the #93 Acura, Ashton Harrison also had a brilliant start and moved from fifth to second in class on the opening lap, gaining four places overall.
The action was soon neutralized by a Full Course Yellow for the parked Zelus Motorsports' Lamborghini of Jeff Burton, who had come to a halt at Turn 10.
At the restart on lap 6, Aghakhani was quickly trying to recover the lost positions and attacked Dinan – but the BMW managed to defend the position.
Ashton Harrison was also on the move and, being the fastest car on track in ProAm, she started to put pressure on the class leader Chandler Hull (Bimmerworld BMW).
Hull made a mistake and spun – and unfortunately ended up collecting Harrison, who had almost avoided the incident by going through the grass. Despite dropping to sixth, Harrison was able to continue – but her race would soon come to an end shortly after, when several cars dramatically slowed down on top of the esses.
Samantha Tan - who had a strong start and was recovering positions – had to slam on the brakes to avoid the slow cars in front, but was collected by Harrison. In a cloud of dust, the AF Corse Ferrari of Jean-Claude Saada crashed heavily into the back of the ST Racing BMW M4 GT3, ending the day of both teams. Erin Vogel was following closely in 11th position, but the driver of the #43 Acura managed to avoid the mess unfolding in front of her.
“At one point there was a big incident at the top of the Esses involving multiple cars, and so much dust was obscuring the track that it was difficult to discern where there might be a safe path” – Vogel said. “I ended up going off track to avoid a stopped car, and then lost a few positions to those behind me as they were able to pick a line through the debris when the dust began to clear" – she explained.
Fortunately, all drivers involved were unharmed – but both the #61 AF Corse Ferrari and the #38 ST Racing BMW were too significantly damaged to be repaired and were retired from the remainder of the weekend. It was certainly a disappointing moment for Samantha Tan, who was the innocent victim in the pile up.
"Not going to lie, I’m absolutely heartbroken from today", she later wrote. "I’m so glad everyone involved is okay, and a huge thank you to all the safety and medical crew for arriving so quickly."
"I think I’ve watched the onboard some 300 times now, wondering if I could have done anything differently to save the car", Tan continued. "However, I know there’s always no point in debating the what ifs; what happened happened, and that’s racing. Sometimes you just run out of luck."
"But we had a great car. My team worked so hard to give us a competitive edge this weekend and I know we had it. We put in so much time and effort just to get this car to the event. There are incredible highs in racing, but also miserable lows. Today was one of those days I hope to forget."
Samantha Tan Racing will return to the track at Spa Francorchamps, as the Canadian outfit is set to make its GTWC Europe debut at the iconic 24 Hours of Spa.
After a Safety Car interruption, the restart was again a chaotic one: Steven Aghakhani and Michael Dinan traded positions and the #6 US Racetronics Mercedes went through the grass, dropping to fourth. Vogel – who had managed to climb to eighth in ProAm after a good restart, was tagged by Chandler Hull and sent into a spin that put her 17 seconds down the road. Hull would receive a drive through penalty for the incident.
Beretta made the most of the hectic first part of the race to pull away and open a 5 second gap over Dinan, while the fast charging Aghakhani was back into third place after overtaking Goikhberg. The driver of the #3 KPAX Lamborghini, though, fought back - and the two tangled at speed after a side-by-side battle.
Goikhberg ended up with a puncture and made it back to the pits – luckily just as the pit window opened, allowing for the driver change.
The leaders pitted and Caldarelli took over from Beretta, as well as Foley for Dinan.
After a really solid drive, Erin Vogel pitted from eighth place in class, having passed a couple of cars that had hit trouble.
“So much mayhem in today's race, it was another stint mostly spent avoiding the chaos” Erin summed up. “There were multiple yellow flags, but also multiple incidents of cars coming together or going off in front of me, and unfortunately, I even got collected while working both offense and defense between two other cars."
"The team once again did an excellent job with the pit stop, and we gained a few more positions as Michael reentered the race.”
After the flawless pit stop, Cooper was in fact back out on track in P7 in ProAm and, with faster pace compared to the #12 Aston Martin of Drew Staveley, he started to reduce the gap.
Cooper was joined by Auberlen and Braun in the battle for sixth in class; the CrowdStrike with Riley Motorsports driver made contact with the Bimmerworld BMW of Bill Auberlen and was handed a drive through – leaving Michael Cooper in sixth.
Now behind the wheel of the #6 US Racetronics Mercedes, Loris Spinelli passed the Turner BMW driven by Robby Foley for second place overall – but Andrea Caldarelli had checked out. While trying to catch up with the compatriot, Spinelli made a mistake and went off track, rejoining behind Foley and Dalziel - who led ProAm in the #13 Triarsi Competizione Ferrari.
Spinelli had to pit and Jordan Pepper (#3 KPAX Lamborghini) advanced to third in Pro class, despite the South African was also briefly off in the grass.
The sister car of Andrea Caldarelli and Michelle Beretta completed the 90 minutes of racing with a dominant win, 16 seconds clear of Robby Foley/Michael Dinan and over 30 seconds ahead of Ryan Dalziel/Justin Whiterill, who claimed ProAm win. The Triarsi Ferrari preceded Jan Heylen/Charlie Luck (Wright Motorsports Porsche) and Dirk Muller/David Askew (DXDT Mercedes) on the class podium.
With a last lap pass, Michael Cooper/Erin Vogel fought back after a difficult first part of the race to claim a top-five in class, as the biggest movers of the race.
“I knew it was going to be tight getting to the Aston before the checkered flag,” Cooper said. “We caught him just before the last lap and I was able to get by in Oak Tree to take P5.”
Sunday was a big day for the Racers Edge Motorsport crew, who had to fix the front-end of the #93 Acura NSX GT3 in time to send it out on track in pole position for race 2.
With help from Rick Ware Racing – who provided spare parts – Mario Farnbacher was ready to lead the pack at lights out.
With a great start, Colin Braun (CrowdStrike with Riley Motorsports Mercedes) leapfrogged the Ferrari driven by Ryan Dalziel into the first corner, followed by Andrea Caldarelli (KPAX Racing), while the #3 KPAX Lamborghini and the #6 US RaceTronics Mercedes were hit by a 5 place grid penalties.
An early Full Course Yellow was deployed when the Zelus Motorsport Lamborghini of Corey Lewis hit the barrier at the end of the first lap; Farnbacher perfectly managed the restart, while Giacomo Altoè surprised Caldarelli and moved into fourth place overall.
Having battled throughout the first laps with the Zelus Motorsport Huracan driven by Madison Snow, Michael Cooper soon found himself with no braking power coming into Turn 14, after he had lost brake fluid on his right rear wheel.
The RealTime Racing Acura hit the Lamborghini and ended its race into the barriers - luckily with no harm to the drivers.
“The rear brakes failed going into Turns 13/14 at the end of the back straight” – Cooper recalled. “I was lucky to have some braking but not nearly enough to keep the car on the track. I’m a little sore but ok, so thank you to Acura for building a strong and safe race car.”
After only eight laps, Cooper/Vogel were out of the race.
"Well, VIR was not kind to us this year", Vogel summed up. "We managed to salvage that P5 finish [on Saturday], but today was a little more unfortunate", she continued.
"Michael lost the brakes in one of the fastest sections of the track and ended up head on into a wall after colliding with another race car. Thankfully both drivers are alright, which is truly the only thing that matters in a situation like that."
"Thank you to everyone for cheering us on this weekend, and for your support always. And a big thank you to Honda HPD for their support and assistance", Vogel concluded.
With the majority of the first stint completed behind the Safety Car for barrier repairs, all the pressure was now on Ashton Harrison's shoulders, who took over from Mario Farnbacher in the overall lead on lap 23.
Loris Spinelli was the first one to pit at the 45 minute mark, followed by Caldarelli – who had meanwhile gained the position back on the white Lamborghini of Altoè. They handed over to teammates Beretta and Aghakhani, who rejoined right behind Harrison. While the two Pro drivers did eventually get by the #93 Acura NSX, Ashton Harrison remained in command of the ProAm class, with a safe gap to second-placed George Kurtz (CrowdStrike with Riley Motorsports Mercedes).
When Steven Aghakhani made a mistake and went off track, Harrison was back into second place overall – and she kept the position thanks to her race pace only second to the overall leader Michele Beretta. Her gap to her closest rival in ProAm further increased when Kurtz battled with Michael Dinan, but an unfortunate spin with 6 minutes to go ruined the day, as Ashton Harrison dropped to P7 in class.
Beretta/Caldarelli took another KPAX back-to-back victory, ahead of Kurtz/Braun and Dinan/Foley. On the final lap, Harrison was able to pass the Ferrari of Justin Wetherill, thus snatching sixth in class and tenth overall.
The third round of the 2022 GT World Challenge America Powered by AWS was surely not the easiest for the female racers on the grid, but they all proved to belong to the top-end of the ProAm class and, despite all sort of bad luck, Erin Vogel scored important points for the championship with her top-five on Saturday. They now sit in 6th place in the drivers' championship, while Harrison/Farnbacher are just four points behind class leaders Braun/Kurtz.
Teams will now have five weeks to regroup and fight back at the fourth race meeting, scheduled for July 22-24 at Watkins Glen International.