Four women at the launch of Toyota GR Cup, Robusto impresses with near top-10
Sonoma Raceway hosted the Toyota GR Cup North America's first ever event - with four female drivers among its 30-car field: Isabella Robusto had a strong first race, almost reaching the top-10, while Cat Lauren was the highest finishing woman in race 2. Sports cars rookies Mia Lovell and Toni Breidinger - at her first race at the track - made good improvements throughout the inaugural weekend.
At the season opener of the 2023 SRO America championships at Sonoma Raceway, California, the platform welcomed the new Toyota GR Cup North America series, which joins a remarkable list of competitive support series to GT World Challenge America.
The new Toyota one-make series is aiming to provide an affordable opportunity to many young drivers climbing up the ranks of GT racing competitions, with a new propaedeutic car, set to prepare the champions of tomorrow in GT4 and GT3 machinery.
The all-identical Toyota GR86 Cup vehicles are prepared by TRD and maximise learning opportunities for drivers while also providing spectacular close racing to fans.
Out of the 31 entries, four female drivers started the inaugural racing weekend in Sonoma: Toyota Racing Development driver Isabella Robusto, Cat Lauren, Mia Lovell and ARCA regular Toni Breidinger.
Robusto joined Smooge Racing for a double effort in both the Toyota GR Cup and GT4 America, as she ventures in the world of GT racing while also competing in Late Model Stock, Late Model Pro, and ARCA. The 18-year-old is undoubtedly one of the most interesting up-and-coming talents, already with experience in a wide variety of race cars.
Also representing Smooge Racing, Mia Lovell - also a skateboarding athlete - enters her first season in professional motor racing.
Cat Lauren will contest the season with Precision Racing LA. The Californian was part of the HPD GT3 Driver Academy in 2021 - a program with graduates of the likes of GTWC Prom champion Ashton Harrison and two-time IMSA TCR champion Taylor Hagler.
Last but not least, ARCA driver Toni Breidinger is keen on collecting experience in sports cars and will run a double program alongside her stock car efforts with Venturini Motorsports. The first Arab-American to compete in a NASCAR-sanctioned event will race in the Toyota GR Cup with Nitro Motorsports, in a Hot Wheels-sponsored entry.
Robusto had a strong start of the weekend, always placing the #8 machine in the top-20 in practice. Lauren also had a good progression and qualified in P20 for the opening race, ahead of Robusto (P22), Lovell (P24) and Breidinger (P25) for the first ever race of the series' history.
Tyler Gonzalez retained the lead after a hectic start that saw #44 Toyota of Derek Jones being tagged into a spin at turn 1, but was luckily avoided by the rest of the pack. Toni Breidinger almost had to stop to avoid the spinning car of Jones and dropped to 27th. Lauren, on the other hand, had a good start and gained three spots.
A big crash for Harry Cheung brought out the Safety car on lap 3; Cheung was unhurt, but his Toyota GR86 was totaled after a fierce side-by-side battle with Gresham Wagner which eventually ended in the heavy contact with the wall at T8.
The green flag waved with 27 minutes to go and Gonzalez had to keep Kohlbecker and Rodgers at bay; Lauren slotted in P17, with Mia Lovell in P19, Robusto in P21 and Breidinger making up a few spots as well in P26 after the first lap evasive action.
Garcia and Sawalich made contact at the Carousel and Lauren seized the opportunity to move up into 15th place. The two stricken cars, though, brought out a second Safety Car intervention.
Canaan O'Connel surprised everyone at the restart and took over the race lead - but did so with a jump start that would eventually receive a drive through. A further penalty handed to Gresham Wagner gained one more position to Lauren, Robusto and Breidinger, while Mia Lovell dropped down the order. Robusto had a particularly strong restart, as she fought her way up to 14th over a couple of laps.
Lauren was unfortunately involved in a contact, but could continue. Aidan Yoder, in an unrelated incident, was not as lucky and ended in the tire barriers - triggering another Safety Car. Isabella Robusto had managed to climb the order up to P12, with Lauren in P19 and Breidinger in P22. In a superb recovery drive, Lovell climbed back up to P18, gaining six spots.
With 2 minutes left on the clock, the inaugural race of the Toyota GR Cup ended under caution: Tyler Gonzalez secured victory ahead of Spike Kohlbecker and Will Rodgers.
Barely missing out on a top-10 at her first start, Isabella Robusto impressed in Race 1 and was awarded as the "highest finishing female driver."
On a sunny yet chilly Sunday in Sonoma valley, Gresham Wagner and Tyler Gonzalez shared the front row for the second race in the series' history. Following a strong Q1, Cat Lauren lined up in P16, one place ahead of Robusto.
Wagner and Gonzalez battled for the lead in the first lap, with Spike Kohlbecker also joining the party. Wagner, though, was able to hold on and keep his rivals behind.
Robusto - who had just completed the GT4 America race a few minutes before the start - had a great getaway and gained three places, moving up to P14 in the first lap. Breidinger had fallen back from 22nd to 28th, as Lovell also dropped down.
Unfortunately, Robusto's spectacular recovery was hampered by a contact caused by Alex Garcia, who hit and spun around Robusto at Turn 7.
Wagner and Gonzalez swapped places at the top with 24 minutes to go, after the Copeland Motorsports driver had a better exit from Turn 6 and then was able to brake deeper into Turn 7 - as Kohlbecker was also ready to pick up the pieces. Gresham Wagner then lost touch with Gonzalez and Kohlbecker and settled in third.
Cat Lauren made it back into the top-20 midway through the race - while there Mia Lovell hit trouble and retired due to an engine issue.
"In race 2, we unfortunately had a rock pierce our radiator, which caused the engine to overheat, so we had to retire the car early with a DNF", Lovell explained. "But regardless, I had a blast driving and improving my race craft!"
In a very clean second half of the race, Gonzalez was unchallenged at the top and took back-to-back victories at Sonoma, followed by Spike Kohlbecker and Gresham Wagner.
A brilliant fight for the top five finished with Lucas Weisenberg bagging fifth, edging Canaan O'Connell by 0.111 of a second.
Just like in race 1, Cat Lauren was 19th at the finish line and preceded Toni Breidinger in P23 and Isabella Robusto in P25 - who had no cautions to catch back the pack.
Breidinger had good improvements throughout the weekend and two clean races, in her first time at the Sonoma road course.
The opening weekend of the Toyota GR Cup North America overall proved to be action-packed and highly competitive, as well as a good learning ground for up-and-coming drivers. The next round will be contested at Circuit of the Americas, Austin, on 19-21 May.