Gradient Racing charge from 2 laps down to fourth in Daytona 24H
Katherine Legge, Sheena Monk - at her first ever race in GT3 - Mario Farnbacher and Marc Miller charged back from two laps down in the final hours to claim an outstanding fourth place at the iconic 24 Hours of Daytona
Certain races encapsulate the quintessential spirit of endurance racing – of motorsport itself, even – and one of them is undoubtedly the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Seven women were on the starting grid of the 61st running of this iconic event, and three of them battled for the class victory until a few minutes to go. Both the Gradient Racing and Racers Edge Motorsports Acuras had shown plenty of speed in the week leading up to the main event – and were able to overcome difficulties to clinch precious results in one of the biggest and most competitive GTD fields ever. After a remarkable ROAR week, IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge graduate Sheena Monk continued to learn the machinery and to manage traffic. Sheena herself took the the start – in only one of the 10 cars opting to line up their bronze-rated driver – and in her first double-stint, she found her rhythm and remained in the pack. Marc Miller then got behind the wheel of the #66 Gradient Acura from P12. A Gradient Racing regular, Miller would recover up to eighth after a series of great pit stops. Up next in the #66 was Katherine Legge: at her Acura return and having previously finished second in 2018, the British racing legend was aiming high, committed to maximise the potential of the car. Legge took over from ninth, soon moved into eighth and then overtook the Magnus Racing Aston for seventh. At the sixth hour, Katherine Legge pitted from sixth in GTD after a superb double-stint that also included the fastest lap of the team so far; Sheena Monk was back in the #66 Acura, in her first driving shift in the dark. As we entered the eighth hour, the #75 Sun Energy 1 Mercedes slowed down and dropped down the order – thus promoting Sheena Monk to ninth place, where she would settle for the rest of her stint. While initially one lap down, factory driver Mario Farnbacher took over the #66 Gradient Racing Acura and climbed the order, using a caution to gain back the lap. At the following Full Course Yellow, the team took the opportunity to send Sheena Monk back out on track; the rookie proved to be a fast learner and, while setting really consistent times, she brought the car home to Miller with 13 hours to go, having completed the minimum driving time. From there, an uneventful stage of the race meant that positions settled and the JW Wentworth-sponsored NSX ran in the top-ten. Miller held position and handed over to Katherine Legge for her second stints of the race. Unfortunately,the caution that Gradient Racing was waiting for came just as they had pitted for the driver change and, while the British ace continued to run in eighth place, she was now one further lap behind. From then on, the race went on uninterrupted for almost six hours; Legge pitted again for fuel and for a driver change to Mario Farnbacher – who would gain a position when the #32 Korthoff Motorsports Mercedes – one of the early front runners and protagonists of the GTD class – hit trouble and lost several laps behind the wall. But, as often is the case in endurance racing, everything can change in the blink of an eye. Miller and Legge alternated again behind the wheel, when the Full Course Yellow arrived: unfortunately for Gradient Racing, it wasn't enough to allow Legge to claim back a lap. The final two hours of racing, though, turned out to be more chaotic and more opportunities emerged: at the first lucky caution, Mario Farnbacher took the reins of the #60 Acura NSX and just as he had made the most out of a further yellow to come back on the lead lap, the Gradient Racing team suffered a fire in pit lane which was luckily soon extinguished and had no consequences for team members and for the car, that resumed its race. At the 12th restart and with one hour and a half to go, Farnbacher passed Kyle Marcelli in the Racers Edge Acura, then caught up with Telitz and cleared the Vasser Sullivan Lexus as well, moving into fifth place. The team then gambled on strategy and pitted Farnbacher earlier than anyone in GTD, hoping for another lucky yellow that would allow the German driver to leap-frog the rest of the pack. The caution did eventually come, but wasn't enough to put the green and white Acura on top. Farnbacher had to build again his recovery and, in one of the most exciting final hours of motor racing, he made his way up to third, then down to fifth again. Eventually, the Gradient Racing Acura crossed the finish line in fourth place, just four seconds off the podium and 20 seconds from the race win, but claiming a brilliant result for the championship. The impressive charge gave Katherine Legge her fourth top ten at Daytona – and her second top five – while it was a perfect start to Sheena Monk's IMSA career in GT3 machinery. The duo will in fact return for a full campaign, starting from the 12 Hours of Sebring on March 18.