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Gradient Racing's competitive run at Watkins Glen thwarted by late penalties

Gradient Racing's Sheena Monk, Tatiana Calderon, and Stevan McAleer endured a disappointing end to an otherwise positive Sahlen's Six Hours of the Glen, as the trio were poised for a strong finish before a technical issue and ultimately two penalties denied the team a representative result of their effort.

Tatiana Calderon, Sheena Monk, Gradient Racing Acura NSX GT3 Evo22, IMSA, Six Hours of the Glen 2024, Watkins Glen
Photo credits: Gradient Racing

Gradient Racing's Sheena Monk and Tatiana Calderon – who share the #66 JG Wentworth-sponsored Acura NSX GT3 Evo22 with Stavan McAleer for the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup rounds – endured a disappointing end to an otherwise positive Sahlen's Six Hours of the Glen, as the trio were poised for a strong finish before a technical issue and ultimately two penalties denied the team a representative result of their effort.

Calderon joined the team for the first time at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, in a four-driver crew that also included Katherine Legge, as the latter had contested the full IMSA season with Sheena Monk. McAleer later stepped in for the full campaign, while Calderon returned for the endurance rounds. Sadly, a retirement at Daytona for a technical issue and another DNF at Sebring for an accident were tough pills to swallow for the Gradient Racing drivers, who had not yet capitalized on their speed this year, clearly belonging to the top end of the outstandingly-competitive GTD class.

“After a couple of busy months away from the track I can’t wait to be back in the car", commented Tatiana Calderon before the event, eager to return to the series.

"Finally I can say again, it’s race week! It’s been a while since March and the 12 Hours of Sebring, so I can’t wait to get back to work with my teammates Sheena and Stevan."

Calderon would be visiting the world-renowned Watkins Glen International - home of the F1 US Grand Prix between 1961 and 1980 - for the first time in her career.

"Watkins Glen is a new circuit for me", Tatiana explained. "It seems very fast, flowing, quite old-school with a lot of history in Formula 1. It’s the start of the summer so it will be a tough challenge physically but I relish the chance to get back in the rhythm and aim for a good result after the potential we have shown in the last couple of races. We haven’t been able to show that with a result, so hopefully this will be the case at Watkins Glen.”

Despite the DNFs, in fact, the #66 Acura NSX GT3 Evo22 had shown plenty of pace and the experienced team had high hopes for a notable result at the Six Hours of the Glen.

The first practice session saw the team posting the eleventh fastest time, then improvements were made in the second practice, ahead of Saturday's qualifying, where bronze-rated Sheena Monk took over driving duties.

Sheena Monk contested qualifying and secured a P16 start in the GTD class, ranking eighth among the bronze drivers. A solid driver that has built a reputation for rarely making mistakes, Monk would also take the start of the iconic 6 Hours of the Glen, which began under grey skies but in dry conditions. The GTD field charged ahead, with Monk having a clean start.

Sheena quickly gained one position on the first lap, settling into P15 in GTD. However, an incident between the #18 ERA Motorsport LMP2 Oreca and the #81 Dragonspeed Oreca triggered the first caution just a few minutes into the race. Despite losing P15 to Rahel Frey later, Monk maintained a consistent pace, managing the gap to the cars behind and running a few tenths of a second faster.

The race saw its second safety car when the Cetilar Ferrari was rear-ended by George Kurtz's Crowdstrike Racing by APR LMP2 Oreca, sending the Ferrari 296 hard into the barriers. During the caution, the pit window opened, and all cars pitted. Monk remained behind the wheel, rejoining the race in P14 after the GTD field completed their stops while track repairs continued.

As the race resumed at the one-hour mark, Sheena Monk held her position at the restart, keeping Herau and Fidani at bay. With more cars pitting for the second time, Gradient Racing opted to keep Monk out, allowing her to climb up to P10 in class.

Tatiana Calderon, Sheena Monk, Gradient Racing Acura NSX GT3 Evo22, IMSA, Six Hours of the Glen 2024, Watkins Glen
Photo credits: Gradient Racing

Having completed her driving time with another very solid drive, Sheena Monk handed over the #66 Acura NSX GT3 EVO22 to Tatiana Calderon. The Colombian began her driving shift with consistent laps, but a full course yellow was soon deployed when the Sean Creech Motorsport Ligier LMP2 hit the barriers at the exit of turn 1. Calderon was up to P11 as most of the field pitted again under caution.

With 3 hours and 30 minutes left on the clock, the race went back to green. Tatiana had a strong restart, moving up to P10 by passing Michelle Gatting on lap 73, the latter struggling on older tyres after staying out during the caution. From here, Calderon would have to navigate through some of the most challenging stages of the race, with changeable weather making for tricky strategic calls.

Rain in fact began to fall, creating tricky conditions, and a significant crash for the #55 Proton Mustang of Giammarco Levorato brought out the safety car. Calderon had to stay out on slicks under closed pits, holding on in the difficult conditions.

Gradient Racing then took a gamble and kept Tatiana out - and she perfectly delivered as the rain eased at the restart. This strategy saw her move up to P4 in GTD.

Although she later fell to P6, Calderon had brought back the car into contention for front-running positions. At the same time, a clutch issue started to influence the performance of the car - but Calderon pushed through.

The rain intensified again, causing a big crash for the #83 Iron Dames Lamborghini of Sarah Bovy who went wide at turn 10 and hit the inside wall, triggering another safety car.

Once the rain eased again at the restart, Calderon ran between P5 and P6 in GTD and battled with Matt Bell in the AWA Chevrolet. On lap 107, she pitted for the team's fourth stop, handing over to Stevan McAleer after a precise and mistake-free two hour stint that had seen the #66 Acura climb into the top five.

“We had pretty much everything thrown at us this weekend, particularly in my stint", Calderon commented. "We had some drops of rain, the track was half wet and half dry for nearly the whole stint, and we had to deal with a lot of caution periods. I also had to deal with the clutch slipping", she continued. "But I think we made all the right calls and when I handed over the car to Stevan we were in P5 and in the hunt."

The weather continued to be unpredictable, and a major rain shower hit the track, causing a significant crash for the Forte Racing Lamborghini and another full course yellow. Several LMP2 and GTD cars slipped off the track in almost undrivable conditions. Stevan McAleer, initially on slicks, made it back to the pits to switch to wet weather tyres - though the pits had already closed. Due to the deteriorating conditions, a red flag was deployed with a little over an hour to go.

Tatiana Calderon, Sheena Monk, Gradient Racing Acura NSX GT3 Evo22, IMSA, Six Hours of the Glen 2024, Watkins Glen
Photo credits: Jake Galstad / Acura

After a lengthy interruption, the track dried up, and cars resumed racing behind the safety car with 40 minutes remaining. McAleer took the restart from P14 in GTD, but the #66 Gradient Racing Acura was hit with a 60-second stop-and-go penalty for fitting wet tyres under closed pits during the deluge - a penalty which turned out to be highly unfair as switching to wets was a necessary safety measure.

Despite initially recovering to P12, McAleer served the penalty with 5 minutes to go, dropping down the order. Adding insult to injury, a second 60-second penalty was imposed for serving the penalty late, resulting in an unrepresentative 13th place finish for the team.

"It has been a tough weekend in terms of results", Tatiana summed up.

"We did an emergency pitstop to change to wet tyres as cars were going off left and right due to the very difficult conditions, even under safety car, but we got penalized for that, which put us down to P13."

"I think we had the pace to fight for the top five, so it’s a shame we couldn’t get the result we deserved", she continued. "But we’ll keep pushing and I can’t wait to get back in the car in September at Indianapolis. Hopefully we can get the result we have been missing so far this season then.”

Although Calderon, Monk and McAleer were left once again empty-handed after another competitive display, the performance shown in such a competitive GTD field is certainly source of promise for the final two Endurance Cup rounds, which are scheduled for 22nd September at Indianapolis and October 12th for the Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

Sheena Monk will return behind the wheel of the Gradient Racing Acura at the Chevrolet Grand Prix at Mosport, on July 14th for the next 2 hour and 40 minute IMSA contest.



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