Despite good performances and two GT-Am top-ten in the first two races, Erin Vogel leaves Road America with mixed feelings, as the #30 crew still has to enjoy a trouble-free weekend.
The SRO-organized GT4 America championship headed to one of the most prestigious racetracks in the US last weekend for the fourth round of its 2020 schedule: the long and incredibly fast circuit of Road America, Elkhart Lake, hosted in fact the 3 races that marked the beginning of the second half of the season. It was also the first event with race fans trackside since March, when the pandemic halted the championship soon after its season opener at Circuit of the Americas, Austin.
GT4 America's previous round at the Californian venue of Sonoma was Flying Lizard Motorsports' home race but brought some adversities to the Erin Vogel and Michael Cooper crew, who performed well but couldn't capitalize on their pace.
The second team featuring a female driver, racer-owner Samantha Tan in the #38 ST Racing BMW claimed a class podium in the Silver category in Sonoma and targeted more progresses alongside co-driver Jon Miller at Road America - a track that inevitably reminded Tan of her 2017 accident where she injured her leg.
Road America wasn't unknown territory for Erin Vogel either, who had racing experience from her 2019 Porsche Trophy West USA series where she finished in the top five.
“I’m excited to be back at Road America this season,” said Vogel before the race meeting. “It's a great track with a lot of interesting corners and a lot of beautiful scenery. It's a fun track to drive, but it's even more fun to race here. I'm glad that fans will be able to come out and watch us from the stands and lounge under the trees."
McLaren works driver and Erin's co-driver Michael Cooper could also count on positive records at the Wisconsin's racetrack, as he came from two victories in 2019 in a McLaren 570S GT4. “The track has a great flow to it, the town of Elkhart Lake is awesome to visit and we’ll get some fans at this event." - Cooper said. "It’s also a track that suits the McLaren fairly well, each car has a few of those on the calendar and this one is in our favor. Well do our best to put it all together and execute a solid weekend.”
Heavy rain affected the qualifying session on Friday: Vogel and Cooper could put the #30 Flying Lizard McLaren 570S GT4 in 15th place overall and ninth in GT-AM class for the first race of the weekend.
"A damp qualifying session on Friday was a challenge for me personally, and Michael's qualifying group went out right as the deluge started and was almost immediately called off after he and a handful of other cars suffered damage from hydroplaning off the quickly flooding track." - wrote Vogel on her social media feeds, summing up the incredibly tricky conditions that drivers found on the fast and flowing Road America circuit.
The race was contested on dry conditions instead, but the Flying Lizard crew had one more challenge to overcome just before the lights went out: a minor contact on the #30 McLaren damaged the front bumper, which nonetheless required some quick and precise work from the team's mechanics, who managed to complete the task in time for Erin Vogel to settle in the car for pre-grid.
Mads Siljehaug and Nicolai Elghanayan took pole position in the Marco Polo Motorsports KTM X-Bow, which proved once again the car to beat.
Norwegian works driver Siljehaug went on track first for his stint, lining up alongside the #21 Aston Martin of Dinan in the other Flying Lizard car. Jason Hart and Jon Miller shared the second row. Siljehaug maintained the lead and immediately built a small margin, while right behind him a fierce battle emerged for second place, with Miller and Dinan being joined by the Andretti Autosport McLaren driven by Colin Mullan.
Mullan made an opportunistic move stick on Dinan, just as Miller in the Samantha Tan Racing BMW went off into the grass and rejoined in eighth overall place.
Erin Vogel had a good start and managed to climb two positions before the Full Course Yellow was called out less then 10 minutes into the race for the #21 Aston Martin reporting issues and coming to a halt at the kink. Dinan, picking up a debris from a car in front that paralyzed the #21 machine, retired after 2 laps.
The race went back to green with 41 minutes left on the clock, with Mullan having the best start among the front-runners. The KTM driver, though, held off the attacks. Tim Barber in the #25 CCR M4 GT4 advanced to second - the BMW cars showing great straight-line speed - and could move ahead of Siljehaug soon after to take the lead. The Marco Polo Motorsports KTM X-Bow went deep into Turn 3 while trying to defend from the faster BMWs and dropped to fourth.
Vogel advanced to 12th overall position and closed in on Bell in the #2 GMG Racing Porsche, with Dalton, Gibbons and Walker also swapping positions right behind Erin.
When the pit window opened, most of the field dived into the pitlane to perform their driver change, with only the top four staying out.
Wittmer and Auberlen engaged in a very exciting battle - the two also making contact yet somehow surviving the scraps.
Siljehaug and Miller pitted at the same time, with Elghanayan marginally maintaining track position on Samantha Tan. The Canadian lady had to defend hard from the charge of Auberlen, who had found a way past Andretti and was making his way up through the field.
As soon as Auberlen overtook Tan, she came under pressure from his teammate Wittmer - the two ST Racing drivers battling side-by-side for position. Andretti took advantage from the situation and sneaked ahead as well, but Tan showed good racecraft despite dropping to sixth.
Ahead, Cole Ciraulo had inherited the lead after his pitstop but was quickly caught by the KTM of Elghanayan. The leading duo was joined by Auberlen in the #82 Bimmerworld BMW M4 GT4, effectively making it a three-way battle for the lead. With 18 minutes to go, Auberlen fired past Elghanayan on the straight - repeating the move one lap later on Ciraulo. The KTM driver lost momentum and was then attacked and passed by Kenton Koch in the BSport Racing Aston Martin.
Michael Cooper had a good start of his stint and could move up to tenth overall place, but then dropped back to 12th, where he would eventually finish - as the Vogel/Cooper team could claim their second Pro-Am top five finish.
Bill Auberlen crossed the finish line to take victory in the first race of the weekend, over four seconds ahead of Nick Wittmer/Harry Gottsacker in the ST Racing BMW. Putt/Koch (Bsport Racing Aston Martin) were third overall and second in Pro-Am, with the Andretti Autosport #36 McLaren of Andretti/Mullan ultimately claiming fourth from Siljehaug/Elghanayan (Marco Polo Motorsports KTM).
Jon Miller and Samantha Tan finished 13th in the overall classify, fifth in the Silver category, despite a radio malfunction that hindered Samantha's stint.
Bill Auberlen led the field at the start of Saturday's race with Andrew Davis and Kenton Koch following in second and third. Samantha Tan completed driving duties in the first stint, while Michael Cooper took the start for the #30 Flying Lizard McLaren.
As the leader tried to build a safe gap ahead, Koch (Bsport Racing Aston Martin) and Davis (GMG Porsche) battled for second.
In the midfield, Cooper was busy trying to keep Andretti and Foley at bay after having passed Tan. The two Flying Lizard Motorsports drivers exhanged positions, but Cooper had to settle for eleventh overall.
As he was running in fourth overall and leading Silver class, Wittmer saw his car's hood popping up on the main straight and had to stop. He could then limp back to the pits but the #28 ST Racing was ultimately retired 7 laps into the race.
When the pit window opened, Tan handed over to Miller with 31 minutes to go, while the front-runners went for a slightly longer stint and Auberlen could extend his lead by almost seven seconds to Davis and Koch - who had spent the whole first half of the race in each other's clutches. The leading Bimmerworld BMW pitted on lap 13 and James Walker Jr got behind the wheel after a flawless pitstop. Jason Bell and Bryan Putt rejoined in second and third respectively.
Michael Cooper also stopped for the mandatory driver change and handed the #30 purple McLaren to Erin Vogel, who rejoined P11 when the positions settled.
The driver of the #2 GMG Porsche dropped back, while Charlie Belluardo and Michael Dinan were closing in on an overall podium position. When also Siljehaug and Keegan in the #50 Panoz Esperante joined the battle, the race came alive in the positions from fifth to eighth.
Dinan continued his charge in the #21 Flying Lizard Aston Martin and advanced to second after overtaking Bryan Putt. Both Keegan and Belluardo hit trouble as the first received a penalty for speeding in the pitlane and the latter was handed a stop&go for a shorter pitstop time.
Vogel had a very solid stint: she was initially faster than both Dalton and Allen, then she moved up to ninth overall - settling in sixth in GT-Am class. The American driver showed again good race pace and was always comfortable in the close battles, ultimately crossing the line in the top ten, their third of the season.
While Mullan and Siljehaug fought hard for the final step of the podium, Michael Dinan chased Walker for Pro-Am and overall win: despite the faster pace, time was running out for Dinan, who could make his move stick at Turn 1 on the last lap.
Mullan was fourth in the Andretti McLaren, while Putt/Koch rounded out the overall top five in the #15 Bsport Aston Martin.
Jon Miller brought the Samantha Tan Racing BMW M4 #38 to seventh overall position and to third place in the Silver category, completing an impressive recovery: “I had an amazing start and first few laps with a lot of great battles” said driver-owner Tan. “I kept up with the pack up front until I started getting bumped from all sides. I got all flustered and struggled to get back into my rhythm. I guess that’s what happens when you’re running up front.” - she added.
Sunday's SprintX race saw the Marco Polo Motorsports KTM of Mads Siljehaug again leading the field after the first corner, ahead of Jarrett Andretti who had made up three positions at the start. An early Safety Car was deployed when John Allen in the #16 Rearden Mercedes AMG GT4 was hit by Sean Quinlan in the #19 Stephen Cameron Racing BMW. Allen ended his race into the barriers and the field was again bunched up by the full course yellow.
The restart brought more troubles: when the green flag waved, the cars ahead slowed down, leaving Vogel with little space to take evasive action. As Erin hit the car in front, the #30 McLaren sustained damages that brought her race to a premature end.
"Unfortunately, we ended on a low note Sunday with a hit in the restart that broke the hood latch and shattered the windshield, ending our race only 15 minutes in." - she explained.
With approximately 40 minutes left on the clock, the battle for second overall was ignited by Michael Dinan and Jarrett Andretti - the two drivers making contact at the Billy Mitchell Bend. This fight allowed Matt Travis to pass both his competitors for second, while at the same time these position changes played in Siljehaug favor, who could extend his lead by over 9 seconds.
It was then Gottsacker in the #28 ST Racing BMW to advance to fourth overall when Andretti's McLaren came to a stop with mechanical issues.
After the driver changes, Elghanayan kept the lead from Jason Hart in the Nolasport Porsche 718 Cayman GT4.
While a widely entertaining battle for seventh overall between the Aston Martins of Vesko Kozarov (#91 Rearden Racing), Kenton Koch (#15 BSport Racing) and Patrick Gallagher (#33 RS1) saw several position changes, Robby Foley was quickly catching up with Jason Hart for second place. The winner of the second race in the Flying Lizard Aston Martin found a way past Hart with 10 minutes left on the clock.
Race 1 winner Bill Auberlen in the #82 Bimmerworld BMW struggled with tyre degradation and dropped back to tenth overall and seventh in Pro-Am after he was passed by both Davis and Gallagher in the closing stages.
After the final hour of racing, the #71 KTM X-Bow of Nicolai Elghanayan crossed the finish line to claim the win almost eight seconds clear of Robby Foley (#21 Flying Lizard Aston Martin) and Jason Hart (#47 Nolasport Porsche). Harry Gottsacker and Nick Wittmer brough the #28 ST Racing BMW to fourth overall and second in Silver class, edging Kenton Koch in the Bsport Racing Aston Martin in fifth (3rd in Pro-Am).
Jon Miller and Samantha Tan were P11 and fourth in Silver category, with Miller lamenting a general lack of front grip.
Despite good performances in the first two races, Erin Vogel leaves Road America with mixed feelings, as the #30 crew still has to enjoy a trouble-free weekend:
"Racing is one of those sports where you can execute everything perfectly, and for reasons outside of your control, your chances at success are hampered." - she commented.
"We’ve had a lot of bad luck this weekend, and I sincerely hope we’re getting it all out of the way so that we can end the season on a high note. We’re getting closer with each step, and everyone is working so hard to get us in the best position possible, every race. The support from the team and the fans has been so encouraging, and I hope we’re able to bring in some results worthy of some good celebrations soon."
With now only two races left on the SRO GT4 America schedule, Vogel and Cooper will get back to testing soon in preparation for the final events at COTA and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway: "Overall, there were definitely high points in the weekend." - said Cooper.
"Sixth in class on Saturday was good, and Erin got some time in the car in wet conditions, which will pay dividends. We’re going to go test a little bit more before COTA, and hopefully we can show up there with a little more pace and give the front runners a harder time."
The current home of the US Grand Prix will in fact host the next event of the GT4 America championship on 19-20 September.