GT4 America: Erin Vogel shows good speed despite tough luck
Technical gremlins and charges through the field: it was a hectic weekend for Flying Lizard Motorsport's Erin Vogel at the GT4 America's return to the track, with the American racer showing good speed at VIRginia Raceway.
It was a four-month long stop between the GT4 America season opener at Circuit of the Americas and the second round, as the COVID-19 crisis had put the whole word on hold. But last weekend finally the cars made their way back to the racetrack for the SRO-run championship as well, with both the Spint and SprintX series resuming on-track action at VIRginia International Raceway.
American racer Erin Vogel made her debut in the series at COTA claiming a top-5 result with the McLaren 570S GT4 prepared by Californian sportscar powerhouse Flying Lizard Motorsports and alongside works driver Michael Cooper.
“We started the 2020 season with such great momentum, and then COVID-19 happened, and everything came to a halt,” said Darren Law, program manager of the Flying Lizard operation.“But we’re back, have been able to get some testing done, and we’re excited to go racing again.”
Vogel and Cooper had in fact the opportunity to test at the Virginia facility in preparation of last weekend's triple header. It was Erin's first visit to the track, but she managed to improve significantly her lap times and was confident for a positive result in her #30 McLaren.
“I’m very excited to be back with the team next week, and back in a racecar,” said Vogel before the second round of her rookie season. “Despite the challenges over the last few months, we've been able to get some much-needed updates done on the car, and we were even able to squeeze a little testing in as things were opening up again. VIR is a beautiful facility and a challenging course that will provide for great racing. I hope with the work we've done that we'll continue to improve our standings within the class.”
“VIR is always a great track to visit and the staff there have done an incredible job to put on this event along with everyone at SRO.” - added Cooper, who during the break was among the drivers training and competing on the iRacing simulation platform. “Hopefully the procedures that have been implemented are effective and we can go back to racing full time.”
The other lady in the field, Canadian driver and team-owner Samantha Tan, was also back for more racing action with her eye-catching BMW M4 GT4 in the Van Gogh's “Starry Night” inspired livery.
Unfortunately, it wasn't the start of the weekend that the Flying Lizard Motorsports duo had hoped for, as the #30 McLaren suffered technical issues related to the exhaust system, which forced Vogel and Cooper to miss the qualifying session. Having to start all three races from the back of the grid, it was an uphill round for the McLaren drivers, but the team worked hard to fix the technical gremlins and both Cooper and Vogel drove impressively, fully committed to make the most out of the VIRginia races.
“The Flying Lizard Motorsports' guys have been working non stop to get the #30 McLaren back on track.” - wrote Erin just before the start of the first race. “Unfortunately we will start all 3 races from last place due to missing qualifying. There’s nothing like a good come back though”.
With a monumental team effort, the #30 car was back on track mid-way through the first race, eight laps behind the leader, but allowed Vogel and Cooper to check the car's performance and reliability ahead of Saturday's race.
The first race provided plenty of action and a thrilling finale.
At the start, it was Nick Wittmer to take the lead in the #28 Samantha Tan BMW, ahead of Kris Wilson in the #16 Rearden Racing Mercedes AMG. Five minutes into the race, the #26 Classic BMW with Chandler Hull behind the wheel moved ahead of Matt Travis in the NOLASPORT Porsche and, a few laps later, he caught up with Barber in the #25 BMW, advancing to fourth overall.
Samantha Tan drove the first stint of the race in her #38 ST Racing BMW. Ninth after the initial phases, the young lady was passed by both Sean Quinlan and Michael Dinan, as the two engaged in their own battle.
It was a calmer race up in front, with Wittmer leaving the #28 car in the hands of Harry Gottsacker at the mid-race mark after the pit-stops for the mandatory driver change. Behind them, the Classic BMW of Toby Grahovec received a drive through for pit speed violation and dropped to 15th place. Jarett Andretti hit troubles as well, as his #36 McLaren slowed down and stopped on track with mechanical issues while he was running in third overall place.
Taking over from James Walker Jr, it was Bill Auberlen in the BimmerWorld BMW M4: the driver of the #82 car chased down Jason Hart in the NOLASPORT Porsche and passed his opponent with 20 minutes left on the clock. Greg Liefooghe made a similar move and moved up to third overall with four minutes to go, but the real plot twist of the first race would only come at the last lap: after a commanding drive, Gottsacker slowed down in the leading ST Racing BMW. Low on fuel, the #28 car stopped on the main straight, metres away from the finish line, handing overall victory to the BimmerWorld #82 BMW M4 driven by Bill Auberlen.
Quinlan and Liefooghe were second, while Bell and Davis took third place in the GMG Racing Porsche Cayman GT4. After dominating the race, Wittmer and Gottsacker were classified seventh, as their car limped across the finish line – crucially ahead of its sister car for Silver class victory. Samantha Tan and Jon Miller were in fact 14th overall and second in class.
Erin Vogel and Michael Cooper took the chequered flag in 17th overall position (10th in Pro/AM class), most importantly with competitive laptimes throughout the race.
“The guys performed a miracle and replaced exhaust manifolds, a melted valve cover, and the entire wiring harness for the engine compartment, in time for us to join the race only 8 laps down.” - explained Vogel.
“It was a grueling 18 hours of work in the end to finish the repair, which didn't seem as daunting at first as it really was - but that petite McLaren tush just doesn't have much room to work and everything is layered back on itself to fit in that tight space. It ended up being necessary to lower the engine down out of the car just to remove and replace that valve cover. But, they did it and we ran the car, and now we only get to go up from here.”
Auberlen held on to first place after a repeated start, leading Kenton Koch and Andrew Davis in the Bsport Racing Aston Martin and the GMG Racing Porsche 718 Cayman.
Taking the start from the 20th grid slot, Michael Cooper was on fire during his first stint in Saturday's SprintX race: undeniably the star of the first part of the race, the Flying Lizard Motorsports driver was already up to P12 only ten minutes into the race.
As Auberlen opened a safe gap ahead of almost five seconds, Koch and Davis swapped positions for second overall. Meanwhile, Cooper caught up with Cole Ciraulo in the #25 CCR BMW M4 and completed a decisive pass down the long straight, moving up to eleventh.
With a top-5 pace, the #30 McLaren continued its charge, while behind him Ciraulo engaged in an entertaining battle with Robby Foley in the other Flying Lizard Motorsports car. Foley made a bold move stick under braking with 39 minutes left on the clock.
Cooper found himself soon in 10th place overall and obliterated a two seconds gap from NOLASPORT's Jason Hart. A few laps later, when the pit window opened, Cooper had already advanced into seventh place, completing a stunning recovery.
Samantha Tan's teammate Jon Miller was also on a mission and recovered up to fifth place before handing over the #38 ST Racing BMW to the Canadian lady in fourth place overall. The first team to perform the driver change was the #16 Rearden Racing Mercedes AMG, followed by the Andretti Autosport #36 McLaren driven by Jarett Andretti who swapped seat with Colin Mullan. In the opening stages of his stint, Mullan had an off track together with Hull's BMW, but both were able to rejoin unscathed.
With 27 minutes to go, Michael Cooper pitted and handed over to Erin Vogel, who rejoined the track in 13th position. Unfortunately, some more bad luck hit the driver of the #30 McLaren: the latch on the left door failed, leaving Vogel with no chance but to pit again one lap later. With now a 24 seconds gap from 17th-placed James Rappaport, Vogel lapped significantly quicker but, just as she had almost halved the margin, she was handed a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane.
Tan battled for third place but soon came under pressure from the #47 NOLASPORT Porsche of Matt Travis, who sneaked through and moved up to fourth. Focused on Chandler Hull behind, Tan lost the Silver class leadership few laps later when she made a small mistake and locked-up, allowing the driver of the #26 Classic BMW to get past.
Ahead, Walker Jr. extended his overall lead by over 15 seconds and, never challenged, crossed the finish line to claim race 2 victory. Behind him, Putt brought the Bsport Aston Martin to second place, ahead of Jason Bell in the #2 Porsche.
After thoroughly entertaining battles, Samantha Tan crossed the line in 9th overall position and secured her second class podium of the weekend with third in the Silver category.
Erin Vogel was classified in P18 after an unfortunate race – which highlighted nonetheless Vogel's very promising race pace and Cooper's superb racecraft.
The streak of bad luck for the #30 lineup finally ceased in Sunday's third race, added to the weekend's schedule after the cancellation of the Long Beach Grand Prix.
Nick Wittmer had a great start in the #28 ST Racing BMW and led the field into turn one. Behind him, Rearden Racing's Kris Wilson was second, ahead of Mullan and Saturday's winner Walker Jr. The group of front-runners held positions until a full course yellow was called on lap 3 when Jason Bell stopped at turn 5 in his #2 Porsche Cayman GT4.
As the race resumed on lap 7, Wittmer controlled the field and pulled away, just as Wilson and Mullan battled for second. Their skirmishes allowed Tim Barber in the #25 CCR BMW to complete an opportunistic move and to advance into third overall.
Erin Vogel completed her driving shift in the first stint of the race, and did it brilliantly: she approached one competitor after the other and pulled off great overtaking moves to advance by six positions. With her #30 McLaren 570S GT4 now in perfect conditions, she could finally prove the squad's potential and, when the pit window opened, she handed over to Michael Cooper safely in the midfield.
The leaders Wittmer and Wilson extended their driving time, while Matt Travis came in to execute the driver change with Jason Hart. Wittmer, though, made a mistake coming out of Oak Tree Turn and allowed Wilson past for the overall lead. Behind, Hart and Andretti engaged in an exciting multi-lap battle which ultimately saw the driver of the #47 NOLASPORT Porsche finding a way past Andretti at turn one.
When the leaders finally pitted, John Allen took over from Kris Wilson and rejoined only sixth, just ahead of Bill Auberlen in the BimmerWorld BMW. Harry Gottsacker could thus re-claim the first place as he started his stint in the #28 ST Racing BMW.
But more drama unfolded, as Allen went off at Oak Tree Turn following a contact with the #91 Rearden Racing Aston Martin driven by Vesko Kozarov, promoting NOLASPORT's Anderson to first place in the Am class and the overall leader Gottsacker received a penalty for a pit stop infringement – just like in Saturday's race.
Hart inherited the lead on lap 20, ahead of Jarett Andretti and Cole Ciraulo. Behind them, Bill Auberlen recovered up to fourth place after James Walker had dropped down to 11th position in the opening laps following a contact. Andretti, less then a second behind Hart, started a close battle for the victory but made a mistake at the final corner and allowed Auberlen past – who had found a way past Liefooghe for third.
The final laps were all about Bill Auberlen's charge for victory: the BimmerWorld driver closed in on Hart but could not ultimately made a move stick, claiming a second place by only 0.776 seconds. Jason Hart brought NOLASPORT's Porsche 718 Cayman to victory, while Jarett Andretti held on to third.
Jon Miller was fifth overall for Samantha Tan Racing, as they could secure their third Silver class podium of the weekend: “This was our first GT4 America race weekend back and Jon Miller and I came home with 3 podiums!” - wrote the driver-owner.
“Jon had incredible stints as always and I worked my butt off trying to brake as late as possible.”
Michael Cooper was author of another brilliant recovery through the field in the second half of the race and could advance five more positions to finish seventh overall, just outside the class podium.
“We wrapped up the Sunday race with our best finish so far this season.” - commented Erin Vogel. “Honestly it was just a relief to have a race where everything went to plan - no doors popping open on track - which was all I wanted this morning from the moment I woke up. So to finish just one position off the podium was both wonderful and bittersweet.”
“The car didn't have the pace to catch P3 this weekend, and we know that there's still time to be found in the set-up. But we got a lot closer to it even with all the disruptions this weekend, and have a game plan for Sonoma that will hopefully take us that one step closer.”
“Set-up is so important, and we've got a great team who has all the tools to get us there.” - she added. “It's an interesting process to watch as the team wraps their head around a new car. They're getting it figured out quickly, and in the process I'm learning so much about how it changes my job to have a really well-engineered car.”
Despite all the technical hiccups, the Flying Lizard Motorsports team will head to Sonoma Raceway for the team's home race on August 7-9 with the aim of building momentum.
“We were also really impressed with Erin Vogel this weekend,” - concluded Program Manager Darren Law. “We had some tough luck with mechanical issues at the start of the weekend, but she didn’t let it get her down.”