GTWC America: fourth win of the season for Ashton Harrison
A rollercoaster of a weekend at Sebring: Ashton Harrison took her fourth win of the season in GT World Challenge America - before a technical issue took her out of race 2 before it started.
Excitement, close racing, successes – as well as misfortunes and missed opportunities: the 2022 GT World Challenge America season is approaching its final round and it feels like it flashed by. And its sixth double-header was the perfect embodiment of the big high and lows: a woman stepping on top of the podium on Saturday and a disappointment on Sunday. The current season has witnessed the rise of Ashton Harrison, a Lamborghini SuperTrofeo regular that made a breakthrough debut in SRO last year, when the American won at debut the 8H of Indianapolis. In her first full season in the series, Harrison – who shares the #93 Racers Edge Motorsports' Acura NSX GT3 Evo with Mario Farnbacher – proved to be a ProAm front runner, winning three times in the first five rounds and scoring six class podiums. Often on the same pace as the Pro entries, Harrison was coming off two consecutive wins at Road America, where the Racers Edge Motorsports duo swept the weekend and moved into second place in the ProAm championship standings ahead of Sebring. At Elkhart Lake, Erin Vogel was also the protagonist of a solid weekend, which saw the RealTime Racing driver charging through the field in race 1 and finishing in the top five in race 2. Vogel and co-driver Michael Cooper entered the final two rounds of the season from fifth place in the ProAm standings; while their season has been marked by some very solid races and a podium, Vogel has surely not capitalized on her pace due to a series of misfortunes, accidents and technical gremlins. Having switched from Mercedes machinery to the updated Acura NSX, Erin – only at her second season of GT3 racing – spent a few weekends to adapt to the new car and its setups, but the Road America weekend was a real turning point in the right direction for the team. RealTime Racing tried to carry momentum into Sebring, as they completed a test prior to the race event. “I'm very glad we got to take the NSX out to feel the bumps prior to the event next week." – said Vogel. "We got a lot of work done and tried a number of setups. Hopefully what we ended up with will be competitive for us when we get to qualifying Saturday morning." “Fortunately, the NSX has a lot of different spring packages homologated, so we were able to go really soft to compensate for the condition of the track and try to keep the tires on the pavement as much as possible", she continued. “At Sebring, I’d like to see us continue to progress with the setup and move up the order in qualifying so that we have a chance to be truly competitive in the races.” Vogel/Cooper clinched P9 in ProAm in both qualifying sessions, while the #93 Acura of Harrison/Farnbacher were fourth in class in Q1 and Q2.
In sunny Florida, the KPAX Lamborghini driven by Michele Beretta and Andrea Caldarelli took overall pole position for race 1, but was beaten by the #34 Conquest Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 of Manny Franco/Alessandro Balzan in race 2, as the experienced Italian topped the timesheets in the new Pro entry.
Unfortunately, the race weekend of Erin Vogel was over before it even started: with the #94 Bimmerworld BMW M4 GT3 of Chandler Hull starting from the back of the pack, the two made contact as soon as the race went green. Both moved towards the left hand side of the main straight after good getaways and collided, as the BMW ended its race against the wall.
Vogel managed to limp back to the pits – and the RealTime Racing's crew worked hard to get the Acura NSX back on track, but damage was terminal also for the #43 machine.
The Safety Car was soon on track, with Michele Beretta leading overall in the #1 KPAX Lamborghini, followed by Micheal Dinan (Turner Motorsport BMW) and Manny Franco (Conquest Racing Ferrari). With a brilliant launch, Ashton Harrison had meanwhile moved into second in class, just behind the Wright Motorsports Porsche of Charlie Luck.
With a stunning pass at Turn 1, Harrison made the move stick for the class lead just as the green flag waved again – and never gave up the position again.
Her stint, though, was anything but easy: both Charlie Luck and George Kurtz (#04 Riley Motorsports Mercedes) continued to put pressure on Harrison, but she held on flawlessly.
Luck would then drop down after a spin with one hour to go, which left the race for the ProAm class to a two-car challenge.
The Pro battle was relatively quiet in the first stint: Beretta pulled away with Dinan safely in second; Misha Goikhberg (#3 KPAX Lamborghini) overtook the Conquest Racing Ferrari in the early stages, but Manny Franco kept up the pace throughout the stint.
The pit window opened and Mario Farnbacher took over the #93 Racer Edge Acura following Ashton Harrison's perfect stint. The German had a clean stop and rejoined in the lead - but with Colin Braun right in his tail. Farnbacher navigated the Am traffic, but never put a foot wrong.
Andrea Caldarelli kept the overall lead in the #1 KPAX Lamborghini, while the Turner Motorsport BMW, now with Robby Foley behind the wheel, had to defend from the fast charging #3 Lamborghini of Jordan Pepper and the #34 Ferrari of Alessandro Balzan.
Almost half a second per lap faster, Andrea Caldarelli brought the KPAX Lamborghini back to victory, while the 3-car battle for second saw Foley taking the chequered flag ahead of Pepper and Balzan – with less than two seconds separating the three. Balzan eventually attempted a pass on the last lap, but Pepper held off the Italian.
Similarly, the ProAm race was down to the wire - but Farnbacher could endure the pressure for the entire stint's length, preceding Colin Braun and the returning Jan Heylen in the Wright Motorsport Porsche.
"I've been behind [Luck] before on a restart." – Ashton recalled, summing up her stunning pass for the lead. "Every time I'm behind a competitor, I always try to monitor what they're likely to do."
"I took the knowledge I had and tried to put it to work. I had a really great restart coming out of 17, and I stuck behind him and took the position as soon as I saw the opportunity."
"He did fight me for it, and I would have done the same, so I don't blame him for that. He made me work for it just as much as any other competitor would. Once I got it done, I just had to focus forward."
For Ashton Harrison and Mario Farnbacher it was the third win in a row in ProAm - as the driver pairing got within two points' reach to the top of the standings.
"It's important as an athlete and a driver to stay calm and make sure that your mental state is in the right spot because Sebring is very demanding" – said Harrison. "We have to keep in mind that we need the points to secure the championship in Indy, but we also want to bring the car back in one piece. Indy is a tight turnaround – we only have two weeks, and that's what's on our minds right now."
After such a successful race 1, though, Sunday turned into a nightmare for both teams lining up female drivers.
Damage to the #43 RealTime Racing Acura revealed to be more serious than expected, and Erin Vogel and Michael Cooper had to sit out the second race of the weekend.
"Unfortunately that's it for the RealTime Racing Acura this weekend." – Erin wrote.
"The damage to the car from the incident at the start of Saturday's race is too extensive to fix at the track."
"The front frame rails that hold the bumper, hood, radiator, etc., are bent and cracked, and will need to be cut off, replaced, and welded in a setting where the crew has all the tools to make a safe and lasting repair", Erin explained. "It's a testament to how sturdy the bodywork is that the damage didn't look worse from the outside, but as the driver I can't help but be pleased that the car did its job in absorbing the impact from the wall."
"On to Indy for us." – she concluded. Vogel and Cooper will be back in action at the season finale, the 8 Hours of Indianapolis.
But there was no luck whatsoever also for the race 1 winning Acura of Ashton Harrison and Mario Farnbacher, as the German driver spotted an issue on the formation lap and had to pit even before the start of the race, while he was sitting third in ProAm.
A brake line issue required a long stop to repair and Farnbacher could join the track, 3 laps down. At that point, his second race was merely a test session in preparation for the final title assault in Indy.
Alessandro Balzan dominated the first stint in the Conquest Racing Ferrari, pulling away from Ryan Dalziel (Triarsi Competizioni Ferrari) and Andrea Caldarelli (KPAX Lamborghini).
After the pit stop sequence, race 1 winner Michele Beretta was able to rejoin in the overall lead, followed by Justin Wetherill and Charlie Luck.
The two ProAm entries, though, will have to give up their overall podium positions after the charge of Misha Goikhberg and Manny Franco – with the latter ultimately getting ahead of the #3 Lamborghini with five minutes to go to snatch second place.
In ProAm, Charlie Luck held on to the class win for Wright Motorsports, preceding the #94 Bimmerworld BMW M4 GT3 of Hull/Auberlen, who recovered from the Race 1 incident to score a podium on Sunday.
The 2022 GT World Challenge America season finale is set to be decided on Saturday 8th October at one of the most iconic places in world's motorsport: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 8 Hours of Indianapolis is in fact the crown jewel on the GT World Challenge America's calendar, contested in conjunction with the Intercontinental GT Challenge.
The 25 teams will be joined by a third driver each, battling out in the first ever GT night race at the Speedway.