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GTWC America: Samantha Tan wins in Sebring, takes double podium

"We had something to prove this weekend" - Samantha Tan and ST Racing teammate Neil Verhagen took a commanding class victory in race 1 at Sebring, and fought back from an early drive through to almost win again in race 2, both driving some of their best races in GT World Challenge America to date.

Samantha Tan, ST Racing BMW M4 GT3, GT World Challenge America, 2024 Sebring
Photo credits: Sam Cobb / BMW Motorsport

“This is the victory of the greatest redemption" - said Samantha Tan on Saturday after climbing out of her #38 ST Racing BMW M4 GT3, having just won the ProAm class at the first race at Serbing Raceway, second round of the GT World Challenge America season.

One year ago, Tan and her teammate Neil Verhagen had been denied victory at the same venue, ater a post-race diqualification.

But Tan and Verhagen's speed was again on full display one year later, as ST Racing took a commanding victory in race 1 - as well as an overall podium - and fought back from an early drive through to almost win again in race 2, with both drivers driving some of their best races in the series to date.

The Canadian team has secured a double runner-up spot in ProAm at the season opener at Sonoma, proving that Samantha Tan, paired with BMW factory driver Neil Varhagen, have established themselves as the one of the reference teams in the SRO-sanctioned series in ProAm, often contesting for overall podums and victories. Over the last few years, Tan has built a wealth of experience in some of the top sports car championships in the world - and clearly proved to be one of the most improved drivers in GT3 racing. With class podium and wins in international competitions, the driver/owner is now arguably one of the AM drivers to beat.

With strong performances at Sonoma despite the track being a challenging one for the BMW M4 GT3, Sebring International Raceway surely represented a more friendly ground for the beautiful Van Gogh-inspired car - and its drivers delivered straight away since the practice, where the #38 BMW was in the top three in both sessions.

They further asserted their pace in qualifying, as Samantha Tan was third fastest in ProAm in Q1, with a 2:01.184 lap that was five hundredths of a second away from second place - and then Neil Verhagen put in a monster lap in Q2 to take overall pole position for the second race, having clocked a 1:59.316.

Tan took over driving duties for the start of race 1 - and she immediately moved up to second in class, overtaking the #04 Mercedes of George Kurtz. The ProAm class, though, was led by Swiss ace Philipp Ellis, who was the only Pro driver starting in class, as Regulator Racing attempted a reverse strategy.

While Ellis pulled away and started to build a significant gap, Tan started to put pressure on the Pro entry of Adam Adelson in the opening stages, retaining a healthy margin to the direct ProAm competitor behind. When Kurtz hit trouble, Samantha had a 6 second gap to now third-placed Rothberg (#29 Turner Motorsport BMW), while at the same time she kept up with Adelson's Wright Motorsports Porsche.

After an uninterrupted brilliantly consistent stint, Samantha pitted and handed over to Neil Verhagen from second in class, around 30 seconds behind ProAm and overall leader Ellis, who was unchallenged from the get go. Unfortunately, a short pit stop resulted in a 4.28 second penalty for ST Racing, who would give Verhagen an additional challenge in his second half of the race.

Ellis extended his driving shift as much as possible and Jeff Burton eventually took over with around 40 minutes to go. Verhagen, though, was quickly making his way up the order, gaining over 2.5 seconds per lap to the #91 Mercedes AMG GT3. The #38 BMW overtook the sister car of Bill Auberlen for overall fourth and hunted down Burton, who had meanwhile dropped to third overall after Pro drivers Hindman and Skeer grabbed the overall lead.

The Samantha Tan Racing crew snatched the class lead with 17 minutes left on the clock - and Verhagen never looked back, aiming to build the extra 5 seconds required to retain the win. He did so comfortably - eventually extending his advantage to over 12 seconds to Robby Foley, who had also found a way past the Regulator Racing Mercedes.

Having also gained the fastest lap in 2:00.786 as well as the Hard Charger Award for making up the most positions overall, Neil Verhagen crossed the finish line to score the first class win of the season for ST Racing, following stunning drives by both drivers.

“Following last year’s incident, we had something to prove this weekend", Tan commented. "After a couple test sessions and practice, we put together a great car to fight with. We were able to qualify P3 for Race 1 and P1 overall for Race 2. In Race 1, we got a 5 sec penalty in the pitstop but after a strong run from both Neil and I, we were able to push forward to P1!"

Samantha Tan, ST Racing BMW M4 GT3, GT World Challenge America, 2024 Sebring
Photo credits: Sam Cobb / BMW Motorsport

On Sunday, Neil Verhagen aimed to carry momentum after the victory and, starting from the overall pole position, the target would be to open as much of a gap as possible to hand over to Samantha in a prime position to come home with another big result.

The ST Racing driver had a clean getaway and cleared the competition into the iconic Serbing left-hand turn and soon opened a small gap, setting the fastest lap in 2:01.161 early on. While Skeer tried to keep up the pace, he soon had to defend from Robby Foley's Turner Motorsports BMW, who eventually made a move stick for second. This battle helped Verhagen to extend his margin - but a major development saw the #38 crew being hit by a drive through penalty for a 'start violation'.

When the BMW factory driver served the penalty, the Samantha Tan Racing BMW dropped all the way down to P11 overall, having lost over 30 seconds. Foley now led the ProAm class from Braun and Sellers. Verhagen topped his best lap and continued to push hard to recover as much as he could - and with no cautions he would need to catch back the pack on pure pace.

Over two seconds per lap faster than the cars ahead, Neil passed the #50 Mercedes with one hour left on the clock. Next in his target was Andy Lee's Flying Lizard Aston Martin, which he overtook a couple of minutes later. One more position overall was gained when the Pro entry of Zach Veach (#93 Racers Edge Acura) pitted as soon as the pit window opened - just like Jeff Burton who handed over to Philip Ellis.

The driver change approached and Verhagen ultimately pitted from P7 overall and P5 in ProAm with 42 minutes to go: it would be Samantha's time to attack in the second half of the race. Once everyone had completed their pit stops, Tan found herself fifth in class, with Justin Rothberg ProAm leader ahead of George Kurtz, approximately 20 seconds ahead of the Canadian racer.

Nevertheless, Samantha was soon the fastest driver in class - and matched some of the Pro entries. A handful of laps later, she had caught Kyle Washington's GMG Porsche and passed him into the final corner to grab fourth. Over a second per lap faster, Tan closed in on Scott Smithson, while at the same time significantly reducing the gap to the ProAm leaders. Smithson and Tan closed a 10 second gap and, with 5 minutes to go, the top four were covered by two seconds.

Samantha got by Smithson when the latter made a mistake and spun - leaving the ST Racing BMW at arm's length from Rothberg and Kurtz. Tan was the protagonist of a stunning charge in the final laps as the top three fought hard for the win; Justing Rothberg, though, was ultimately able to held on and crossed the finish line ahead of George Kurtz and Samantha Tan, who was less than a second short of a victory after recovering from a drive through penalty.

"In Race 2, after an unfortunate start infringement, we were at the back of the field", Samantha recalled. "Neil and I pushed to the limit and made up a 36 sec drive through penalty to bring the car home in P3".

Her outstanding run allowed the team to collect a second podium of the weekend - and the team's fourth consecutive one of the season - after overcoming penalties in both races at Sebring. The drivers of the #38 BMW now sit second in the ProAm standings, just two points adrift.

"I believe we demonstrated to everyone this weekend that our pace is irrefutable" - Samantha concluded. "I am super proud of everyone’s effort’s this weekend - we were able to close the gap to the championship leaders and we look forward to COTA in just a couple weeks!”

The third round of the 2024 GT World Challenge America season is in fact scheduled for 17-19 May at Circuit of the Americas, Austin.

Samantha Tan, ST Racing BMW M4 GT3, GT World Challenge America, 2024 Sebring
Photo credits: Sam Cobb / BMW Motorsport



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