IMPC: First top-5 of the season for Taylor Hagler in Sebring
In an extremely busy weekend on two sides of the Atlantic, Taylor Hagler claimed her first top five of the season in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, in a solid recovery drive at Sebring. After a very competitive first stint in the GS class, Aurora Straus was unfortunately out of the race following a technical issue that caused a big crash for her Crucial Motorsports teammate.
IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge two-time champion Taylor Hagler will have a few busy months ahead, as she was announced as part of the first ever Hyundai Motor America's effort at the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring. The past weekend was in fact the start of a double program that will see Hagler trying to defend the title in the IMSA TCR class, as well as prepare for one of the toughest races on the planet, at the 25,378 metre-long Nordschleife for the NLS 1.
Racing on Thursday on the bumps of Sebring and then on Saturday on the other side of the Atlantic, it certainly was a hectic week for Taylor Hagler - who was already back from her first trip to Germany, where she was required to pass the permit B before racing at the iconic and unforgiving German circuit.
But the Bryan Herta Autosport duo of Hagler and Lewis first had to tackle the second round of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge season, returning to Sebring after a second place finish in 2022 and third in 2021.
Hagler and Lewis were coming off a challenging season opener at Daytona, where they overcame adversities and made their way up to eighth despite a technical issue in the second half of the race.
“Sebring International Raceway is an iconic track that I look forward to visiting every year", Hagler commented. "Every visit, I get closer and closer to a win there in IMSA and that is my goal this year."
"We’ve had a month to prepare, test and focus on the goal at hand – standing on the top step of the podium.”
Returning to IMSA Pilot Challenge was also Aurora Straus - who had claimed an outstanding sixth place at Daytona in the GS class, from 44th on the grid.
Straus shares the brand-new McLaren Artura GT4 operated by Crucial Motorsports with Michael de Quesada.
Hagler and Lewis arrived at Sebring on Tuesday and were 11th and 7th in the two practice sessions. Hagler qualified the #1 BHA Hyundai Elantra N TCR in 12th position for the two hour race, and would take the start for the opening stint on Thursday.
A red flag in the GS class qualifying ended up in a cancelled session and the starting positions were determined by the championship points. Aurora Straus therefore had the chance to getaway from third on the grid.
Kenny Murillo led the pack in the Murillo Mercedes, ahead of Thomas Collingwood and Anthony McIntosh. Aurora Straus took the start in the #58 Crucial Motorsports McLaren Artura GT4 and settled in P5, while Taylor Hagler soon started to move up the order in TCR and was ninth after the first lap. The first caution came just a few minutes into the race, when the #15 Rockwell Autosport Audi got sideways and was collected by the #61 Road Shagger Racing Audi and the #70 Deily Motorsport Hyundai. Straus defended well at the restart, while Hagler had to take evasive action when two GS cars collided just ahead of the TCR pack. The action, though, was short lived as the #57 Winward Mercedes went off and hit the barriers. The second caution launched the first round of pit stops for the GS class - as well as some TCR entries. Among them was Taylor Hagler, who bolted on a new set of tires. At the next green flag, Aurora Straus had a perfect restart and moved up to fourth place, while Murillo and McIntosh kept the top spots in GS. Bryan Ortiz, on the other hand, had gained the lead in TCR by not pitting under caution. Tenth in class, Hagler was sixth among the drivers to have already pitted. In a battle for position, Straus banged wheels with the Ford Mustang of Altzman on the main straight and lost a couple of positions, dropping to eighth. Midway through the race, some heated battles in TCR ended in the retirement of the #89 Hart Honda of Steve Eich, which caused the third caution of the race. That was the chance for the GS class to pit and perform the mandatory driver change: Aurora Straus completed her stint and handed over to Michael De Quesada, who rejoined P5 in class. Similarly, Taylor Hagler also pitted and Michael Lewis got aboard of the #1 Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai from sixth in TCR.
Lawrence (#95 BMW Turner Motorsport) led overall from the Murillo Mercedes of Szymczak and Robby Foley's Turner Motorsport. Unfortunately, a technical issue on the Crucial Motorsports McLaren resulted in a heavy crash at the final corner for Michael De Quesada, who hit the wall hard. Luckily, he was unhurt bringing out another caution - and bringing an end to Crucial Motorsports' weekend after a very strong opening stint for Aurora Straus. "Sebring wasn’t meant to be for us", Aurora wrote. "I started our McLaren Artura #58 in third place, and Michael de Quesada got behind the wheel for his stint in P5. Unfortunately, the car had a mechanical issue and Michael ended up being a passenger in a big hit at the exit of Turn 17." "Thank you to Mclaren for building a safe race car, to Michael for being a great teammate as always, and to the Crucial Motorsports crew for all the hard work. New racecar gremlins aside, I’ve never been prouder to wear the Crucial Motorsports and McLaren Orlando colors!" Murillo Motorsports' Szymczak meanwhile had taken the lead in GS, with Robert Wickens climbing the order in TCR. With 22 minutes to go, the race went back underway with a heated battle for the overall lead, involving Szymczak and Foley - and the latter found a way past on lap 33. TCR leader Wickens was also under pressure from the #5 KMW Alfa Romeo of Tim Lewis, but the Canadian defended well. Michael Lewis passed the #17 JDC Miller MOtorsport Audi and moved up to seventh place in class - then gained sixth when Wittmer's Victor Gonzalez Honda came to a halt with 10 minutes to go. The yellow came out just as Tim Lewis and Robert Wickens were battling for the TCR lead: Lewis snatched the lead by inches before the yellow flag was shown, in a dramatic moment for the race, which only resumed for one final hectic lap. Robby Foley crossed the line to take a Turner Motorsports' 1-2, while Tim Lewis eventually kept the top spot in TCR, ahead of Robert Wickens and Wilkins. Michael Lewis managed to get ahead of Tyler Maxson on the final lap and secured the first top-five of the season for the series' reigning champions. “It’s nice to come away from Sebring with a top five, but it wasn’t the podium we were hoping for", said Taylor Hagler after the race. "I was happy with my stint as I moved up a number of positions and avoided the incidents throughout the race." "It feels great to rebound from our issues at Daytona and this upswing of progress will be something we want to continue at Laguna Seca.” Hours after the chequered flag, Taylor Hagler and her teammate Michael Lewis - alongside Harry Gottsacker and Mason Filippi - were travelling back to Germany for the first round of the NLS (Nürburgring Langstrecke Series). The IMSA TCR reigning champions are currently eighth in the drivers' championship standings, with 490 points. They will return to the track Stateside for the 2-hour race at Laguna Seca, on May 12-14.