IMPC: Third Top-5 of the season for Taylor Hagler at Indy
"It is disappointing to have a great first half of the race and not be able to come home with a result to show how strong we were." - Having led for a vast part of the first half of the 4-hour race, Taylor Hagler collected another positive top-five finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway - the third of the season in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.
IMSA made its return to the Racing Capital of the World - Indianapolis Motor Speedway - for the first time since 2014, in an event that also hosted IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge's tenth round of the 2023 season. The four-hour TireRack.com Battle on the Bricks, penultimate race meeting of the IMSA-sanctioned series, saw the reigning champions Taylor Hagler and Michael Lewis tackling the legendary track for the first time in TCR.
"Unlike any other place on the TCR schedule this season, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is new for us", Hagler commented before the event. "With that, we have done some testing so we can have an idea what to expect, but this will be a weekend of unknowns."
"That can be exciting and scary at the same time. I am looking forward to representing BHA on our home turf this weekend at IMS."
For Hagler, it will be her fourth visit to the road course layout of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, after her participation in the GT World Challenge America 8 Hours of Indy in 2021 and 2022, at the wheel of Acura GT3 machinery.
After becoming the first ever returning champions in Pilot Challenge, Hagler and Lewis continued to display speed in the TCR category but were met by a series of unfortunate rounds that has so far prevented them from collecting either a win as well as a podium in 2023: either technical issues or unlucky contacts hampered their campaign, but the drivers of the #1 Hyundai Elantra N TCR also impressed with strong charges up the field, as well as good qualifying efforts.
Taylor Hagler has progressively been behind the wheel in the final stages of the races, often performing recovery drives where she displayed continuous progress in her race pace.
The young Texan - who is also contesting her first international racing season in GT4 Europe, in a double programme that is highlighting her potential in sportscar racing - was coming off her second top five finish of the season at VIRginia International raceway last month, where she equalled her best finish of the season with a great recovery on the final lap to secure fifth place.
That was the starting point for Hagler and Lewis to build upon for the final two rounds - and the BHA duo soon proved to belong to the top end of the leaderboard in practice, when they ran fourth in FP1, barely a tenth off the pace-setters. Hagler set a 1:33.865 in FP2, as they remained in the top-10 in an overall promising start of the weekend.
Michael Lewis took on qualifying duties and, in a very close TCR field, put the #1 BHA Hyundai on the second row of the grid, clinching a third place behind Chris Miller (Unitronic/JDC Miller MotorSports Audi) and Harry Gottsacker (BHA Hyundai).
On Saturday afternoon, grey and cloudy skies welcomed the drivers on the grid for the start of the four-hour race. Both the GS and TCR fields had clean starts, despite the many battles for the over 40 entries across classes. The overall-leading #69 MIA McLaren had a sterling pace in qualifying and continued to be unchallenged over the #28 RS1 Porsche and #88 the Archangel Motorsport Aston Martin - but the real star of the opening lap was Michael Lewis, who had a perfect getaway and slotted into first place in TCR after passing both Gottsacker and Ortiz into turn 1.
A contact that sent the #27 Lone Star Racing’s Mercedes into a spin on the opening lap brought no disruptions; the leading drivers in both GS and TCR opened a gap to the rest of the field, with Michael Lewis and Harry Gottsacker pulling away. The race remained green even when #5 KMW Motorsport Alfa was hit and spun at turn 1 by the #99 Hyundai of Victor Gonzalez who tried to avoid a GS Aston Martin.
From the menacing sky, light rain eventually started to fall but Michael Lewis kept it on track with confidence, holding a safe margin to his competitors.
Preston Brown’s #10 Rockwell Autosport Audi pulled to the side of the track 34 minutes in, eventually bringing out the first caution and triggering the first round of pit stops.
The Safety Car neutralized Michael Lewis and Harry Gottsacker’s gap to third-placed Mason Filippi, who was running over 11 seconds behind. TCR cars took the way of the pit lane on lap 25, when the pits opened. Several teams changed front tyres and the #33 BHA Hyundai of Gottsacker restarted with the fuel hose still attached, which resulted in a pit penalty.
Victor Gonzalez was the only driver to stay out and took over the overall lead, followed by GS leader Filgueiras - who had taken over from McAleer in the #28 RS1 Porsche. Following a stop for both fuel and tyres, Michael Lewis had to give up track positions to Gottsacker, Gilsinger (#98 HART Honda Civic), Ortiz (#91 van der Steur Hyundai) and Mason Filippi. Sixth in class - and fifth among the drivers that pitted - Lewis remained behind the wheel for the second stint.
The race was back to green with 3 hours to go and Michael Lewis soon made up positions to reclaim third; the #99 of Gonzalez was handed a 3 minute stop and go penalty for improper wave by during the caution, as he had effectively gained a full lap to the rest of the TCR field. When Gottsacker also served his penalty, Michael Lewis was back in the TCR class top spot on lap 34.
The front-running pace of the reigning champions continued throughout the second hour of the race as well, with Lewis retaining the lead until lap 60, before making a second trip to the pits for fuel, four new tyres and a driver change: Taylor Hagler was in fact behind the wheel for the central stint of the race and rejoined eighth in class.
The early stop - Lewis was in fact the first TCR entry to pit for the second time - paid off and, after everyone had pitted, Hagler found herself back in the lead and could extend the gap to the sister #98 BHA Hyundai, now driven by Mark Wilkins. With a 12 second advantage, Hagler was looking strong for what was shaping up to be a potential podium for the team - but a safety car neutralization with 2 hours to go, caused by the stranded #55 Gou Racing Audi, meant that Hagler was called back into the pits for a strategic refuelling under caution on lap 70.
When the race resumed, Taylor sat in sixth place and waited patiently for her chance to move up the order once again. Meanwhile, Denis Dupont (#15 Rockwell Autosport Development) took over the class lead and battled with Wilkins and Wickens.
Hagler picked up one position on lap 81 and ran in fifth place until the next caution - which came towards the end of the third hour, when the #70 Deily Motorsports' Hyundai got stuck in the gravel following a contact with the #28 RSI Porsche.
Having refuelled at the previous safety car, BHA's strategy allowed Hagler to go longer and she stayed out, cycling back to second place during the TCR round of pit stops.
Taylor eventually pitted after a one hour and 11 minute stint, and handed the #1 car back over to Michael Lewis for the final stint of the race.
The sun set over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Lewis found himself in sixth place, behind the #5 KMW Motorsports Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Robert Wickens led Miller and Rockwell - who would trade places on lap 109.
During a caution-disrupted final hour, Lewis battled for fifth place with Roy Block and eventually got by on lap 122. A contact in the closing stages, though, sent Lewis spinning at turn 2: he could quickly recover and kept position.
Under artificial lights, the chequered flag fell and Chris Miller took his third victory of the season for Unitronic/JDC Miller MotorSports, having passed Robert Wickens at the final restart.
Having led for a vast part of the first two hours of racing, Taylor Hagler and Michael Lewis were fifth across the line, collecting their third top-5 of the year in a tightly-contested four-hour race.
"Everyone knows what they say about Indy - this place picks its winners", said Hagler.
"It is disappointing to have a great first half of the race and not be able to come home with a result to show how strong we were. The No. 1 BHA team called a good strategy that put us at the front of the field, but we weren’t able to be there when it mattered."
While it was a bittersweet ending to an otherwise very positive outing for Hagler and Lewis, who were back in contention for a top position for most of the race, the step forward made at VIR and IMS is certainly an encouraging sign for the season finale, which will see teams and drivers taking on another iconic circuit: Road Atlanta, on October 11-14.
"We only have one more race left and it is hard to believe the end of the season is here", Taylor continued. "I love Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta and have fond memories there so I am looking forward to getting back there.”