IMPC: Top-10 at Watkins Glen for Taylor Hagler after battling for the win
Taylor Hagler's first potential win of the season in IMSA Pilot Challenge slipped away from the drivers of the #1 BHA Hyundai Elantra N TCR with 20 minutes to go, after an unfortunate contact took Lewis and Hagler out of contention for a top-five.
Two-time IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge TCR champions Taylor Hagler and Michael Lewis had their first win of the season within reach - but a contact with a competitor with 20 minutes to go took the #1 Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Elantra N TCR out of contention for a podium position.
After two spectacular seasons - where Hagler and Lewis were crowned thanks to their consistency and ability to finish on the podium in most of the rounds, their 2023 season was off to a challenging start: from a technical issue at Daytona that ended in a P8 finish, to a more promising fifth place at Sebring that seemed to have brought the #1 crew back on track, to a sixth place in Laguna Seca - the podium continued to slip away from Hagler/Lewis.
Hagler is pursuing a double program in her first motorsport venture in Europe: after her first 24 Hours of the Nürburgring - where she finished second in class in a Hyundai factory effort on the most challenging racetrack on the planet - Hagler has tackled the massively competitive GT4 Europe, seriously impressing for her quick adaptability to the new car and tracks. In a learning-oriented part-time season, the young Texan is certainly laying the foundations for a competitive career overseas as well.
The fourth round of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge - in support of the Sahlen's Six Hours of the Glen - though, was the opportunity for Hagler to return to familiar territory.
“Watkins Glen International is a special place", she commented before the weekend. "This is where the momentum of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge season really starts."
"I’ve been racing a lot in Europe the last several months, so I’ve been keeping busy and learning a lot, but I am looking forward to getting back in the No. 1 Hyundai Elantra N TCR and getting a good result for the Bryan Herta Autosport team.”
Promising practice sessions - such as a fifth place in the TCR class in FP2 - meant that Hagler went into qualifying with high hopes. She would qualify in seventh place - a good position for the two-hour race with plenty of chances to move forward.
The heavy rain that disrupted several IMSA sessions was eventually also the protagonist just before the start of the race on Saturday: the downpour caused an over 40 minute delay.
The race was finally underway behind the safety car with Matt Pombo (#37 LA Honda World Racing) lining up on class pole position, ahead of the #17 JDC Miller Motorsports Audi RS3 LMS TCR. In the car for the first stint of the race, Taylor Hagler, had to tackle a still very wet track as well as visibility limited by the water spray.
The green flag flew after two laps behind the safety car and Pombo had a clean start defending the lead, with Harry Gottsacker (#33 BHA Hyundai) immediately taking second. Taylor Hagler had a good launch and overtook Victor Gonzalez's #99 VGR Honda Civic, moving up to sixth over the course of the first lap.
The two-time IMSA TCR champion was faster than Miller, who had dropped from second on the grid to fifth; they would both gain one position when the #33 BHA Hyundai, second in class, had to pit with a tyre puncture. The track, meanwhile, was drying up quickly and teams started to evaluate slick tyres. Gottsacker, in fact, opted for dry tyres 10 minutes into the race, with the eyes of everyone set on its performance.
As soon as Gottsacker lapped quicker than most of the TCR entries, more teams chose to pit for slicks, including overall leader Kenny Murillo (#72 Murillo Racing Mercedes AMG GT4). Taylor Hagler went two laps longer and the #1 Hyundai re-emerged in seventh place - with the #73 LA Honda World Racing Civic opting to stay out on wets. 30 minutes in, a full course yellow was deployed when a three-wide battle ended with the #57 Winward Racing Mercedes and the #47 Nolasport Porsche against the barriers. Hagler had just moved up to sixth and, when the pit window opened, most of the GS and TCR fields pitted. Hagler stopped from sixth and handed over to Michael Lewis, who would rejoin in fifth place.
Ahead, Pombo, Gonzalez and Brown had stayed out as the race went back to green with 1 hour and 5 minutes to go. The action, though, would only last a few corners, as the #27 Lone Star Racing Mercedes was collected by #39 Carbahn Porsche.
The top three had to pit for the driver change - leaving the #98 and #1 BHA Hyundais in the lead; Michael Lewis claimed the top spot at the restart, ahead of Mason Filippi and Robert Wickens in the sister cars.
Several of the TCR cars pitted again for fuel with 50 minutes to go. The #15 Rockwell Autosport Audi took the lead in class, followed closely by Lewis. Dupont, though, came to a halt at turn 7 on lap 29, bringing out the third FCY.
At the green flag, the TCR action was on fire: Michael Lewis battled in the leading pack with the #5 KMW Alfa Romeo Giulietta of Tim Lewis and the #61 Road Shagger Racing Audi of Jonathan Morley. With 20 minutes to go, Michael Lewis and Ryan Eversley made contact at turn 7; the #37 LA Honda World ended its race in the wall, while Lewis could continue despite significant damage to the left-hand side of the car. Now down to ninth, Lewis received a drive through penalty for the incident - ultimately taking the #1 Hyundai Elantra N TCR out of contention for a top 5 finish.
There was more carnage in TCR, with the championship leading #98 BHA Hyundai of Wilkins being pushed off track and, having collected an advertising board, picked up damage to the front of the car. A few other incidents resulted in yet another FCY with 10 minutes to go. The green flag was back in the air for the final 2 laps of the race: the #5 KMW Motorsports Giulietta held on to take victory, preceding the #17 JDC Miller Motorsports Audi and the #91 Van der Steur Racing Hyundai.
It went all wrong in the final 20 minutes of the race for the #1 crew, who was in contention for the race victory but had to settle for ninth.
"P9 in a wet and wild race", Hagler said. "It was a tough day at the track but we pressed on, taking the lead in the TCR class. The momentum and hopes for a podium finish were lost after contact with another series contender. We walk away with another Top 10 finish and shift our focus to the next race.
Despite the disappointing result, Hagler's pace and recovery was highly promising and the team's battling for the win in the closing stages is an encouraging sign to build on, as the series approaches its Canadian round at Mosport, on July 7-9.
But Taylor's exceptionally busy season meant that she was quickly on a plane again to cross the Atlantic, as she will contest her second round in GT4 Europe at the legendary Spa Francorchamps circuit in a few days, in support of the 24H of Spa.