IMSA: Competitive debut for Ashton Harrison, Katherine Legge in the Top10 despite practice setback
Team Hardpoint and Racers Edge Motorsports managed to bounce back after practice setbacks, as both Katherine Legge and Ashton Harrison - at her IMSA debut - completed the 12 Hours of Sebring in 8th place in their respective classes.
Despite a weekend full of adversities, the two women on the IMSA 12H of Sebring field both managed to finish in the top-10 in their respective classes, overcoming difficulties that severely hampered their track time in practice and qualifying. IMSA regular Katherine Legge returned behind the wheel of the #99 Hardpoint Porsche 911 GT3 R for the Sebring endurance classic, sharing the car with full-season teammate Rob Ferriol and Michelin Endurance Cup driver Stefan Wilson. In another challenging race, the trio had managed to finish tenth at Daytona, and travelled to Sebring following the team's strong result in 2021, where Legge brought the Hardpoint Porsche across the line in fifth place. “I’m very much looking forward to Sebring" - said the British racing star ahead of the race weekend. "Our tests there were very successful. That’ll be Stefan Wilson’s second time in the car. He did very well at Daytona, and at our Sebring tests. He’s making great progress. The same goes for my regular teammate Rob Ferriol. Last year, we weren’t far off a podium finish at the 12-hour race. It was close and a real shame.” Joining the IMSA grid for the first time in her career, Honda Performance Development driver Ashton Harrison led the Racers Edge Motorsports' line up in the #93 Acura NSX GT3 GTD-Pro entry, in a joint operation with sportscar powerhouse Wayne Taylor Racing. She was joined in the Harrison Contracting-traditional red liveried car by Tom Long and Kyle Marcelli. Harrison - the first woman to win the Lamborghini World Finals - has been competing in the Italian-brand one make series in the past couple of years, before making her debut in SRO America last year at the Indianapolis 8 Hours. After a stunning race, Harrison took home the victory in both the GTWC America and Intercontinental GT races. Despite the encouraging premises, both the crews found themselves battling unfortunate events even before the green flag on Saturday. A Thursday night practice accident effectively resulted in team Hardpoint having to build a new car from scratch, after a damaged chassis had to be scrapped. The team's mechanics worked non-stop until midnight on Thursday and returned to the track on Friday morning to build the new car with the stripped components on the backup chassis - as per championship rules. This cost team Hardpoint Friday morning's practice and qualifying, as the #99 Porsche went to technical inspection at 06:30 am on Saturday, just in time for the warm up and the 12 hour-race. "Just 48 hours ago, we didn't have a race car" - explained Rob Ferriol, driver/owner at Hardpoint. "We had a pile of parts and two bare chassis. The Hardpoint crew put in a Herculean effort to effectively build a new race car. We had time for one warm-up session to shake the car down and make sure it worked this morning, but no setup time." The #93 entry of Ashton Harrison had to face their own challenges as well: the Racers Edge Motorsports crew overcame a mechanical issue that cost them the majority of track time in practice; Kyle Marcelli got behind the wheel of the GTD-Pro Acura NSX GT3 Evo22 in a red-flagged qualifying which further limited their mileage, but still was ninth in class over a strong field of 53 cars in five separate classes.
Starting at the back of a 17-car GTD class, Rob Ferriol got behind the wheel of the #99 GridRival/GNARLY Jerky Porsche 911 GT3 R for the opening stint of the race.
The first minutes of the race were incredibly action-packed, as several top contenders in each class found themselves in trouble: the overall pole-sitter Sebastien Bourdais (#01 DPi Cadillac Racing) pulled into the pitlane after just one lap, having lost the lead at the start due to a gearbox issue; the #23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin - a GTD-Pro favourite - also hit pit road after a handful of laps for an unscheduled stop, just like the #16 GTD front-runner and Daytona winner Wright Motorsport Porsche, which went behind the wall. On lap 7, the United Autosports LMP2 entry came to a halt - sparking a round of pit stops in the leading positions in DPi.
The #31 Whelen Cadillac of Derani took the lead, ahead of the #10 Konica Minolta Acura driven by Ricky Taylor and the Meyer Shank Acura of Blomqvist.
Kyle Marcelli (#93 Racers Edge Motorsports Acura) recovered to P8 in GTD-Pro, before handing over to Ashton Harrison for her first ever stint in IMSA. Rob Ferriol, meanwhile, was running a steady race in P16 in GTD class, before Hardpoint's first driver change to Stefan Wilson.
The first Full Course Yellow came almost three hours into the race, when Juan Pablo Montoya crashed at Turn 1 while avoiding a spinning LMP3 car. It was unfortunately the end of the race for the Dragonspeed LMP2.
After a second caution triggered by the #66 Gradient Racing Acura of Kyffin Simpson, Katherine Legge finally started her first stint of the day, inheriting the #99 Hardpoint Porsche in P12 in class. Despite a really difficult car to drive, Legge managed to gain a few positions. Meanwhile, Ashton Harrison was back for her second stint, setting very competitive lap times and gaining positions in GTD-Pro. She would hand over to Tom Long after 5 hours in sixth place.
Another race neutralization was caused by Giorgio Sernagiotto making contact with the tyre barriers at Turn 1 in the Cetilar Racing's Ferrari 488 GT3 - who then made his way back to the pits for repairs. At half-distance, the #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac continued to lead, as Ricky Taylor (#10 Konica Minolta WTR Acura) took second from Mike Rockenfeller (#48 Ally Cadillac).
Katherine Legge completed her driving shift in 11th position, handing over back to Rob Ferriol - who made it into the top-ten in class for the first time in the race.
When Ashton Harrison jumped back in the #93 Acura, both the teams were running in eighth in their respective categories.
In a truly spectacular battle at the top of the GTD-Pro class, four cars fought for the lead: the #9 Pfaff Porsche of Campbell, the #3 Corvette of Catsburg, the #24 BMW M Team RLL of Yelloly and the #14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus of Telitz traded places at the top, allowing the TR3 Lamborghini of Andrea Caldarelli to join the leading train.
There was drama also at the top-end of the overall standings, as Will Stevens (#10 Acura) was handed a drive through for missing the RFID reader at pit exit while leading overall - opening the door to the Ally Cadillac of Kamui Kobayashi. But, with Rockenfeller behind the wheel, the #48 DPi entry was also forced to an unscheduled stop for a brake disc issue, which cost them over 2 laps.
After a flawless run, Ashton Harrison was spun around by Jan Heylen (#16 Wright Motorsports Porsche), but could quickly rejoin and handed over to Long with 3 hours and 30 minutes left on the clock.
In her second driving shift, Katherine Legge brought the Hardpoint Porsche back to eighth in class.
In the final hour of racing, Legge's former teammate Earl Bamber took the overall lead in the #02 Cadillac Racing DPi after passing Richard Westbrook (#5 JDC Miller MotorSports Cadillac). Soon after, the New Zealander made contact with a lapped GTD car, but was able to recover and regain the top spot.
Bamber/Lynn/Jani crossed the finish line to win a demanding 12 Hours of Sebring ahead of Vautier/Westbrook/Duval and Derani/Nunez/Conway in a Cadillac 1-2-3.
Keating/Jensen/Huffaker claimed a dominant win in LMP2 for PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports, over one lap ahead of Team Nederland and Era Motorsport.
Garcia/Catsburg/Taylor secured a really close win in GTD-Pro, four seconds clear of the TR3 Racing's Lamborghini of Mapelli/Caldarelli/Bortolotti.
Ashton Harrison and her teammates were eighth in the #93 Acura, as the American racer successfully completed her first race in IMSA with very convincing lap times.
“I’m super excited to finish the Sebring 12 Hour and my debut in IMSA WeatherTech,” said Harrison. “As you could imagine, this is a very challenging race and the conditions are changing constantly. And as is typical of Sebring, the weather was so hot and humid."
"I’m so thankful for Racers Edge and all the hard work these guys put in this week", she continued. "Prepping the car was anything but easy with all the mechanicals we’ve had. HPD has been super great with support, and the Racers Edge guys literally thrashed all week to get us out there. Our No. 93 Harrison Contracting Company Acura NSX GT3 Evo22 looks really good on track."
"For us to have the pace we did for a one-off race was pretty incredible, and I’m looking forward to potentially doing more with them."
Eighth place in GTD was a solid result for Katherine Legge, Stefan Wilson and Rob Ferriol as well, who were the highest finishing Porsche 911 GT3 R in the GTD class, and third overall in the race. It was their second Top-10 of the year, after starting 17th on the grid and with no prior work on the setup on the new car which made for a very long and difficult race.
"It’s a testament to how hard the guys worked to give us a car that would last the full 12 hours" - said Legge. "It was less than ideal, but that’s probably because we didn’t have a chance to do setup on the car."
"We struggled a lot, but I think everybody at Hardpoint did a great job to bring it to the finish with no damage. It was disappointing from a speed perspective because it was a long, hard race when it was so difficult but the positive is the team and their heart and how much they put into it."
"We went into this race blind" - agreed Ferriol. "While it's not our best finish here at Sebring, it's a testament to the team, crew and drivers to be able to go out with an unproven race car that, frankly, turned out to be a bit of a handful on track, start last, and pick up nine spots to finish inside the top 10. We'll take that."
The Hardpoint trio battled through adversities all weekend but still finished one of the most demanding races on the endurance calendar.
"The car was so difficult to drive" - echoed Wilson. "It really is just a testimony to the whole crew and how hard they worked yesterday. As drivers, we worked really hard today but nowhere near as hard as they worked yesterday."
"I can't thank the crew enough for getting the car back together, getting us out there, and having a car that ran for 12 hours. That's what's impressive here. We'd have liked to have been a lot more competitive, but when things changed we had to reset our expectations and I'm really proud of what Hardpoint did."
With two of the long-distance endurance races now in the books, the next IMSA round is now scheduled for 9th April, where the cars will hit the iconic street circuit of Long Beach.