IMSA: Top-10 and fastest lap for Katherine Legge & Sheena Monk at Long Beach
Despite losing over 30 seconds in an accident that blocked the track, Sheena Monk and Katherine Legge completed a great recovery drive to finish ninth at Long Beach - also securing the fastest lap of the race that shows the real potential of the drivers of the #66 JG Wentworth Acura.
The streets of Long Beach have been the stage of some of the most iconic races in North American motorsport, having hosted F1 GPs, Indycar, IMSA. It is one of those places where racing drivers can truly make a difference, with the smallest of margins separating a groundbreaking success from a disappointing defeat.
It is a place that can truly launch a career - and this is what happened in 2005 to Katherine Legge, who famously won the opening round of the Toyota Atlantic series at the famous street circuit 18 years ago - attracting international attention in a series that was widely considered as one of the top stepping stones in North American open wheel racing.
Legge would continue to make more history throughout her impressive career - and added one more chapter this weekend, when she teamed up with her long-time protegé Sheena Monk for the first all-female team in the history of the Long Beach race.
“Long Beach is a track that’s very close to my heart, it was my first USA based professional race, back in 2005 and my first major win", Legge recalled. "I love the atmosphere and the venue as much as the track itself. Pretty much every time I have run here I’ve been in with a shot at the podium."
On the other hand, her teammate was making her debut on a street track - and only her third start in GT3 machinery: “I know that Katherine is obviously a proven winner here so it's really easy to lean into the experience and advice from someone that has a history of success and strong performances at Long Beach”, commented Monk.
"Katherine's going to provide a lot of guidance, tips and tricks to just get me around the circuit in an efficient manner.”
The Gradient racing #66 JG Wentworth Acura NSX GT3 EVO22 gradually built speed leading up to qualifying, when Sheena Monk would have the important role of going out for the team - in only her second ever qualifying - on a track where track position is so important.
“I think if I’m able to get into a comfortable rhythm and qualify well then you know I'll turn the car over and at that point it's in Katherine’s hands and I know that she has the ability to push us towards the front", she explained.
After very promising practice sessions, where Monk maximised track time and improved by over a second - Sheena was P12 in the GTD class in qualifying - in a performance that left the rookie unsatisfied.
"It was not the result we hoped for today", Sheena said on Friday. "Even though it's my first time at Long Beach, I just instantly felt comfortable in practice. But unfortunately, for whatever reason, I just couldn't make it work in qualifying."
"The track felt a bit greasy to me, but I still should've figured out a way to get it done. We'll review things tonight and see what we need to improve for the race."
With a bit of work to do to recover, Sheena Monk was the elected driver for the opening part of the race and the target was to keep her nose clean and hand over to Legge in the best position possible to allow the British ace - a multiple IMSA race winner and Vice-Champion - to work her magic.
In her previous GTD outings, Monk has been just as impressive. With almost a podium at debut at the 24 Hours of Daytona, and another very solid performance at Sebring, she's played a crucial role in this first part of the season, as Gradient Racing aims to maximise points in a full-time entry.
The story of the race
Monk lined up in P11 - after the retirement before the start of the #93 Racers Edge Motorsports Acura due to damage sustained in a qualifying crash.
In the top class, Filipe Albuquerque took the start in the #10 Konica Minolta Acura - but the race was soon under caution following a disastrous start for Sebastien Bourdais, who hit the inside wall and went deep at turn 1, just as the #60 Meyer Shank Acura of Blomqvist was tagged by Yelloly’s BMW. Albuquerque had retained the lead, ahead of Porsche’s Tandy and BMW’s Yelloly.
Marco Sorensen was up to P8 overall after a perfect start in the #27 Heart of Racing Aston Martin, leading GTD - and just behind the GTD-Pro leading car of Jack Hawksworth (Vasser Sullivan Lexus). Sheena Monk had a clean start in the #66 Gradient Racing Acura and held position in class.
At the restart, the remaining Cadillac rolled the dice and pitted for a driver change: Alex Sims handed over to Pipo Derani, who would attempt to go to the end of the race.
As soon as the lapped GTD traffic mingled with the GTP prototypes, Filipe Albuquerque extended his lead over Tandy.
On lap 17, Monk was involved in a multiple car tangle at the hairpin; the accident was started by the #97 Turner BMW who spun around the #70 Inception McLaren. Chandler Hull would receive a drive through for incident responsibility. Having lost over 30 seconds, Monk lost eleventh place, but could restore positions one lap later. The time lost, though, proved to be an extra challenge for the team's recovery, with no yellow flags until the end of the 100 minute race.
Having moved into the top ten with 1 hour and 3 minutes to go, the pit lane came alive for the GTD pit stops; Sheena Monk completed her driving time with another solid performance and handed over to Katherine Legge.
After the round of pit stops, Bryan Sellers found himself in the GTD lead, just ahead of De Angelis' The Heart of Racing Aston Martin. Legge rejoined in tenth place after the pit stop - then hunted down and soon passed Hindman in the #77 Wright Motorsport Porsche after a series of fast laps for the British racer.
Showing top-5 worthy pace, Katherine Legge overtook the #79 GTD-Pro Mercedes of Jules Gounon, then progressively closed the gap to the #96 Turner BMW of Robby Foley. Legge then avoided a potentially messy situation when Connor De Philippi went deep into the run-off at Turn 7 while trying to pass the #7 Porsche GTP.
After battling for a couple of laps, Legge found a way past Foley and moved up to eighth; she then went on to set the fastest lap in the GTD class, with a 1:18.786 that stood until the chequered flag as the race reference.
As she was catching Schandorff, Legge was briefly off track at Turn 9; she continued, albeit she had lost the hard-earned eighth place to Robby Foley with 7 minutes to go.
But Katherine Legge was not going to give up and, almost two second per lap faster, was about to fight back for eighth. Unfortunately, a neutralization with two laps to go resulted in a P9 finish for the #66 JG Wentworth Acura NSX.
The Full Course Yellow was brought out by Ricky Taylor, who had caught race leader Mathieau Jaminet for the overall win but ended up his race in the tyre barrier at Turn 1 after an over-optimistic move for the lead.
With their second top ten in class of the season, Sheena Monk and Katherine Legge still gained two positions in class and four overall on a tricky track to pass on.
“I’m really torn about the race because the team gave Sheena and I a very fast Acura and I think we could have taken it to the front", Legge commented. "We were even able to pass people, which is miraculous around here."
"Unfortunately, there wasn’t a magic yellow to help us cycle to the front, but as always Acura showed that the pace was there on the streets of Long Beach."
"Sheena’s learnt a lot of hard lessons this weekend", she continued. "It’s tricky coming to a street circuit for the first time, but she’s gained some experience now and when we come back next year, I’m sure she’ll kick some serious butt!”
Despite a difficult qualifying - made it even more complex by a red flag on her final attempt - Monk made no mistakes and there was nothing she could have done to avoid the track block. While ninth was in no way representative of their potential, the all-female duo showed they have the speed to battle for the top GTD positions.
The points scored at Long Beach allowed Monk and Legge to move up to sixth place in the drivers' standings, ahead of the next round at Laguna Seca, on May 12-14.