Katherine Legge and Sheena Monk wrap up IMSA campaign with strong run at Petit Le Mans
After a widely positive IMSA campaign, Sheena Monk and Katherine Legge were poised for yet another very strong finish, when a gearbox issue in the closing stages put a halt to their ambitions at the Petit Le Mans.
Sheena Monk and Katherine Legge completed their IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season aboard the #66 JG Wentworth-sponsored Gradient Racing Acura NSX GT3 with a strong run at the Motul Petit Le Mans, as the two drivers - joined for the final event of the Michelin Endurance Cup by Marc Miller - were poised for yet another very positive finish, when a gearbox issue in the closing stages put a halt to their ambitions.
Legge and Monk have come close to a podium finish in their first season of IMSA GTD racing on a number of times this season, but bad luck was often in their way. Nevertheless, a fourth place at Daytona, a fifth place at Watkins Glen and four more top ten finishes had put the all-female duo in ninth place in the championship standings, among some of the world's top GT3 teams and drivers.
With impressive consistency, Sheena Monk - who is contesting her first season at the wheel of GT3 machinery despite often managing the race like a seasoned driver - and her race winning teammate Katherine Legge had always finished every race, often making the most out of the car in every situation. That is exactly what they were about to do once again at the 2.540 mile, 12 turn Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
The weekend was off to a great start, as Katherine Legge was the protagonist of a superb qualifying which put the #66 Gradient Racing Acura in sixth place on the starting grid, on a very challenging track due to mixed weather conditions.
While rain marked the start of the 15 minute session, the track improved and Legge displayed all her experience with a 1:24.760 lap.
"Qualifying went relatively well, but I think I could have been in the top five if I'd found a gap when the tyres were at their peak early on", Legge explained. "Tomorrow we have a fast car to tackle whatever Petit Le Mans can throw at us."
The 26th running of the ten hour race was also underway in tricky conditions - and it took only two laps before the first full course yellow was deployed for an off track that ended the race of the #8 Tower Motorsports LMP2 Oreca. Katherine Legge was running in seventh position - but an unfortunate drive through penalty for changing lane at the start would be the first hurdle to overcome.
At the restart, Legge ran at a strong pace and showed that the team would be in contention for a front running position. At the following caution, most of the GTD teams pitted and Gradient opted to put bronze-rated Sheena Monk behind the wheel. Monk served the penalty and rejoined in P15 in class. Despite the setback, Sheena had solid pace and, although she had over 20 seconds to close to the #70 Inception McLaren ahead, she settled in her rhythm, managing the traffic well. When the High Class Racing LMP2 car cut across the #023 Triarsi Ferrari, triggering a big accident at turn 10 which took out also the #70 Inception McLaren and, crucially, the #6 Porsche of Nick Tandy, Monk made a stop as the pit lane opened and remained behind the wheel. Another safety car then gave Sheena Monk the opportunity to gain a lap back: now back in the pack, Sheena gained positions and advanced to P11, having run smartly and with steady pace. At the following full course yellow Monk led during the pit cycle, before she completed a very good double stint and handed the JG Wentworth Acura to Marc Miller. Now barely 10 second behind the class leader, Miller had a chance to make up ground as the race entered its fourth hour. With Monk's driving time reached, Miller picked up from P13 and soon gained a position, before chasing Alessio Rovera's Triarsi Ferrari. He closed in on the top ten in the following 30 minutes, although he also had to defend from the recovery of the #78 Forte Racing Lamborghini. Miller survived contact with the #85 LMP3 Duqueine as he navigated traffic, without losing positions. Katherine Legge was back behind the wheel with 5 hours and 45 minutes to go, when Ben Barnicoat's Vasser Sullivan Lexus crashed at the Esses. The full course yellow was deployed for the scattered debris, as Gradient Racing used the opportunity to pit. 15 minutes later, the green flag was back in the air and Legge had managed to break into the top ten: the British driver followed pole sitter Ian James closely, also moving up to P9 on lap 166. Legge was in a three-car battle for seventh, eighth and ninth, all running at few tenths within each other at the mid-race mark. In a very interrupted race by plenty of accidents, Katherine and Marc alternated behind the wheel in the following hours - both trying to navigate the traffic avoiding contacts in single stints. The JG Wentworth Acura, though, had now steadily made it return into the top eight. After a new neutralization, Katherine Legge stayed out and moved up to seventh place in GTD - before Miller took over with 3 hours to go. When the #78 Forte Racing Lamborghini was handed two separate drive through penalties, Marc moved up one position, just as the sun set over the horizon. Cycling back and forth from seventh to tenth, Miller would pit from P6 with 2 hours to go and Katherine Legge was back in the driving seat - as a really solid result was shaping up in the closing stages. Legge had a really strong pace once in clean air and she closed in on Sebastian Priaulx: just as she had caught the AO Racing Porsche, the #66 Acura came to a halt in dramatic fashion. A gearbox issue dropped Katherine Legge, Sheena Monk and Marc Miller out of contention with 1 hour and 20 minutes to go due, which unfortunately resulted in the team's first DNF of the season. "We had a strong car once night came, the track was really coming to us", Miller commented. "We were sitting in the top 10, just looking for a good result here in the last hour." "Sheena [Monk] did a great job. She actually got all of her drive time done straight through, while it was still hot. Then Kat [Legge] and I did a string of single stints, which was fun. But then she lost drive coming out of Turn 7", he continued. "It's frustrating, as we've been strong in all of the long races this year. Here again, we had good pace. Maybe not race-winning, but we still looked set for a strong result. But it is what it is. Thanks to everyone at Gradient Racing, Acura and HPD for everything they've done for us this year."
With 2552 points on the table, Katherine Legge and Sheena Monk completed the IMSA season in eleventh place in the GTD drivers' standings, in what was a particularly impressive season for series' rookie Sheena Monk. Having graduated from the GT4 machinery, Monk was always at ease behind the wheel, contested several qualifying sessions - often finishing ahead of more experienced bronze drivers - and completed her driving time flawlessly in the races, rarely making mistakes. While they missed out on a podium finish - which looked like a realistic chance on more than one occasion, having Legge behind the wheel and through adversities was always a guarantee and the Gradient Racing duo collected valuable experience useful for the coming future. "The close of the IMSA season brings some inevitable reflection and analysis" - Legge wrote. "It has been both personally and professionally a year of ups and downs, some epic experiences, and a special gratitude for new friends and love for those who have been there for the journey." "Especially proud of Sheena Monk for her grit and dedication to digging deep after being thrown in the deep end! She’s done a stellar job and impressed a lot of people, and definitely impressed me!" "Huge thanks to the entire Gradient Racing team for their amazing skill, attitude and cohesive teamwork. Amazing individuals that form a world class race team. Also a big part of my season has been the incredible Honda Racing HPD - it has been very special to be back as part of the family. Thank you for the support, opportunity and welcoming environment you have afforded me again this season. Honored to have been part of your roster." "JG Wentworth have been the rock star partner we all wish for, not only do we have the coolest jingle and livery in the paddock, through us they are inspiring millions of young girls to be anything they want to be, and that’s pretty darn cool. I am privileged to represent such an amazing brand", Legge continued.
"While we finished this year's Petit on a disappointing note, we have so much to smile about and so much to look forward to. Next season starts now"