Katherine Legge and Christina Nielsen made their sportscar return one year from their last race and secured a top-10 at Daytona, despite a splitter issue that cost Team Hardpoint EBM a higher finish in their first 24 Hours.
The 2021 edition of the Daytona 24 Hours will go down in history books for its breathtaking action in the overall and DPi class, as four cars remained in contention for the overall victory with little less than one hour left on the clock.
In a nail-biting finish, the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura of Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque, Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi took victory, ahead of the #48 Cadillac of Kobayashi-Pagenaud-Rockenfeller and the #55 Mazda of Jarvis-Tincknell-Bomarito.
Albuquerque secured the win with seven laps to go, when the #01 Cadillac of Dixon,Magnussen and Van der Zande had to pit for a puncture, in a anti-climatic moment that followed several laps of intense racing for position.
But the 59th running of the classic endurance race that traditionally kicks off American sportscar racing also marked the return of two of the top female racers in motorsports: Katherine Legge and Christina Nielsen teamed for the third year in a row at Daytona, sharing the #88 Team Hardpoint EBM Porsche 911 GT3 R with drivers and team co-owners Rob Ferriol and Earl Bamber.
Nielsen, a double IMSA champion, returned to racing after sitting out 2020 after the unfortunate developments that brought the all-female team project GEAR Racing to fold after the 2020 Daytona race. Legge, who was also part of the GEAR program together with Tatiana Calderon and Rahel Frey, was set to make her ELMS debut in LMP2 with the newly-founded Richard Mille Racing, another all-female operation targeting the Le Mans 24H.
Legge was injured in a pres-season testing crash in the South of France and also missed the 2020 racing season, as she recovered from a leg fracture.
The 2021 Daytona 24 Hour race was thus a welcome return in the driving seat for both drivers.
After an unlucky Motul qualifying race on Saturday prior to the race event, the #88 VB Enviro Care/Richard Mille Porsche of Legge/Nielsen/Bamber/Ferriol qualified 14th in a very crowded GTD class field: an early contact in wet/dry conditions sent Nielsen into the tyre barrier while fighting for sixth place and hampered the team's ambitions in qualifying. Team Hardpoint's pit crew temporarily fixed the battered Porsche 911 GT3 and sent out former works driver and Le Mans winner Earl Bamber, who brought the car home to a seventh row start for the big race.
Daytona rookie Rob Ferriol took to the track for the opening three stints and ran a clean race through the action-packed and frequently interrupted opening hours of the race: from a troubled start in the GT pack - where the #79 WeatherTech Porsche was spun around even before the green flag - from a series of early Full Course Yellows, Ferriol kept it contact-free and handed over to Christina Nielsen after approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes of race, as the night approached.
Both Nielsen and Legge completed similar-length triple stints and, as the race reached its eight-hour mark, all the team's drivers had taken a turn behind the wheel with Bamber being the last to complete driving duties at around midnight.
In her stints, Legge started to move up the order and gained three positions, advancing to 12th in GTD class.
“I think the car is strong,” Legge said after her first shift.
“I think it’s going to be different in the light. We’re suffering with a little bit of understeer at the moment but I think it’s mainly time management and just taking it easy. All we can do right now is mess things up, so we’ve got to be smart and then we’ll go and fight with them at the end.”
Nielsen drove all her remaining stints during the night, from sunset on Saturday to sunrise on Sunday. When the #88 crew was set to complete a remarkable recovery through the order following the Dane's solid performances, the bracing that holds the splitter in place broke in the midst of her run, preventing the Hardpoint EBM Porsche to fight for an achievable top-five.
The pit crew once again managed to fix the issue and send the car back out despite losing five laps, but the car's performance were inevitably compromised.
When the sunlight made its way back onto the Florida famous racetrack, Katherine Legge and Earl Bamber were asked to carry the team through most of the final hours and charged back, further moving up the order in 10th place. Rob Ferriol took over for his scheduled final two stints, but the strategy changes meant that the American came 9 minutes short of the minimum driving time and had to jump back in the driving seat for the final minutes, allowing him to take the chequered flag.
Ferriol held on and brought the car home in P10 in GTD class, a remarkable result for the team's first effort at Daytona.
“We took delivery of the Porsche 911 GT3 R approximately three weeks ago, and three of our drivers took their first laps in the car in a shakedown about four days before the Roar,” Ferriol said.
“The team spent 10 days leading up to the Roar working 18 to 20 hour days, getting the car prepped and getting the gear prepped and getting down here. The first thing that was said over the radio at the checkered flag was that it wasn’t the finish we wanted, but we wouldn’t have finished without the crew and this entire team. That’s a pretty cool thing.”
The team completed 737 laps around the Daytona International Speedway, just 8 laps short of the class winners after 24 hours of running.
“I’m so proud of this team,” Legge added, at her very first race after the injury.
“They worked so hard. You could see the exhaustion and relief as we crossed the finish line. To finish the race is no mean feat, we had no mechanicals, all the pit stops were flawless. It’s huge kudos to the team and the Porsche. We were just unlucky. We could’ve gotten more, but at the end of the day I’m really proud of the team.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Nielsen said. “The competition was super fierce this year. There’s room for improvement for everyone, including myself. It was my first race back in a year, so I have to focus on a couple of things I want to do better for next time."
"Overall, the team did a good job handling the challenges like the splitter failure when I was in the car. The team handled it well and we made it to the finish line and that’s an accomplishment in itself. Was it what we wanted? No, but we also have to think about the glass being half full and it’s some decent points for the championship.”
New Zealander endurance specialist Earl Bamber - in his first season as a driver-owner after several years spent as Porsche factory driver and having secured two Le Mans 24H wins and a FIA WEC title - was also satisfied with his team's promising speed: “Obviously everyone comes to the race to win, but I think a top-10 finish for us the first time out at the 24 is a great result”, he said. “All the drivers did their jobs. It was really cool to get it to the end. I think we showed great speed and great promise. We had that little issue with the splitter and we just couldn’t recover from that. But that’s motor racing and we’re going to roll on to Sebring."
Team Hardpoint EBM will in fact compete full time in the 2021 WeatherTech IMSA championship, which is scheduled to head to Sebring for its second round on March 17-20. While Nielsen and Legge were announced for the season opener at Daytona only, it is not clear yet whether we might see them back in the #88 Porsche for more 2021 rounds. Two of the highest profiles in the sports car industry, they clearly delivered and would deserve a top racing program for the remainder of the season.