Legge, Nielsen & Figueiredo secure top5 in Sebring 12H
So close yet so far: the all-female team of Katherine Legge, Christina Nielsen and Bia Figueiredo were 2 laps away from a podium finish in the Sebring 12H, as drive through penalty demoted the crew of the #88 Hardpoint EBM Porsche to P5 in GTD class.
When IMSA veterans Katherine Legge and Christina Nielsen teamed up for the 2021 24H of Daytona, they were both still working to secure a full-season drive in the North American premier sports car championship. Their efforts at the season opener – finished with a top-10 despite a splitter issue – were rewarded and the drivers were confirmed as part of the Team Hardpoint EBM for the full IMSA season, with support of Richard Mille.
But Nielsen and Legge – a double-champion and a vice-champion in the series before – knew that they belonged further up the classify.
As the duo approached the second round at Sebring, the team announced the return of Bia Figueiredo, who had already raced alongside her teammates in the 2019 IMSA season at the wheel of the Heinricher Racing Acura NSX GT3. Coming back to racing after giving birth to her first child, Figueiredo joined the team for the 12-hour race at the Florida racetrack after getting behind the wheel of the #88 Porsche 911 GT3 car for the first time last week.
It was a very tightly contested 12-hour race until the very final minutes of racing in most of the classes: in an adrenaline-filled finale, the winners emerged from the final hour of action.
The ladies of the #88 crew completed an outstanding weekend with a remarkable top-5 finish, which nonetheless had a bitter aftertaste.
The Story of the Race
Nielsen qualified the car in tenth position in the GTD class and took the start of the race for the first two opening stints. She moved up to P9 in the opening laps, before the first Full Course Yellow of the race was deployed approximately 20 minutes into the competition.
Jimmie Johnson had in fact clipped the wall in the #48 DPi Ally Cadillac, damaging the front nose of the prototype. He made it back to the pits for repairs and went off-sequence. Meanwhile, there was more trouble also for the GTD polesitters, as the Wright Motorsports Porsche of Jan Heylen received a drive through penalty for changing line at the start.
At the restart, overall race leader Pipo Derani was passed with a beautiful move around the outside at Turn 1 by Renger van der Zande, just as the two DPi cars were trying to find their way around the GTD traffic. The same situation arose soon later – but with a different outcome: the #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac of Derani was squeezed towards the wall by the Dutchman and collided with the barrier. He pitted for repairs, losing three laps.
One hour into the race, the first round of pit stops saw Christina Nielsen pitting from P11 in GTD and rejoining P12. She remained behind the wheel for a double stint.
Ahead, Ricky Taylor battled with Kevin Magnussen at around the 90-minute mark and went up into the lead with a bold move into Turn 1.
The GTD field saw early drama for the Turner Motorsport BMW – that went behind the wall with electrical gremlins – and for the #99 Porsche Hardpoint EBM of Rob Ferriol, who had an accident two hours into the race. Driver-owner Ferriol handed over to Earl Bamber after repairs, but after losing many laps to the class leaders.
Bia Figueiredo stepped in the #88 Porsche for her double-stint after two hours of racing and she rejoined in ninth place. Patrick Long made it to the GTD leadership having overtook the #14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus of Kyle Kirkwood.
A second Full Course Yellow freezed the action for the stranded #54 CORE Autosport LMP3 Ligier of George Kurtz, and the green flag was waved again with 8 hours and 42 minutes to go. In DPi, Simon Pagenaud made it back to second place, before a huge crash halted the action one more time: a technical issue on the #19 Lamborghini of Franck Perera sent the Frenchman at high speed into the side of the #28 Alegra Motorsports Mercedes of Billy Johnson. Luckily, both the drivers walked away unscathed, but the significant damage to the barriers required a lengthy Safety Car.
At the green flag, Bamber in the #99 Hardpoint Porsche made contact with the #1 Lamborghini Huracan GT3 of Corey Lewis, sending the latter into a spin.
At the front-end of the field, Pagenaud pitted, leaving Harry Tincknell ahead of everyone in the #55 Mazda Motorsports. Four hours into the race, Alexander Rossi got behind the wheel of the #10 Konica Minolta WTR Acura, but soon received a drive through penalty for hitting pit equipment.
After a very solid driving shift, Bia Figueiredo pitted from fourth in GTD and the Brazilian handed over to Katherine Legge.
There was wheel-to-wheel action throughout the field and the LMP3 cars of Jim Cox and George Kurtz came together after the latted misjudged the breaking and crashed into the back of the #91 Riley Motorsports Ligier – a mistake that cost him a drive through.
Legge had rejoined the track in sixth place and pitted for tyres and fuel after one hour of driving in seventh place. The Brit was faster than the Lexus of Aaron Telitz in front though, and made up significant gap.
After a very smooth first half of the race, the #88 drivers all had completed their first double stints and were making up positions at a consistent pace. Danish racer Christina Nielsen got back behind the wheel from P7.
In a huge moment, Pipo Derani managed to avoid contact with the #22 United Autosport LMP2 Oreca of McGuire, who had spun and made contact with the outside barrier before crossing the track into the incoming traffic. The DPi classify saw more changes when the third and fourth placed prototypes of Bomarito and Cameron made contact as they lapped a LMP2 car: the #60 Mayer Shank Racing Acura of Cameron was handed a drive through for causing the collision.
A third Full Course Yellow came out with 5 hours to go for the #83 WIN Autosport LMP3 car stuck into the tyre barriers. After the restart, Felipe Nasr crashed into Tristan Vautier as the Frenchman was leaving the pitlane. Both rejoined and the race stayed green – but most of the field pitted thinking about another race neutralization.
Kamui Kobayashi made up significant gap in the Ally Cadillac and recovered to fourth overall. Then, the #10 WRT Acura of Albuquerque hit the back of Hawksworth's Lexus, causing terminal suspension damage to the GTD car. Previously in second place, the Acura DPi pitted for a new nose.
The race went back to green with three hours and 30 minutes to go, with Bia Figueiredo in seventh position. When the sun went down over the Florida racetrack second-placed Buret went hard into the barrier and brought out another FCY, with his totalled Tower motorsport LMP2 car flipping before landing back on its wheels.
In the final two hours of racing, Figueiredo advised the team to tell Legge that the #88 Porsche "was coming alive". And it was indeed the case: when the 40-year old racing ace jumped back in the car for her final double stint, the Richard Mille entry started an extraordinary recovery into the night.
Ahead, Scott Dixon extended his lead over Olivier Pla by over 14 seconds.
With a little over 1 hour and 30 minutes left on the clock, a fire broke out in the pitlane: the second-placed #24 GTLM BMW was slowed down in its pitstop by a fire – quickly extinguished by the pit crew – but that activated another Full Course Yellow.
More trouble hit the #48 Ally Cadillac, as the team was disqualified for Simon Pagenaud exceeding driving time.
In the final hour, Katherine Legge advanced into fifth place and closed the gap from the Magnus Acura NSX of Andy Lally. After a long battle, Legge overtook Lally and moved up to fourth. She had to do it all again after her final pit stop though, as a slightly longer refuelling had put her again into fifth.
The race for the victory took a major turn when Scott Dixon collided with a BMW at pit-entry, leaving the Chip Ganassi team out of contention in the closing minutes. Sebastien Bourdais inherited the lead, ahead of Tincknell and Alexander Rossi.
Legge hunted down Lally and made the move again for fourth – just before the eighth FCY was deployed for the accident of Maro Engel in the #75 Mercedes AMG, who had lost a wheel coming out of the final corner and hit the pitwall hard with 20 minutes to go.
The final restart was wild in every class: Cameron found a way around Rossi for third overall and the leading Corvette of Antonio Garcia collided with the #25 BMW of Connor De Philippi for the top of the GTLM standings.
In GTD, it was a five-car fight for the victory: Legge had a great restart and attacked the Heart of Racing Aston Martin. The Brit racer found herself then defending from the return of Lally in the Acura, and the two made slight contact which sent the latter into a spin. Legge picked up bodywork damage, but continued her impressive charge for the podium. She caught up with Gunn and passed him with 13 minutes to go.
Steadily in third place, Katherine Legge had to serve a drive through with two laps to go for the incident with the #44 Magnus Acura, which relegated the all-female team to P5 in a very bittersweet ending.
Overall victory went to the #5 Mustang of Bourdais/Duval/Vautier, ahead of the #55 Mazda of Jarvis/Tincknell/Bomarito and the #60 Mayer Shank Racing Acura of Cameron/Pla/Montoya.
Kamui Kobayashi, third across the finish line, was moved to the back of the DPi classify for the driving time infringement.
Keating/Jensen/Huffaker took victory in LMP2 in the #52 PR1 Oreca, while Bennett/Kurtz/Braun won in LMP3 in the Core Autosport Ligier.
The Weathertech Porsche of McNeil/Jaminet/Campbell brought home the victory in GTLM after the last minute tangle of De Philippi and Garcia, while Robichon/Vanthoor/Kern secured victory in the Pfaff Motorsports Porsche in GTD.
“I’m disappointed obviously because we had a good chance of scoring a podium result." – commented Katherine Legge after the race.
"Unfortunately, there was a penalty at the end. Still, I’m very proud of us women drivers and the team. The project came about at very short notice just before the Sebring race. But we’ve achieved a more than respectable result and given a strong performance.”
“I’m really proud of the whole crew at Team Hardpoint EBM and this Richard Mille/Champion Porsche team." – she continued. "We worked really hard all week to make this car better and at the end we felt we deserved a podium, it just wasn’t meant to be. But our program is all about perseverance and we have a lot to build on moving forward. Christina and Bia did fantastic in their stints and our Porsche was really quick at the end of the race.”
“We had a good car for the night, which gave Kat an opportunity to fight for the podium." – echoed Nielsen. "It was a little bit more challenging during the day, but that’s the Porsche."
"It’s got to come to you and it did. It was nice to see that our engineers were on board with the setup there. It was just a great job by Team Hardpoint EBM and my teammates Katherine and Bia. It’s been a pleasure working with everyone and I think considering how short of a time we had to gel together I think it was quite impressive. This last moment unfortunately defines the final results, but I don’t want that to be the one thing that takes away all the good stuff that we produced.” – concluded the Dane.
“First of all, I’m super thankful to Team Hardpoint EBM, Katherine and Christina for inviting me to this race.", were Bia's words after her return to the series.
"I took last year off becoming a mom, and having a chance to come back here, I love this series. I was wondering if I was going to be slower after becoming a mom, and there’s no difference at all! I had a lot of fun and the performance was there. We struggled in practice to get up to speed and find a setup, even in qualifying, so if you’d have told me yesterday we’d finish in the top five, that’s mega."
"We could visualize the podium, but five seconds later the drive-through message came through and disappointed all of us", said the Brazilian, who turned 37 on Friday.
"There’s not much we can do about that, but I’m very thankful for the crew for all of their hard work. It was great. I’m super happy and thankful for our performance this weekend.”
The next round of the IMSA championship will be at Mid-Ohio on May 16th, as Legge and Nielsen will try to clinch that deserved podium.