Podium for Hagler, top-10 for Monk in Imsa Michelin Pilot Challenge
Taylor Hagler kept momentum, added one more podium to her name and clinched the championship lead, while an unfortunate early contact put Sheena Monk out of contention for a top-5 – but the driver of the #3 McLaren still finished P8.
Texan racer Taylor Hagler continued her top form in 2021 with another podium finish two weeks after her top-three result at her GT World Challenge America debut in Sonoma.
At the second round of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge – which she is contesting for the second year in the TCR category – Hagler was again third after an action-packed race in both GTS and TCR classes at Sebring.
Sharing the #77 Hyundai Veloster N TCR with teammate Michael Lewis, Taylor returned to the series field after an equally positive round at Daytona, where the Bryan Herta Autosport duo finished fourth and just marginally missed out on a podium.
It was Hagler's third visit in five months to the Florida racetrack, which gave the young lady confidence entering the race weekend: “Having the opportunity to fight for a win at Sebring is exciting,” said Hagler. “The Hyundai is well suited for the old school track and we know the car and the BHA crew are a powerful combination." – she said prior to the race.
"Now having some experience at Sebring, I feel confident pushing myself and the car to its full potential. We had a great test a few weeks ago and I am ready to use that progress this weekend.”
Also returning to IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge was Sheena Monk, the American racer who has been making big progress in the Motorsports In Action McLaren 570S GT4.
Monk is partnering former IndyCar driver Spencer Pigot at the wheel of the #3 J.G. Wentworth car and the duo were looking strong to top their ninth place finish at Daytona.
Hagler qualified the #77 Hyundai in 9th class position on Thursday, while Monk-Pigot would put the #3 McLaren sixth in the qualifying charts.
But, after a positive start of the race, Monk was caught in early contacts with other competitors and her GTS McLaren suffered bodywork damage to the front in a hectic first lap.
Monk managed to complete a solid stint and ran steadily between fifth and sixth place, handing over to Spencer Pigot when the pit window opened.
In TCR, Hagler made up a position in the opening lap and found a good rhythm, lapping in the top-ten of the TCR field before starting to move up the order later in the stint. When the only Full Course Yellow of the day was deployed for the #40 PF Racing Ford Mustang's puncture, Hagler was up to fourth in class.
At the pit stop, Micheal Lewis got in the driving seat and continued his way up the order: after closing the gap to the TCR front-runners, Lewis secured third place on lap 41.
Ahead, Spencer Pigot battled at the front end of the GTS field and went into the lead when the race leaders pitted for a second time for fuel.
Pigot stayed out to gain track positions and to avoid TCR traffic, but unfortunately the Motorsports In Action crew was also required to pit one final time in the closing stages and Pigot successfully completed a 17-second splash and go.
The aero-damage at the front end had also compromised front grip and tire life, which resulted in Pigot having to change front wheels at the final stop as well.
When the former Indycar racer rejoined, the #3 J.G. Wentworth McLaren had dropped to eighth place – a few places below the drivers' expectations.
“It’s pretty hard for me to swallow.” – said Monk after the race.
“I kept my elbows out there at the start. Unfortunately, my pace wasn’t what it should’ve been in the beginning. But I’d say halfway through my stint, I woke up and I had a really great battle with Brandon Kidd in the Aston Martin. I learned a lot racecraft-wise from that, but this isn’t what I go home happy over.”
“The series is competitive, but (Spencer and I) are equally competitive as people and I just think that the finishes should be a lot stronger than what’s ending up on the sheets. The fans and J.G. Wentworth deserve better than that.” – she added, as they moved up to seventh in the championship standings.
In a dramatic finale, the race was won by Robin Liddell and Frank DePew in the Rebel Rock Racing Chevrolet Camaro GT4, as the team elected to stretch fuel strategy and opted to go to the end. In the final minutes, the car was also spilling clouds of smoke, but somehow managed to cross the finish line only to stop at the end of the main straight.
Jon Morley and Gavin Ernstone took their first win of the season for Road Shagger Racing in the #61 Audi RS 3 LMS TCR, after the JDC-Miller Motorsports Audi of Mikey Taylor suffered a suspension issue approximately 90 minutes into the race.
Mat Pombo and Mike LaMarra were second in the #73 LA Honda World Honda Civic, ahead of Michael Lewis and Taylor Hagler – the latter scoring her second IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge podium of her career.
"The goal during my stint was to keep the car clean and the tires under me" – she explained. "The warm weather helped the tires come up to temperature quickly which made all the difference in the amount of grip we had. The Hyundai Veloster N TCR is an amazing race car that flies around each track and it did just that today."
“It is an amazing feeling to get the podium finish today. Being able to get to the front pack of the TCR field, keep it there, and come home with third place is reassuring to me as a driver that I am more than capable of this result every weekend."
"Michael (Lewis) is incredibly skilled and a great teammate - I couldn’t be more proud to be working with him and the Bryan Herta Autosport crew. I am ready to keep this momentum going.”
With their podium finish, Lewis and Hagler moved into the championship lead in TCR class, having scored 580 points so far.
IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge will hit the track again at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Saturday May 15th.