Samantha Tan conquers first podiums in GTWC America
Samantha Tan is making leaps forward in her GT3 racing career and, after her first class podium in GTWC Europe, she claimed back to back ProAm podiums in GT World Challenge America at VIR - finishing a second short of a first overall victory.
Samantha Tan claimed her first podium finishes in GT World Challenge America after a spectacular weekend at VIRginia International Raceway resulted in two second places in the ProAm category. It was Samantha Tan's second weekend in a row ending in a top-three finish, as her ST Racing team secured its first ever GTWC Europe class podium - also as a ProAm entry - at the 1000km of Paul Ricard, France, two weeks prior.
The Canadian team returned to VIR, one of the most iconic and challenging racing venues in North America, one year after its unlucky crash in SRO America, where Tan was crashed out of the race and, to no fault of her own, the team's BMW M4 GT3 sustained significant damage. With logistic difficulties making spare parts unavailable, the Canadian outfit was forced to put a halt on its campaign after only two rounds in the series. They would return for the season finale at Indianapolis, moving to the Silver class.
One year later, Samantha Tan found redemption at the same track, twice stepping on the podium and finishing for her first time second overall, tenths away from a potential outright win.
At the wheel of the #38 ST Racing BMW M4 GT3, Tan teamed up for the first time with BMW factory driver Niel Verhagen, who will share the car with Samantha for the remainder of the season as John Edwards decided to focus on his family commitments.
Tan and Verhagen worked together for the first time but soon proved to be in contention for the top positions in both the ProAm and overall classifications at VIR.
A fourth place in the second practice showed their speed at the fast and undulating track; Samantha - who has progressed immensely in her second season of GT3 racing, with very solid drives both in the American and in the European SRO campaigns - would set the 12th fastest time overall in Q1, which put the #38 BMW in seventh place in ProAm on the grid of race 1. In his first qualifying session in the series, Verhagen was fifth fastest overall and fourth in class - which made for a very promising starting position for Sunday's race.
Building on the positive momentum, Tan was aiming for a first podium - but the new driver pairing would need to work hard against a highly competitive field.
Also joining the series for the first time was Kenton Koch, subbing in for Ziad Ghandour at TR3 Racing. Alongside Daniel Morad, the team switched to the Pro class for the VIR round. Koch ended up taking pole position overall, preceding George Kurtz (Crowdstrike by Riley Mercedes) and Chandler Hull (BimmerWorld BMW).
Koch got away perfectly and held the lead at lights out, with George Kurtz, Seth Lucas and Chandler Hull following. Samantha Tan got stuck behind a few cars in the first lap and ended losing two places; she would then make up positions soon later, as the Canadian overtook the #33 Triarsi Ferrari of Justin Wetherill, moving back up to P7 in ProAm.
Tan continued her charge by moving ahead of Charlie Luck - as well as Jeff Burton and Derek Deboer when they made contact, making way for Tan, Wetherill and Harrison.
With a great drive, Tan was up to fourth in ProAm and chased the #43 Mercedes of Anthony Bartone, just a few seconds ahead. Samantha passed Bartone on lap 10, moving into a provisional class podium.
Almost 10 seconds up the road, Koch was unchallenged - but second position overall changed hands on lap 14, when Chandler Hull made it through ProAm leader George Kurtz.
Adam Adelson hit trouble and had to pit before the pit window with a flat tire; this promoted Samantha Tan to second in ProAm and seventh overall.
The pit window opened and most of the front runners pitted: Koch handed over to Daniel Morad, but T3R Racing lost a few seconds as Koch missed his pit box. Morad though, just about retained the lead from Bill Auberlen - but a mistake for the Canadian on his outlap at turn 11 cost the lead to the T3R Racing Mercedes. In a dramatic development, Auberlen also made a similar mistake and positions were restored on lap 26.
In ProAm, Colin Braun held the lead in the #04 Crowdstrike by Riley Mercedes; with a stellar pit stop by the Samantha Tan Racing crew, the #38 BMW M4 GT3 now with Niel Verhagen at the wheel was up to sixth overall and second in class after a spectacular stint by driver/owner Samantha Tan.
Verhagen continued Samantha's charge and, with a great run at his first race with the team, he was significantly faster than the Pro drivers ahead. He caught up with Alessandro Balzan (#21 Conquest Racing Ferrari) and made a move stick for fifth overall with 13 minutes to go.
Morad and Auberlen had another close battle for the overall lead, but Morad, despite a small mistake, held on. Colin Braun also joined the leading duo, as the top three were separated by a little over a second.
Verhagen cut down the gap to Trenton Estep to under 7 seconds, but he was ultimately a few laps short to catch the Pro #53 MDK Motorsports Porsche. After a streak of very unlucky rounds, ST Racing scored its first podium of the season with a remarkable second place in ProAm and a top-five overall.
"Proud to finally have a podium in GTWC with Niel Verhagen! We won hard charger as well for making up 6 positions" - Tan commented. "The team gave us a rocket and we all worked so hard to bring this one home - especially after NOLA"
With a start from the overall top five, the ST Racing drivers had yet another chance to repeat the result the day after, as Niel Verhagen took the start of the race for the first stint.
Polesitter Robby Foley (#96 Turner Motorsport BMW) kept the lead from Colin Braun at the start of the race and immediately attempted to pull away. Behind them, though, Wright Motorsports' Jan Heylen was looking to join the battle for the top spots, having passed Pro class pole sitter Mario Farnbacher (#93 Racers Edge Motorsports Acura) at the start.
Verhagen held fifth overall in the opening laps but was glued to the back of the #93 Acura of Farnbacher and, faster than the German driver, he would complete a pass for fourth overall four minutes into the race with a great pass. The American soon started to hunt down Jan Heylen - but the race was neutralized when Corey Lewis' DXDT Racing Mercedes AMG GT3 came to a halt on lap 6.
The race was back underway with 1 hour and 10 minutes to go, led by Robby Foley ahead of Colin Braun, Jan Heylen and Niel Verhagen. The neutralization had given the chance to the ST Racing driver to close the gap to the #45 Wright Porsche and the battle for third heated up. Varhagen followed Heylen, at a few tenth's distance for 15 minutes, before he found a way past in another spectacular pass that gave Heylen no chances to defend.
Once ahead, Verhagen pulled away and started to cut down the gap to Braun, 4 seconds ahead. Behind the top-4 - all ProAm entries - Farnbacher held the Pro class top spot from Bill Auberlen, with a recovering Daniel Morad making his way through the field a few seconds behind.
The pit window opened and Morad was the first of the front runners to pit, handing over to Kenton Koch. The overall leader pitted one lap later and Vincent Barletta emerged in fourth after a trouble pit stop for the Turn Motorsport's crew. George Kurtz's Crowdstrike by Riley Mercedes was now leading the race, ahead of Samantha Tan, second overall, thanks to another quick pit stop by ST Racing.
Kurtz and Tan were followed by Charlie Luck, but they were soon able to open a gap to the Wright Motorsport's Porsche. Samantha closed in and was all over the back of the #04 Mercedes: for the remaining 30 minutes, Tan would continue to find a gap to attack Kurtz, who defended well at the few passing opportunities.
In the Pro class, Ashton Harrison took over from the lead from Farnbacher and retained the top spot, in fourth overall, for most of her stint. While her class win looked settled when the second-placed Bimmerworld BMW of Chandler Hull received a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane, Harrison was under pressure from the recovering Kenton Koch, who got by with ten minutes to go and then passed Charlie Luck for third overall.
Kurtz and Tan, though, were at that point out of reach; running very consistent laps, Samantha continued to put pressure on Kurtz, trying to force him into a mistake that eventually did not come. Kurtz/Braun took overall and ProAm victory, a few tenths ahead of Samantha Tan - who secured another class podium and her best overall finish in the series to date.
"Phenomenal weekend for us at VIR" - Tan wrote. "Five podiums, two fastest laps, and two hard charger awards", she summed up.
"It all came together - Niel Verhagen killed it in his stint, we had an amazing car, and the team nailed the pitstop today, allowing me to fight for the overall win. We’re definitely vying for that top step next time at Road America!"
As it enters the second half of the season, GT World Challenge America will return to the track on 18-20 August at another iconic North American racetrack: Road America.