Despite a frustrating race after being hit by a prototype – that severely damaged the JG Wentworth Acura's aero and handling – Katherine Legge, Marc Miller and Sheena Monk still fought their way up to 12th place at the 12H Hours of Sebring, in another very solid performance for the GT3 rookie.
IMSA's full-time female duo Katherine Legge and Sheena Monk had a spectacular start of the 2023 campaign with a fourth place at the Rolex 24H of Daytona, when the drivers of the JG Wentworth Acura NSX GT3 Evo22 – joined by Marc Miller and Mario Farnbacher – were close to a podium finish in the iconic race, a result only denied by a late refuelling incident.
It was Sheena Monk's debut race in GT3 machinery, having just graduated from the GT4-based IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge; yet, the American driver had a remarkable drive at Daytona, always keeping her nose clean, setting strong lap times and managing traffic – also in her first night stint – with confidence.
From the banked corners of Daytona to the infamous bumps of Sebring, Monk, Legge and Miller were aiming to carry momentum into the second round of the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup – the 71st running of the Sebring 12 Hours.
The experience of Katherine Legge – an IMSA vice-champion and multiple race winner in GTD – with the Acura platform and the consistency of rookie Sheena Monk are a serious hint to the potential of the #66 Gradient Racing Acura, coming into the Sebring weekend.
"There aren’t many places that I’d rather be than Sebring", Monk explained before the prestigious event. "For years while racing in other series, I’ve dreamt of participating in this historic race and it’s finally here in our JG Wentworth Acura NSX."
"The 12 Hour is arguably one of the most difficult endurance events in the world on both driver and machine but we made strong progress during February testing to set us up for another great result."
The #66 JG Wentworth-backed machine had in fact some strong running during the official test in February, as the drivers worked on the setup.
"I’m very much looking forward to building on what has been a great start to the season", Legge continued. "I love racing at Sebring, and I think we have a great package to fight up front. The team worked tirelessly at the test last month, and I feel like we have a solid starting setup for the weekend in our JG Wentworth HPD Acura NSX Evo22."
The performance of the trio continued to make steps forward in the practice sessions and qualifying was for the first time entrusted to bronze-rated Sheena Monk, who would also take the start of the race.
Monk had a tricky session, as she didn't put her sectors together and then was hampered by traffic and by a red flag, eventually setting the 18th fastest time – the seventh among the bronze drivers. In the morning warm up, though, the car was up to fourth place – showing promising pace for the race.
Monk had a solid start and took no unnecessary risks, despite almost being squeezed against the wall. In the incredibly tight midfield, Sheena settled in her rhythm and logged good lap times, yet saved fuel in the opening hour – a strategy that would pay off at the one hour mark, when a Safety Car forced most of the GTD cars to pit for an emergency fuel stop. Monk pitted once the pit lane opened and the team kept her in the car, having moved up to 11th place in class.
After another really strong stint, Monk handed the #66 Acura over to Marc Miller, who would break into the top ten for the first time during his first driving shift.
Unfortunately, Miller was then hit by the #6 Porsche 963 prototype during the fourth hour of racing. The contact left the JG Wentworth Acura severely damaged on the front-right bodywork and, while it could continue, the car was now lacking front downforce.
The wounded Acura cycled up to sixth place during the pit stop stages, before Katherine Legge climbed onboard, after a long pit stop for temporary repairs that dropped them to the back of the GTD field.
“The damage to the car is costing us quite a lot of pace", Legge revealed after her first stint. "We’ve lost a load of front downforce and that’s making it difficult, even in the slower corners."
"It’s such a shame because if we had the car we started with [before the contact from the GTP car], we’d be taking it to everyone right now. We’ve just got to keep going and score every point we can for the championship.”
With Marc Miller back behind the wheel, a smart strategy allowed the Gradient Racing Acura to regain the lap lead during a wave-by. Mid-way through the race, several cautions interrupted the action and the drivers of the #66 topped off with fuel at every full course yellows. Sheena Monk returned behind the wheel to complete her driving time and again had a flawless run, in P14 and remaining on the lead lap.
After another really solid performance by Sheena Monk – who explained how coming from the less-downforce-dependent GT4 machinery actually helped her quickly adapt to the wounded Acura – it was then time for Katherine Legge's second driving shift.
Having rejoined in P11, Legge had a spectacular recovery up to ninth in class – but was hit again by another car, this time causing damage to the rear of the car.
The British racer had to pit for an unscheduled pit stop and lost one lap for repairs.
Down to 14th again, Marc Miller and Katherine Legge alternated behind the wheel in the following two stints. When the sun set, IMSA required the #66 Gradient Racing Acura to fix the lights that were damaged in the previous contacts - which cost the team further two laps.
Unfortunately, they were not given the wave-by to reduce the deficit to two at the following FCY.
Katherine Legge was in for the final hour and, despite being in damage limitation mode, she was still able to take advantage of the hectic final stages of the race – which proved costly for a few GTD entries – to gain positions and she ultimately crossed the finish line in P12.
While it was certainly a tough race for Legge, Monk and Miller, their tenacity and fighting spirit still allowed them to bag important points for the championship. The #66 Acura NSX GT3 Evo22 took big hits from prototypes and, while scarred, it made it to the finish line in one of the most proving races for drivers and machines.
"It was such a frustrating race for us", commented Legge. "We were so quick in the morning warmup [fourth in GTD] that I felt like we were in for a very good day."
"Then Mark [Miller] just got cleaned out by a GTP car, which destroyed our aero and handling. After that, we were just trying to salvage what we could, and get a few points. Then I got hit from behind on a restart, which damaged the diffuser and the team again had to dive in and make repairs just so we could make it to the finish."
"I can't say enough about our team, they gave their all today, as did Marc and Sheena."
As a full time entry, Monk and Legge will return for the next round at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, on April 15th, for the first sprint race of the season. With Legge's speed and reliability and Monk's surprisingly quick adaptation to the new car and consistency, the duo
is certainly expected to bounce back and aim for a top five.