Taylor Hagler takes first win of the season at VIR
The ninth round of the 2022 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at VIR marked Taylor Hagler and teammate Michael Lewis's return to victory, as the reigning champions extend their championship lead to a 100-point margin with one round to go.
“Michael [Lewis] and I are heading in with the lead, but we really need the win.” - said Taylor Hagler last week, as the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge championship leaders in the TCR class geared up for the penultimate round of the season at the tricky VIRginia International Raceway.
The duo, who won their first IMSA race in 2021 at Lime Rock Park, went on to win the championship last year, with Hagler making history as the first female champion of the series.
While the victory seemed more elusive this year, Hagler/Lewis built another extremely competitive season around consistency: an impressive streak of podiums allowed the drivers of the #1 BHA Hyundai Elantra N TCR to gain the championship lead early in the season.
"Every weekend, the BHA team builds on the last time out and I keep gaining confidence with the Elantra, which is an amazing platform", she explained. "I’m confident we’ll be in contention for the podium and am just looking forward to getting everything going.”
Yet, she knew they would need a big result at VIR to really solidify their leadership in the standings ahead of the season finale. And VIR - a fast, technical track with blind corners, long straights and elevation changes - provided them with that opportunity.
In 2021, at her first season in GT3 machinery, in GTWC America, Hagler finished on the ProAm podium at the same venue, before clinching a top-five in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.
Hagler was keen on keeping the momentum, coming off a third place finish at the 4-hour race at Road America, the eighth out of the ten rounds of this year's campaign.
Friday at VIR was sunny, hot and red-flag disrupted; the series reigning champions couldn't make the most out of the practice sessions and, in a wet qualifying, Hagler qualified the #1 BHA Elantra in seventh place in class.
The #19 Van der Steur Hyundai of Tyler Gonzalez set pole position and retained the position at the start from the BHA Hyundais of Harry Gottsacker and Mason Filippi. With a faster pace in the opening stages, Gottsacker would eventually grab the lead of the race.
Under the intense heat, Taylor Hagler soon gained positions and moved into fifth place - as one of her main championship rivals, the #5 KMW Motorsports Alfa Romeo Giulietta, was trying to make up for a penalty received for passing under yellow flags.
The first caution of the race was deployed when the overall championship leading Volt Aston Martin Vantage GT4 of Brynjolfsson came to a halt on track.
The caution allowed the drivers of both classes to pit for fuel and driver change: Taylor Hagler completed her almost hour-long driving shift and handed over to teammate Michael Lewis from P4, after a clean and steady run.
The #19 Van Der Steur Hyundai - now driven by Rory van der Steur - reclaimed the class lead, ahead of Parker Chase (BHA Hyundai) and the Victor Gonzalez Racing's Honda of Karl Wittmer. Both of them would gain the position on van der Steur, also following a contact with Chase with 50 minutes left on the clock.
But the reigning champion Michael Lewis was hunting down the top three and, soon, he would advance to third on lap 35. It was only a matter of a few more laps until Lewis cleared Wittmer as well, slotting into second.
A heated battle between Chase, Hagler's teammate challenged the sister car of the Bryan Herta Autosport until the second Full Course Yellow with 10 minutes to go. At the restart, Michael Lewis claimed the top of the TCR class, as the leaders climbed the overall standings amidst fuel drama for the GS cars.
Lewis held off the late charge by Maxson, while the Honda driven by Karl Wittmer was able to defend third in the final dramatic minutes.
Lewis and Hagler thus claimed their first win of the season, extending their championship lead to 100 points over the KMW Motorsports duo of Block/Lewis - fourth at the finish line at VIR.
“Our Hyundai was strong today, so I was pretty happy to be able to move up early in my stint,” Taylor Hagler summed up. “That ending was intense but Michael [Lewis] and the entire BHA team did an awesome job and had a great strategy."
With now one round to go - at Road Atlanta, in conjunction with the iconic Petit Le Mans weekend - Taylor Hagler is now in a great position to potentially defend her IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge title.
"Getting this cushion in points is everything. I definitely wasn’t expecting the win, but I think the goal of this race was to grab as many points as we could and keep any of our close championship competitors behind us. So this was just what we were shooting for. It feels awesome to win again.”
The Fox Factory 120 at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta will round out the championship on September 30, as Taylor Hagler - one of the most exciting female talents in sports car racing - will give it her all to clinch a back-to-back title.