Unlucky weekend for Erin Vogel & Taylor Hagler at COTA
The women of the GT World Challenge America both had great first stints into Race 1, but couldn't capitalize at the COTA double-header – which turned out to be affected by a downpour and technical issues.
Almost two months after the first race of the SRO America racing season at Sonoma, California, the Fanatec GT World Challenge America championship headed to Circuit of the America, Austin, where the most important GT championships in North America returned to the track at the home of the US Grand Prix.
Both at their second race weekend in GT3 competitions were Erin Vogel and Taylor Hagler. Vogel, making her switch to DXDT Racing in the Mercedes AMG GT3 after one season in the SRO GT4 America, is again partnering Michael Cooper and in her debut has been the protagonist of an impressive first weekend in Sonoma. Despite the longer race format and the more powerful machinery, she immediately seemed comfortable in the beautiful red and purple Crowdstrike-sponsored Mercedes and battled for podium positions in the Pro-Am category.
Vogel and Cooper successfully completed a testing program at Austin in anticipation of the second double-header.
"COTA is a challenging circuit with the F1-style corners at Turns 1, 11, and 12, and while there's a lot of elevation there isn't much positive camber in most of the corners to help with grip." – said Vogel before the event.
"I certainly notice a difference in performance at the F1 corners coming from the GT4 platform to the GT3 platform, so I'm excited at that potential. Texas is always a fun place to visit, and this should be a great time of year to race there."
"We have some good data with the Mercedes around COTA from testing, so I'm hoping we'll pick up just where we left off." – added Cooper. "Erin and I are extremely focused on building step by step while collecting as many points as we can."
Texan racer Taylor Hagler was also ready for her home race at Austin, after a double podium finish at Sonoma that marked an outstanding GT3 debut for the young driver of the Racers Edge Motorsports Acura NSX GT3 Evo.
Hagler had previously competed in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge and scored a podium finish in the TCR class. But her GT World Challenge debut was also preceded by a solid development program as part of the NSX GT3 Academy, which prepared the 25-year old for the challenges of elite GT3 racing. Hagler shared the #93 Acura with reigning F3 Americas champion Dakota Dickerson, who also graduated from the NSX Academy.
At COTA, Hagler was joined by new teammate Jacob Abel – a 20 year old driver from Kentucky who is also competing in the IndyPro 2000 championship as part of the Road to Indy.
“I am excited for this coming weekend at COTA with GT World Challenge America,” commented Hagler. “This is my home track and also a favorite of mine. I will have a lot of support for this event from family and friends. I’m looking forward to making my first laps in the NSX GT3 Evo on home ground."
"The Racers Edge team has some good momentum coming off the double podium weekend at Sonoma and I’m looking forward to working with Jacob Abel in our No. 93 Acura. Like Dakota [Dickerson], we worked together in the NSX GT3 Academy and he always had great pace and we had a good time throughout the program.”
To help promote the mental health campaigns during Mental Halth Awareness Month, Taylor partnered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) for the race weekend:
“I began working with AFSP to bring awareness to their #MentalHealth4All campaign,” she said. “Being an ambassador for the awareness of mental health is an honor because it is so important in all parts of our lives.”
The Texan weather proved to be the most discussed point on Friday, with the cars hitting the track in mixed conditions for the first time this year.
Vogel/Cooper were P7 in Pro/Am in both the practice sessions, which were topped by Jan Heylen (Wright Motorsports Porsche) and Giacomo Altoè (TR3 Racing Lamborghini) respectively. Hagler/Abel were P8 and P5 in class.
On a surprisingly sunny Saturday morning, the championship leading KPAX Lamborghini Huracan of Jordan Pepper – brother of W Series racer Tasmin – secured pole position with a 2:10.455 effort ahead of teammate Giovanni Venturini and the BMW M6 of Turner Motorsports driven by Michael Dinan. The second pole position went to the Winward Mercedes of Philip Ellis, who preceded the fast Italian driver Giacomo Altoè.
The #19 DXDT Mercedes AMG GT3 of Erin Vogel slotted into P12 overall and P8 in Pro-Am in Q1, while Cooper brought it to P6 in class and seventh overall in Q2 with a 2:07.081 lap.
Hagler was 0.012s behind Vogel in Q1 and thus lined up P13 (P9 in Pro-Am), with rookie driver Abel securing a P12 (P8 in class) in the second session.
But the weather forecasts continued to play a crucial role later on in the day, as drops of rain started to fall when the cars lined up in pit road for the start of Race 1 – that saw both Erin Vogel and Taylor Hagler getting behind the wheel for their first stints.
At the rolling start, Dinan had the perfect reaction and fired into the lead in the Turner Motorsports BMW, jumping ahead of both the KPAX Lamborghini of Pepper and Venturini.
The South African immediately fought back, but he would wait until the second lap to finally claim his starting position back, after a really exciting battle for the lead with the driver of the #96 BMW M6. Venturini tried to follow through but had to back off following Dinan's effective defense. In doing so, Pepper managed to open a gap in front, leaving Dinan and Venturini fighting for the runner up spot.
Vogel and Hagler held positions at the start, with Hagler making a move for P11 on the #19 Mercedes ten minutes into the race. The two female drivers of the series had already battled hard in the season opener at Sonoma, and their pace appeared very closely matched at COTA as well.
Despite the BMW's impressive speed on the straights, Giovanni Venturini finally managed to find a way past Dinan after what seemed like an interminable series of switch-backs. Dinan, though, was back ahead shortly after, just as Venturini had a big sideways moment coming off of the final corner – the Italian saved his #6 Huracan from a half-spin, but surrendered again the hard-fought second place.
Hagler had a very good stint and passed David Askew for P10 overall, sixth in Pro-Am. Vogel wasn't far back and, when the rain intensified, she closed on her DXDT teammate and team owner, completing an outstanding pass on the #63 sister car. Once in free air, Erin immediately found herself in the clutches of Fred Poordad in the #20 Wright Motorsports Porsche, who had just been overtaken by Taylor Hagler for fifth in class. The Pro-Am field remained very close throughout, with Iribe leading in class in the #70 Inception Racing McLaren 720S GT3.
In the overall standings, the second place exchanged hands once again when Venturini moved back ahead of Dinan in the final sector, but having already lost 9 seconds to Jordan Pepper in the lead.
Meanwhile, teams were all looking at the clouds in order to decide the strategies, with the pit window approaching.
Russell Ward (Winward Racing Mercedes) forced Dinan to a mistake into Turn 13 and moved up to third overall.
Just before the first cars started to take the way of the pit lane, Erin Vogel completed another stunning move for position on Poordad, who gained the DXDT lady tenth place overall and sixth in Pro-Am.
Both Dinan and Venturini pitted with 48 minutes left on the clock and both teams opted for a set of wet tyres. Soon after, everyone stopped to perform their mandatory driver change – with only Pepper staying out one more lap.
After a slower stop for the #6 KPAX Lamborghini of Venturini/Lewis, the Turner Motorsports duo of Dinan/Foley gained one position. Caldarelli took over from Pepper and rejoined P1, ahead of Ward, Foley, Lewis and Ollie Millroy – the Brit also making his series debut in the Inception Racing McLaren.
Erin Vogel handed over to Michael Cooper, but the crew of the #19 Mercedes gambled on the strategy and sent out the Pro driver on slicks, just as the conditions worsened.
Cooper lost two positions in the overall classify and rejoined P11, but the gamble didn't pay off and he had to pit for a second time and switched to the wet-weather tyres with 35 minutes to go.
On the now flooded track, the drivers continued to battle for position throughout the Pro and Pro-Am fields with no major incidents and displaying great racecraft. Heylen passed Kozarov for second in Pro-Am, while Millroy and Ellis swapped places in third overall.
Caldarelli was the big winner after the round of pit stops, managing to put over 20 seconds between his #3 KPAX Lambo and the closest competitor – the #96 BMW of Robby Foley.
The second KPAX Lamborghini – now driven by Corey Lewis – started to move up the order after the slow pitstop. Further down, Taylor Hagler's teammate Abel fought for 10th overall and sixth in pro-Am with Ryan Dalziel. It would be the DXDT Racing driver to claim the position.
In the closing stages, Giacomo Altoè's pace emerged and chased Corey Lewis – the latter reporting ABS issues on his green Lamborghini Huracan.
Amidst treacherous conditions and with 10 minutes still left on the clock, the race was interrupted by a Safety Car and then by a red flag, which put an end to Saturday's action.
Caldarelli/Pepper claimed the race win, ahead of Ellis/Ward and Foley/Dinan. Millroy/Iribe took victory in Pro-Am and were fourth overall, preceding Heylen/Poordad and Altoè/Ghandour.
Taylor Hagler and Jacob Abel finished seventh in class (P11), while the unfortunate Erin Vogel and Michael Cooper were P9 in Pro-Am.
"The weather really kept all of us on our toes because we didn’t have any sessions throughout the three days that were the same, but it was great to get back in the Acura NSX GT3 Evo with Racers Edge Motorsports at COTA,” said Hagler, who finished her stint second in class and fourth overall.
“We kept working and had a great car in Race 1. It was really cool to be able to battle my way into the top five by the end of my stint. The last lap was probably the most stressful lap I have ever driven because it was my first in a full downpour on slicks, but I was able to bring it home to pitlane for Jacob [Abel] to take over. We battled hard until the end and had a good run to close the first race.”
On a finally dry track on Sunday, the #33 Winward Racing Mercedes AMG GT3 of Philip Ellis started from pole position, alongside the TR3 Racing Lamborghini of Giacomo Altoè – a former Italian GT and International GT Open champion.
Starting from P8 and P9 respectively, were the two Lamborghini of the KPAX operation – arguably the cars to beat in these inaugural rounds of the championship.
Vogel's teammate Cooper was P6 in Pro-Am, two places ahead of Jacob Abel in the #93 Acura NSX that he shares with Taylor Hagler.
The first laps of the second race were some of the most hectic and exciting in recent memory: while positions were initially unchanged at the top, Altoè and Colin Braun (DXDT Racing) went wide at the esses section, while Corey Lewis (KPAX Racing) battled Ryan Dalziel and was already up to fifth. Heylen went side-by-side with the leading Mercedes of Ellis and Caldarelli tried to make up positions in the midfield.
Jacob Abel fell down the order and pitted for a technical issue. The Acura NSX was sent out again after the mechanics had replaced the right-rear brake line, but the car was soon retired with further suspension damage, bringing a premature end to Taylor Hagler's race.
The battle for the lead was on fire and went on for the whole opening ten minutes: the leaders kept it clean – despite a light touch on the back straight – but Ellis held on.
Behind them, both Dalziel and Altoè tried to catch up and joined the party.
15 minutes into the race, Belgian driver Jan Heylen made it stick after some of the most jaw-dropping racing action – which saw four cars battling for first place going into the final sector. Having lost the lead, Ellis came under threat from both Dalziel and Altoè, but ultimately hung on after a series of switch-overs.
Michael Cooper managed to advance to fifth in class (P7) but then had to defend from the return of Snow and Foley. Joining this train of cars was then race 1 winner Andrea Caldarelli – the Italian having just set the fastest lap of the race.
At the 20 minute mark, Caldarelli passed Foley for overall and Pro class position, moving up to ninth. He chased Cooper and found a way past a few laps later, even though the driver of the #19 Mercedes remained fifth in Pro-Am.
With 52 minutes to go and with the pit window approaching, Ellis was again getting closer to the leading Porsche of Heylen: the Winward Racing Mercedes got under the second margin, but there was never a clear passing opportunity before the round of pit stops.
Corey Lewis pitted as early as allowed, leaving Giovanni Venturini in the driving seat of the #6 KPAX Lambo for a longer stint. It was then the turn of Andrea Caldarelli, handing over to Jordan Pepper with 46 minutes left.
The #77 Compass Racing Acura of Rodrigo Sales lost a wheel on its outlap and retired. But unfortunately there was drama also for the DXDT crew of Michael Cooper and Erin Vogel, as Erin came to a halt at the end of the pitlane with transmission issues.
When the Safety Car was deployed for the stricken car of Sales – and its stray wheel – the race took a turn in favour of the KPAX drivers: with gaps wiped out, in fact, Poordad, Ward and Askew had to defend from the return of Venturini and Pepper, who awaited the green flag right behind their tails.
Venturini was immediately up to second as he jumped both Askew and Poordad in the space of a few corners. Pepper, sixth at the restart, was also on a mission and quickly caught up with his Lamborghini teammate after a spin by David Askew at Turn 5.
With 24 minute to go, Jordan Pepper overtook Venturini with a bold move at Turn 11. One lap later, he would take the lead at the same corner, finding a way around the outside of Ruseell Ward in the Winward Racing Mercedes. While the latter tried to respond back, Venturini claimed second with an opportunistic move, making it a KPAX 1-2.
George Kurtz led the Pro-Am standings in the #04 DXDT Mercedes, ahead of Poordad (Wright Motorsports) and Iribe (Inception Racing). Behind them, Jason Hardward was looking menacing in the #63 Zelus Motorsport Lamborghini, but a spin took him out of contention for a class podium.
To round out a widely spectacular race, Venturini made a surprise pass on his teammate Pepper on the last lap, as the South African started to suffer from tyre vibrations.
Venturini/Lewis took their first victory in the series from Pepper/Caldarelli and ahead of the Winward Mercedes driven by Ward/Ellis.
Kurtz/Braun won in the Pro-Am category, preceding the Wright Motorsports duo of Poordad /Heylen and the Inception McLaren of Iribe/Millroy.
It was a really unfortunate round for the women of the Fanatec GT World Challenge America, both out for technical troubles before even starting their stints on Sunday.
"It was kind of an interesting weekend at COTA." – commented Erin Vogel.
"Yesterday we had a really great start to the race weekend. I had a pretty decent stint; I didn't qualify that great but did have a great drive in my stint. We got caught out a little bit by the weather and had to make an unexpected pit stop to change tires. Then we actually ended up having a mechanical problem anyway. Unfortunately that stayed with us today; something from that repair kind of came back at us and I couldn't even start my stint."
"It was a great drive from Michael despite that problem that was already starting to show up. Congratulations to the rest of the team on a great weekend." – she concluded.
Michael Cooper now looks ahead: "We have another test coming up soon. DXDT will regroup and try to get prepared for VIR the best we can."
Similar sentiments are shared by Taylor Hagler: "Our race kicked off with a braking issue and then we had additional trouble with a damaged suspension which kept me from running in Race 2,” she said.
“I think we could have had a better showing than Saturday in the dry conditions on Sunday. It was great to have some family and friends out to watch the race and see them enjoy taking in everything racing offers. I’m looking forward to seeing our fans at VIR as we fight for the podium."
The 5th and 6th round of the SRO GT World Challenge America will be contested at VIRginia International Raceway on June 4-6, where the women of the series will try to bounce back after a promising yet unlucky weekend.