Women of GTWC America overcome challenges at Sonoma, Harrison secures podium
While the first round of the 2022 SRO GTWC America season presented a few challenges for the record-breaking women of the series, they bounced back with great performances: Ashton Harrison scored a second place on Sunday, Samantha Tan had an unbelievable stint where she gained 12 positions and Erin Vogel bagged important points for the championship with a P7 and P6 at her debut with the Acura NSX GT3.
GT World Challenge championships have gained the status of benchmark series in the world of GT racing and, in the last couple of years, the SRO-sanctioned events have also become of particular relevance for female drivers. While Iron Dames made their debut in the European series, GTWC America have featured female racers at the top in the GT3 platform since 2021 – and the quality of the field is continuing to grow exponentially.
Last year, Erin Vogel became the first ever woman to score a class win in GT3 in a SRO event – claiming victory at VIR in her rookie season. She was joined on the grid by Taylor Hagler – also at her GT3 debut – who went on to secure eight class podiums, three class wins and finished second in ProAm at the end of the season. She would also become the first ever female champion in the IMSA Pilot Challenge, in the TCR class.
At the last race of the season, Ashton Harrison stunned everyone by taking a debut victory in both the Intercontinental GT Challenge 8-hour race as well as the GTWC America 3-hour race, in her first entry in the series.
Vogel and Harrison – who has also made IMSA appearances and will combine a double program in Lamborghini SuperTrofeo – will return to GT World Challenge America, with Vogel switching from Mercedes to Acura machinery. She has in fact joined experienced team RealTime Racing, always alongside teammate Michael Cooper.
A Honda Performance Development graduate, Ashton Harrison will partner highly-experienced Acura driver Mario Farnbacher in the #93 Racers Edge Motorsports' NSX.
But to make her GTWC America debut will also be another record-breaking female driver: Samantha Tan, who made headlines just one month ago by taking the first global victory for the new BMW M4 GT3 at the 12H of Mugello.
Driver-owner Tan, 24, had already made history last year, when she secured overall and GT4 titles in the 24H Series – in her first international campaign.
Having now stepped up to GT3, Tan's rise in sports car racing is showing no signs of slowing down.
At the 2022 season opener at Sonoma, all the women of the series faced some extra challenges, but were able to fight back and come home with positive and promising results for the remainder of the season.
Starting from very wet practice and qualifying sessions, setting up the cars for the races revealed particularly tricky – even more so for ST Racing, who had received its BMW M4 GT3 just before the weekend from its Italian trip.
What is certain though, is that Tan, Vogel and Harrison never gave up and fought until the last lap. Here's the story of the weekend.
2021 series dominators KPAX Racing started the new season where they left off, claiming pole position with the #1 Lamborghini Huracan GT3 of Andrea Caldarelli and Jordan Pepper – the latter starting the first race of the weekend alongside Russell Ward and Michael Dinan in the #33 Winward Racing's Mercedes and the #96 Turner Motorsports' BMW M4 GT3. The changeable weather conditions meant that Samantha Tan Racing found themselves on the back foot having gambled for a dry setup, forecasting dry races. Tan qualified 13th overall and eighth in class. “We had a rainy qualifying session but our team had gambled on a dry setup for the car" – explained driver/owner Tan. "The moment I got in the car, it started pouring rain. Luckily we had time to put rain tires on, but both sessions were not ideal. I qualified 15th and Nick [Wittmer] qualified 18th. However, we knew we had a strong dry setup, and the weather looked good for both races". Erin Vogel – who had qualified in sixth place in ProAm – was demoted to the back of the grid when the team was notified that the car’s boost levels exceeded BOP regulations during qualifying. The same fate awaited the other Acura NSX GT3 of Ashton Harrison, who should have started just behind Vogel in seventh. At the green flag, weather had improved and the race went underway in fully dry conditions. While the positions at the top remained unchanged, Samantha Tan was among the big movers of the first half of the race: the Canadian was quickly in the overall top-10. Similarly, Vogel and Harrison gained four positions within one lap, navigating through the field towards the top-ten. Steven Aghakhani overtook Michael Dinan for third place overall, before he started to chase second-placed Ward in the Winward Mercedes; he would eventually get ahead of Ward after a wheel to wheel battle and having gone deep into the chicane – but their duel allowed Jordan Pepper to check out and open a significant gap in the overall lead. On the third lap, Ashton Harrison was handed a drive through penalty after her #93 Racers Edge Motorsports' Acura was fitted with tyres too late on the grid – hampering her chances in race 1. Erin Vogel defended masterfully from the attacks of a few cars and ran in eighth place in class. Samantha Tan had a brilliant first stint and reached fourth place in ProAm, with the BMW M4 GT3 cars topping the speed charts. Just ahead of Tan, an exciting battle shaped up between ProAm leader Charlie Luck (Wright Motorsport's Porsche) and Chandler Hull (Bimmerworld BMW). At the 30 minute mark, David Askew (DXDT Mercedes) went off and made contact with the tyre barriers; he could drive back to the pits, but he ultimately had to retire the #63 Mercedes AMG GT3. Engaged in a battle with the Ferrari of Jean-Claude Saada, Erin Vogel moved up to seventh in class – just before the pit window opened. Vogel pitted and handed over to Michael Cooper; one lap later, overall leader Jordan Pepper left the KPAX Lamborghini in the hands of Andrea Caldarelli – as well as Nick Wittmer and Mario Farnbacher took over the #38 ST Racing BMW and the #93 Racers Edge Motorsports Acura.
After the round of pit stops, Philip Ellis (Winward Mercedes) was able to jump back ahead of the US Racetronics Mercedes – now with Loris Spinelli behind the wheel. A perfect stop by the ST Racing's crew resulted in Nick Wittmer almost being able to challenge for a ProAm podium after the stops, but the #38 BMW would ultimately settle in fifth place in class. The second half of the race was especially marked by the close battle between Michael Cooper and the recovering Mario Farnbacher, respectively in seventh and eighth place in class. The experienced German driver would eventually get past with less than 10 minutes left on the clock. In the final laps there was more breathtaking action in the Am class, with the Ferraris of Triarsi and Grunewald trading places. A late lead change at Turn 6 saw Grunewald moving ahead of the competitor after a mistake by Triarsi. Caldarelli/Pepper took a dominant win at the GT World Challenge America season opener, preceding Ellis/Ward by over 55 seconds. Loris Spinelli held on to third in the final stages after enduring pressure from compatriot Giacomo Altoè in the second KPAX Lamborghini. Luck/Heylen secured ProAm victory ahead of the CrowdStrike Racing by Riley Motorsports' Mercedes of Kurtz/Braun and the Bimmerworld BMW of Hull/Auberlen. Samantha Tan and Nick Wittmer were fifth in their first GTWC America race, just ahead of Harrison/Farnbacher and Vogel/Cooper – who crossed the finish line in 6th and 7th place in class. Despite the difficult starting position and a contact mid-way through her stint, Erin Vogel was protagonist of a good first race and bounced back to gain several places before the driver change. “I was chasing the Lamborghini for a few laps and hoping to get in his head a bit and got alongside him and then I thought maybe I could make it stick, but by the time I realized it was the low-percentage move that I knew it was going into it, it was too late to back out,” she explained. “We got together and then the car behind and I touched as he was trying to get by. I ended up coming back from it and chased him down and was able to get by him cleanly in the same place, Turn Nine.” “We finished almost where we qualified,” Vogel added. “We qualified sixth, started 13th, I brought it back in, in sixth place and then the two Acuras battled at the end there and Farnbacher got by us, but I think seventh is a good finish considering we had to claw our way from the back.”
With better starting positions, Mario Farnbacher and Michael Cooper resumed their duel in Race 2, when they started second and fourth in ProAm. Nick Wittmer had some more work to do in the ST Racing BMW, as he started the first part of the race from 18th on the grid.
At lights out, Loris Spinelli led Andrea Caldarelli in an Italian 1-2 after the first corners; Farnbacher was able to move into third place overall and in the ProAm lead with a great getaway, followed by Jan Heylen (Wright Motorsports Porsche) and Michael Cooper in the RealTime Racing's Acura.
Nick Wittmer had soon recovered three places, but was pushed off track at the chicane and dropped to last. From there, the race of the Canadian became more challenging and he switched his focus on saving the car for Tan's second stint.
Farnbacher lost the class lead when he was pushed wide at the chicane and Ellis sneaked ahead of the group of ProAm cars – now led by Saturday's winner Jan Heylen.
At the same time, Caldarelli was putting pressure on Loris Spinelli, but the KPAX driver couldn't find a way around the #6 Mercedes. The two were caught by Ellis as well, just before the pit window opened.
The leading duo pitted, while Ellis and Altoè tried a different strategy and stayed out a few more laps. The KPAX crew executed a perfect pit stop that allowed Jordan Pepper to get back out ahead of Aghakhani. However, the latter was in even bigger trouble when he had to pit again for a front-right tyre puncture one lap later.
On lap 22, Dirk Muller had managed to get past Michael Cooper for third in class and Vogel got behind the wheel on lap 27.
“We had a decent start, gained a spot or two, but ultimately couldn’t keep pace with the front Pro-Am group,” Cooper said. “Eventually we were a victim of tire wear, but I managed to hold a few cars off and bring the car in, in fourth.”
Ashton Harrison also alternated in the driving seat with Farnbacher with 40 minutes to go.
Once she had started her stint as soon as the pit window opened, the star of the second half of the race was Samantha Tan, who had an incredible run to recover 12 positions.
The Safety Car was deployed when Scott Smithson's DXDT Mercedes got stranded off track, bunching up the field again. At the restart – with 26 minutes left on the clock – Tan resumed her charge and took over seventh place, while Vogel unfortunately lost fourth in ProAm.
The latter stages saw Ashton Harrison catching up with the ProAm leader Charlie Luck - as well as Samantha Tan chasing Kurtz for the class podium after her impressive stint.
Vogel battled Ziad Gandhour (TR3 Racing Lamborghini) for fifth, but the #43 Acura had to give up the position.
“I’m still trying to figure out the clutch in this car and stalled when I tried to leave,” Vogel explained. “I think I did everything right. We’ll have to look at the data, but I don’t know why it stalled."
“I had a good battle at the end with the TR3 Lamborghini, but he had more brakes than me at the end and was able to get by me in Turn Seven.”
Jordan Pepper crossed the finish line to claim another dominant victory for KPAX Racing, ahead of Russell Ward and Misha Goikhberg in the second KPAX Lambo. Charlie Luck was victorious again on Sunday and preceded Ashton Harrison – at her second podium in just as many race events in the series.
"P2 in class & P6 overall", summed up Harrison after the weekend. "Our team executed a perfect pit stop and we had a strong car right to the finish. Just 1 second off first place. We’ll get them next race, head down and onward".
Having moved into third place after David Askew's spin, George Kurtz held on to third from the attacks of Samantha Tan, who was fourth, barely two seconds off the category podium, having taken over from the back of the field – in one of her strongest performances to date in the BMW M4 GT3.
"Nick started race 2 in P18 and also made up 3 positions on the opening lap before being pushed off track in the chicane, sending us down into last place", she said. "The team decided to pit right when the window opened and put me in the car, and I drove my heart out – I made up 12 positions to P8 overall and P4 in class, only 2 seconds away from a podium!"
"The team put together a great car and we gained a lot of valuable experience that we will bring to the next round. Overall, a good start to the SRO season with some championship points!”
“Race 2 was definitely Sam's race!" – echoed Wittmer. "We were stagnant in the position we were in, so the team decided to pull me in as soon as the pit window was open to put Sam in the car for more track time and to get some passing done while the other teams were doing their pit stops. She gained around 5 positions during the pit stops and I believe 5 positions on track, she did an excellent job and without her wheeling the car up the order, we wouldn't have finished where we did today! Huge thank you to Samantha and the team, she definitely got the job done today.”
Although the first round of the 2022 season presented several challenges for RealTime Racing's Erin Vogel, the talented driver was still able to finish sixth on Sunday – adding more points to her tally after Saturday's seventh place.
The series will now head to Ozark International Raceway, Missouri, for what will be the series' first visit to the venue, on 20-22 May.
“I’m really looking forward to a new track, The Ozarks, next month,” Vogel concluded. “We’ll see how the car is there and hopefully we’ll have a good weekend.”