IMSA Wire: No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus Finds Redemption in Sebring

By Jeff Olson and David Phillips

IMSA Wire Service

Early in the race, shortly after he was sent to the back of the field for inadvertently striking a crew member during a pit stop, Jack Hawksworth made a prediction:

“We’ll get back into it and see if we can’t keep the car clean for another seven or eight hours and then have a go at it at the end,” he said.

What a prediction, what a night. Hawksworth passed Daniel Serra with 20 minutes remaining with a bold move to the inside heading into Turn 1, then held the lead to the end to win the Grand Touring Daytona Pro (GTD PRO) class Saturday at the 72nd Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Cadillac.

The win with co-drivers Ben Barnicoat and Kyle Kirkwood provided redemption for Vasser Sullivan, the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GTD PRO champions, after a poor start to the season at the Rolex 24 At Daytona in January.

“It’s just amazing,” Hawksworth said. “To win this race – such a special race – it’s so hard on the cars and so hard on the drivers. This team is so amazing. We had some issues at Daytona – wrong place, wrong time – but today, boy did we bounce back.”

With 20 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the iconic endurance race, Hawksworth moved the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 past Serra in the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 296 GT3 with a daring move into Turn 1. The pass worked, and Hawksworth held Serra at bay – barely – the rest of the way.

“That was a real champion’s effort,” Barnicoat said. “Everyone at Vasser Sullivan gave us everything we needed. I had some really fun, amazing, super-hard stints, but then at the end there when it started to get dicey, there’s no one else you want next to you but Jack Hawksworth.”

Serra and co-drivers Davide Rigon and James Calado finished 0.121 seconds behind in the No. 62 Risi Ferrari, with Mirko Bortolotti coming home third in class in the No. 19 Iron Lynx Lamborghini Huracán GT3 EVO2 he co-drove with Jordan Pepper and Franck Perera, 2.983 seconds behind Hawksworth’s winning pace.

Kirkwood played coy during the postrace celebration.

“I’ve got to give it to these guys,” he said. “They did a phenomenal job all the way through that race. I did my part – saved a bunch of fuel and tires, which was kind of uneventful.”

After the glancing blow to the crew member who didn’t hear the radio call earlier in the race to clear away from the car, Hawksworth foretold the Vasser Sullivan victory.

“It’s a pretty harsh penalty, right?” Hawksworth said. “He got pushed a bit. It’s one of those things. Stuff happens. His earplugs came undone and that was it. We got ourselves in trouble. Harsh penalty, but it’s a 12-hour race.”

Twelve hours came down to 20 minutes and 0.121 seconds.

Turnabout Is Fair Play as No. 57 Mercedes Goes Back-to-Front to Win in GTD

If turnabout is fair play, the Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) class had its share of fair play on Saturday.

Little more than 24 hours after forfeiting the pole position owing to a technical infraction, the No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 came from nearly last on the grid to take its second class win in as many outings this season, having also copped GTD honors in the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

Did somebody say “turnabout?” Coming home less than a second behind the winner was none other than the No. 47 Cetilar Racing Ferrari 296 GT3 that started on pole after Philip Ellis’ quick qualifying lap in the Winward entry was disallowed.

Unfazed by the penalty, co-drivers Ellis, Russell Ward and Indy Dontje steadily advanced through the field, moving into 10th spot in the opening laps and then to fourth place before the two-hour mark. A fortuitous pit stop just before a full-course yellow enabled the Winward Mercedes to leapfrog the cars ahead and take the lead after a little more than two hours of racing.

“The whole week has been going really well, it was just unfortunate in qualifying that we got disqualified,” said Dontje. “In the end, we knew that knew we had a good car, so actually from the second stint onwards we were like ‘Yeah, let’s get this.’”

“We’re used to it, ‘cause the last three years we’ve had to start from last at some point,” laughed Ward. “We knew we had the car for it, and we just wanted to keep our heads clean, especially after starting the season with such great form at Daytona. And our goal was just to get the maximum amount of points out of this race. The crew performed flawless, the drivers made a few mistakes, and we came out on top.”

It’s not as if their competitors gave the Winward team a free pass to the Victory Lane. A virtual who’s who of GTD led the race at one time or another, including the No. 12 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT3 and the No. 70 Inception Racing McLaren 720S GT3 EVO.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, the Cetilar Ferrari came alive, steadily advancing up to and through the top 10. As the final hour loomed, Ellis emerged with the lead in the Winward Mercedes over the Elliott Skeer’s No. 120 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R and Antonio Fuoco in the Cetilar Ferrari, only to have to deal with a series of full-course cautions and subsequent restarts.

With 40 minutes remaining, Fuoco demoted Skeer to third and moved within striking distance of the lead. While Fuoco never gave Ellis a moment’s rest, the Mercedes had the legs on the Ferrari, spurting to slim but relatively secure leads to take the win by 0.646 seconds with Skeer and the No. 120 Porsche a further two seconds behind in third.

“I had to battle with Elliott on the first couple of restarts,” said Ellis. “He was pretty fast as well, and I was saving fuel because we wouldn’t have made it to the end with flat-out racing. Then the last two restarts I had to deal with the Ferrari. I could pull a little bit of a gap on Antonio, but in the last 10 laps he was pretty fast as well.

“So, I was a little nervous. I didn’t know what he could do if he had gotten to me. We were a bit weaker in certain points than other cars which made us a bit vulnerable, but luckily, we made it stick.”

The GTD class returns to action April 19-20 in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. The GTD PRO class races next at the Motul Course de Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna from May 10-12.