Vasser Sullivan Lexus Duo Winning in IMSA GTD Pro, Fueled by Mexican Food, Sushi
The Vasser Sullivan Lexus GTD Pro entry of drivers Ben Barnicoat and Jack Hawksworth had a commanding 73-point lead in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season standings through three races.
Round four gets the green at the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sunday.
Rest assured, Barnicoat and Hawksworth took their crew to dinner at one of their favorite Mexican or sushi haunts last week.
It has taken a bevy of engineers, a good crew, Mexican food and sushi to get to the top of the GTD Pro standings in the WeatherTech Championship.
That’s been the formula for Ben Barnicoat and Jack Hawksworth, drivers of the Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 entry.
The British duo climbed from a third-place finish at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, to second in Sebring’s 12-hours to first in the sprint race at Long Beach. They have a commanding 73-point lead in the GTD Pro title chase over Jules Gounon and Daniel Juncadella, drivers of the WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3.
Round 4 gets the green at the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sunday. Rest assured, Barnicoat and Hawksworth took their crew to dinner at one of their favorite Mexican or sushi haunts last week. It’s a pre-race tradition that seems to be working well for the team, which has shops in NASCAR country near the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It was race strategy and the crew that got Barnicoat out of the pits at Long Beach in first place—avoiding the traffic jams of the combined GTD classes in the “36 hours of Florida” that cost their No. 14 Lexus RC F a shot at winning at Daytona and Sebring. The Long Beach victory continued a roll that began with wins at Road America last summer and the season finale at the Petit Le Mans. The duo has scored seven straight podium finishes.
Barnicoat and former IndyCar driver Hawksworth did not become fast friends until they became co-drivers at Vasser Sullivan last season. Barnicoat finished second in the driver standings. Now in his seventh season with Lexus, Hawksworth finished sixth in the points after missing three races due to a shoulder injury suffered in a motocross accident.
Steve Hallam, whose title at Toyota Racing Development is Senior Engineering Manager, Vehicle Support, says the bond that has developed between the two British drivers has been as important as figuring out the black art of managing the Michelin tires that is crucial to success in the evenly matched GT3 category.
“They were born barely 50 miles apart in the U.K.,” said Hallam, himself a Brit. “They knew who each other was when we paired them together, but they didn’t actually know one another personally. We’ve been blessed by the relationship that’s blossomed between the two.”
The two drivers taking a “flat” together in Huntersville, North Carolina hasn’t hurt.
A former engineer at McLaren, Hallam draws an analogy to the early days of Formula 1 when the “garagistas” in the London area, as Enzo Ferrari called them, shared flats and food. That helped develop the kind of mutual knowledge and chemistry that is so crucial to success in racing.
Hawksworth, from Bradford in West Yorkshire, is six years older than Barnicoat, who hails from Chesterfield in Derbyshire. But the two drivers still share the experience of progressing up through the racing ranks in the U.K., starting with karting.
“Having that same kind of structure to our careers meant that we had similar reference points to the way we work and just the way we are,” said Barnicoat. “I got on well with Jack right off the bat. As the year went on, doing things together like winning our first race and getting the podium string going strengthens not just us but the team.”
Barnicoat may prefer a chassis biased toward the front wheels and Hawksworth likes one favoring the rears, but each is willing to compromise to get the most out of the RC F GT3 chassis.
“There’s no ego,” said Barnicoat. “Jack’s a great qualifier and there’s no reason why we can’t use that to our advantage. It’s been working really well. I don’t see why it’s going to stop.”
“Ben and I do a lot of things together,” said Hawksworth. “We train together and we do the simulator together. We’ve got a team bond. It’s the same with the mechanics. We take our lead mechanic, Travis Morgan, and the crew out for dinner the week before the races. There’s a real team chemistry from being based in North Carolina.”
The different preferences in car set up and the work of the TRD engineers in conjunction with Vasser Sullivan, where Geoff Fickling is the race engineer on the No. 14 Lexus, have helped address the problem of rear tire degradation late in stints on the Lexus. The current effort began in 2019 when the GT class was switched to Michelin tires and TRD elected to move to Vasser Sullivan, which also enters a GTD class RC F for Frankie Montecalvo and Aaron Telitz.
“I have to give a lot of the credit to TRD and the Vasser Sullivan engineers,” said Hawksworth. “Over the last two or three years, we’ve really honed in on how to set the car up so we can save the rear tires a little bit more and open up the window in terms of race pace. We use a lot of tools and it’s really paid off.”
The expectations for the Laguna race are tempered by a track where tire degradation is high. Hawksworth expects better results at grippy tracks with lower tire wear later in the schedule. There will also be 16 GTD entries swarming over the hills at the Monterey, Calif. track among the five GTD Pro entries due to the GT3 homologation being the same for both classes.
It’s likely the Vasser Sullivan drivers will spend much of their race day working traffic during the two hour, 40-minute Motul Course de Monterey.
“The championship comes down to execution,” said Hawksworth. “You’re not always going to have the fastest car. If you can grind out results with good strategy and good pit stops, good qualifying and no mistakes in the race, not throwing away points, that’s generally how you win one of these championships. You always want to finish one position higher than your pace deserves.”