1000 Miles of Sebring: under the storm - an all-female team in the top5
FIA WEC returned to the US after two years, at the challenging Sebring Raceway. Even if the race was cut short by a storm, there was plenty of action; the all-female team Iron Dames were the best-placed Ferrari in class and in the top-five, while Lilou Wadoux had a great debut for Richard Mille Racing Team.
Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting started their second season in FIA WEC with Iron Dames - effectively their third race together after Monza and Le Mans in 2021. The all-female team led by Deborah Mayer was launched in 2019 and competed in the European Le Mans Series, then stepping up to the World Endurance Championship in 2021. Bovy joined Frey and Gatting - members of the line-up since the team's inception - and at their first Sebring as a trio immediately started their campaign on a high: the fast Belgian qualified fourth, being the first out of the five Ferrari 488 GTE in the LMGTE-Am category. "The unique journey as Iron Dames has brought us already this far" - said Rahel Frey, team leader and also project manager of the innovative outfit. "Because ever since I started Go-Karting I've wanted to race in America and with Iron Lynx a dream finally came true", continued the experienced Swiss racer.
Iron Dames were not the only women on track at Sebring, as a young Frenchwoman was about to make her first appearance at the top of endurance racing.
Lilou Wadoux is a race winner in the Alpine Elf Europa Cup and, after impressing in the last couple of seasons in the French one-make series, she caught the attention of Richard Mille Racing Team, for which she tested with at the Young Drivers' Test at the end of last year's season in Bahrain. Wadoux, 20, convinced the French-Swiss team - which has just moved away from an all-female line-up.
Having previously brought to Le Mans a trio of female superstars of the likes of Sophia Floersch, Tatiana Calderon and Beitske Visser, Richard Mille Racing selected Wadoux to team up with eight-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Ogier and young talent Charles Milesi, who qualified the Oreca 07 LMP2 in 10th place.
"Our initial aim was to call attention to the lack of opportunities for women'' - explained Amanda Mille, brand director of the Swiss watchmaker that has invested and believed in the project.
"We have had two great years with three women who have proven themselves in an LMP2 prototype in ELMS and then WEC. However, all the female drivers say they want more inclusivity by finding their place in mixed teams."
"Their dream comes true when men want to drive alongside them in the same team, and this is now our case with a trio promising a fulfilling season both from a human and sporting perspective", added Amanda Mille.
The race went underway at 12PM local time and, right from the start, Iron Dames' Sarah Bovy tried to open a gap to the rest of the pack, impressing everyone for her speed and the racecraft in the battles. After the pit-stop, Michelle Gatting got behind the wheel of the #85 bright pink Ferrari and battled her way up to fourth place, after some incredible overtakes.
Lilou Wadoux got in the Oreca prototype for her first stint in racing conditions; Lilou did a great job by defending her position, until Jose Maria Lopez had a monumental crash into the barriers in the overall leading Toyota Hypercar and brought out the red flag. Luckily the driver was unharmed and could immediately walk away from the car. The Argentinian racer had made contact with a GT car and damaged the front end of the #7 Toyota, but resumed and, while trying to reach the pitlane, he went off at speed, rolling after a huge impact.
The red flag was out for about forty minutes and bunched up the whole group. At the restart, everyone was eager to build up the gaps again in each class: Sarah Bovy, back in the Iron Dames' Ferrari after Rahel Frey's first stint, recovered some positions, then handed back over to Ferrari Challenge Europe reigning champion Michelle Gatting.
As the night approached, the Richard Mille Racing's #1 Oreca continued its run without troubles; Lilou Wadoux successfully completed her second stint and her debut in WEC at around the sixth hour of racing. Together with her teammates, Wadoux had a very solid race and learned how to manage traffic - a crucial skill for a rookie in multiclass racing. The track of her first race, certainly, wasn't making her life any easier: at Sebring, the mantra that best describes the 17 corners is "Respect the Bumps".
"Many new things for me this weekend: new car, new team, new championship, new challenges" - wrote Wadoux. "There are many things to consider from this first race, I took some experience lap by lap and I learned how to deal with traffic."
"Now I have to base myself on this experience to push harder and improve myself for the next few races" Lilou said, and we're sure that's just the beginning of her endurance journey, as the French youngster is quickly learning how to be the quickest.
The race was red flagged again with approximately one hour to go because of an incoming storm. As per Florida rules, the event was halted and cars lined up on the main straight. The race went back to green under Safety Car conditions, but the impending thunderstorm meant the early end to the race, almost one hour short of the scheduled running time.
Iron Dames' #85 Ferrari was again the best of the Ferrari cars: Frey-Bovy-Gatting finished the race in a seriously impressive fifth place - likely with potential to finish higher - after an almost perfect race. They once again proved how fast these women can be, crafting every second of the race to be on point. Gatting was the one to bring the car to the chequered flag, as she completed the race after Bovy and Frey's second stints.
“Sebring was an amazing experience", Sarah told us. "Definitely a very tough race but I’m super proud of what we achieved together."
"The team provided a great car to drive and did a fantastic job on the pit stops and strategic choices. As drivers we pushed like there was no tomorrow and our first top 5 in addition to being first Ferrari is definitely a nice reward."
"That being said, we know we can do even better than that and will definitely be back for more …” - the Belgian said, as her teammates echoed the sentiment.
"Our first visit to Sebring was definitely worth the visit as we brought home a solid P5" - Frey said. "This positive experience has created a good momentum that we will now use to race for even more. Our next new adventure is approaching quickly. In a week’s time we enter the full season in GT World Challenge with the first race in Imola.”
"Sebring was a true experience itself trying to drive on such a different racetrack, but I personally fell in love with it, and I hope to be back in 2023" - agreed Michelle Gatting.
"I want to say a huge thank you to all our team members, engineers, mechanics and crew itself. They all did a flawless job and for that I’m proud."
Sébastien Ogier brought the #1 LMP2 to the finish line in P12 in class, making it a solid debut for the team despite a challenging race. Undoubtedly, the team will further refine its work to break into the top-10 in the next rounds: the closest one will be the 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps in May.
Iron Dames' result is yet another example of how hard work can go a long way when the right opportunities are given to talented women. Hopefully, alongside Bovy, Frey, Gatting and Wadoux, the world's top endurance championship will see its female entries grow even more in the near future.