With a battling race at the top of the GTE category, Iron Dames just missed out on a podium at the 4 Hours of Monza, in a bittersweet third ELMS round which saw the all-female team still securing a positive top-five.
The first out of two events dedicated to endurance racing at Autodromo Nazionale di Monza turned out to be a really exciting weekend across all categories for the third round of the European Le Mans Series championship, which saw the best teams and drivers at continental level tackling the 4 Hours of Monza.
In the GTE class, Sarah Bovy had qualified the Iron Dames #83 Ferrari 488 GTE on the front row of the grid – for the second time this year – as the all-female trio were looking forward to a strong race on home soil, with great practice pace from all three drivers to suggest their first podium of the season in the series. Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting have in fact been in contention for the top positions throughout the first half of the season, but a few unfortunate circumstances have denied them their first success so far.
Bovy topped the timesheets for most of the 10 minute qualifying session, only to be demoted to second in the closing stages by the #77 Proton Porsche of Christian Ried; despite a bit of disappointment for the missed maiden pole position, Bovy was really confident for the 4 hour race.
“For sure I think we have a good pace for the race, so even if we are a little disappointed to not have pole position, we are very happy about the work we have done through the week and we really have a good car for the race, and that’s the most important for the race” – she told us on Saturday.
On an extremely hot day at the iconic Italian racetrack, Sarah Bovy took the start and immediately fired into the lead at the tricky first chicane, where the Belgian passed the #77 Porsche and then defended the top position in class from the quick start of the #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari of Petrobelli.
The GTE leading group remained compact and Bovy had to watch her mirrors whilst trying to navigate the traffic of the slower LMP3 cars. After a few laps, she managed to get past the #3 United Autosport LMP3 and finally gained a small safe margin, as the Ried was back ahead of Petrobelli in second.
The Proton Porsche, still a bit faster on the straights, would slowly start to close the gap –when the first Safety Car of the race was deployed for a heavy incident at the exit of Ascari. A light contact between the Spirit of Race Ferrari of Cameron and the #93 Proton Competition Porsche of Michael Fassbender ended in the Irish driver losing control over the outside kerb and sliding across the track, hitting the #30 Duqueine LMP2 of Memo Rojas and the #32 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari of Pierre Ehret before bouncing back at speed into the barrier, scattering debris all over the track.
Fassbender was unhurt, but his race came to an early end, as well as Memo Rojas'.
At the restart, Bovy retained P1 – but a second neutralization freezed the action when the #14 Intereuropol LMP3 driven by James Dayson hit the barriers at Prima Variante after contact at the back of the pack in the hectic restart phases.
With a few LMP2 cars in between the two GTE contenders, Bovy managed to keep a few second margin at the green flag, as the prototypes approached their first pit window.
A third lengthy Safety Car was then brought out by another heavy crash at the exit of Ascari, when James McGuire lost his #3 United Autosport LMP3 Ligier but emerged unscathed.
Sarah Bovy pitted and rejoined in fifth place after the first round of pit stops for the GTE field. Cameron and Lancieri – who were involved in the first incident and had thus stopped off sequence – temporarily took the class lead, before leaving Ried, Petrobelli and Bovy back in the top three; Sarah caught up and overtook the JMW Ferrari, but struggled to keep the pace of the leading Porsche.
When a contact between the #7 Nielsen Racing and #17 Cool Racing LMP3 cars at Prima Variante required the deployment of the Full Course Yellow, Bovy pitted for the driver change and handed over to Michelle Gatting.
At the two hour mark, Gatting was second behind the #77 Porsche of Gianmaria Bruni – who had taken over from pole sitter Christian Ried. The #18 Absolute Racing Porsche of Alessio Picariello, who had moved into third place in GTE, closed in on Gatting and eventually got past.
After three hours of racing, the leading Porsches pitted earlier than the Ferraris and paved the way to Gatting and compatriot Mikkel Jensen, who climbed to the top of the GTE category. Jensen took the lead in the #57 Kessel Racing Ferrari, before both made their way to the pits for the final driver change, with 1 hour and 7 minutes left on the clock.
Rahel Frey got behind the wheel of the Iron Dames Ferrari for the final stint and managed to climb back to second – but under immense pressure from the #32 Ferrari. The Swiss racer held on for many laps, until a small mistake at La Roggia demoted her to third. In a five-car group of the GTE front runners, Frey kept contact with Varrone and then completed an outstanding pass around the outside of the second chicane, when she got back ahead of that train, also followed by the sister car of Davide Rigon.
In what was an action-packed GTE race, Lorenzo Ferrari led in the #77 Proton Porsche, followed by Rigon – who snatched second from Iron Lynx teammate Frey – Picariello and Schandorff. Frey put on a defensive driving masterclass but, having struggled for pace throughout the second half of the race, the #83 Iron Dames Ferrari was forced to give up a few positions with 30 minutes to go and Rahel settled in fifth.
With the Ferrari being a bit more efficient on fuel, the #77 Proton Competition and #18 Absolute Racing Porsches stopped early once again, leaving Davide Rigon, Frederick Schandorff and Rahel Frey on a virtual podium. All of them, though, still had to perform a final splash and dash – which saw Davide Rigon successful in maintaining the lead over Lorenzo Ferrari.
At the end of a tightly fought 4 Hours of Monza, Iron Lynx took a home win, beating the #77 Porsche of Ried/Bruni/Ferrari and the Kessel Racing Ferrari of Kimura/Jensen/Schandorff.
Unfortunately for the Italian team, though, the #60 was disqualified after the race for parc fermé infringement. Iron Lynx has since appealed the result, as the car had indeed passed scrutineering.
Rahel Frey crossed the finish line in fifth place and was then promoted to fourth, completing a positive race for Iron Dames who gained valuable points for the championship despite missing out on a podium that seemed within reach for most of the race.
"It was a tough one" – commented Rahel after the race. "A very hard one on track but very enjoyable. I mean, I'm a racer, I love to fight hard and race. But I would also love to be a little bit faster."
"We thought we could make the podium, we are always so close." – she continued. "But in the end we can be proud, it was a nice team effort."
"Sarah [Bovy] did an amazing first stint and from the second stint we were lacking a little bit of pace. Our brake management was not perfect so that's something we have to look into to learn our lessons and to go again for next weekend."
"It is a bit disappointing because we thought the podium or even a win could have been ours this weekend" – echoed Michelle Gatting. "We still have to analyze what went wrong because all three of us had pretty much a flawless race".
"In general, we showed once again that we have a good pace, that we are fighters and now we just have to find the last bits to really win a race and get back on the podium" – concluded Rahel Frey. "We have seen our weak spots – brake management and a bit of top speed, as Porsches are still very fast. But we take the challenge and we keep on working."
The team will in fact get ready for the upcoming 6 Hours of Monza, fourth round of the World Endurance Championship, in a few days' time on 9-10 July.