ELMS: Iron Dames clinch podium after charging 4H of Spa
Michelle Gatting, Sarah Bovy and Rahel Frey clinched an outstanding podium finish after a charging 4H of Spa Francorchamps from the back of the field.
The 2021 European Le Mans Series championship resumed after a two-month break since the last race at the Temple of Speed in Monza, where the all-female team Iron Dames tackled back-to-back commitments in ELMS and WEC. The team created by visionary Deborah Mayer and run by powerhouse team Iron Lynx entered their third season in the top-European endurance championship with high hopes, having scored podiums and fought for third in the standings since their inception in 2019. In 2021 – after extending their racing programs to the World Endurance Championship - the Iron Dames were met with a more challenging ELMS campaign, marred by contacts at Red Bull Ring and Paul Ricard, as well as unfortunate FCY timings. After the home round in Monza, the all-female trio still had to climb on the podium this season. The Iron Dames line up has also been shuffled from time to time in 2021: Katherine Legge was initially announced, before the Brit moved back to the US to compete full time in IMSA. Manuela Gostner was back to the original trio, before she was moved to the Michelin Le Mans line up partnering Doriane Pin. They would finish third at Le Mans and at Spa Francorchamps. After the 6H of Monza, Belgian racer Sarah Bovy has taken centre stage in the Iron Dames team, and made her debut in ELMS at her home round in Spa. Bovy joins Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey - replicating the trio that has raced in the World Endurance Championship and brought the #85 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo to ninth place at the latest 24H of Le Mans. At the iconic 7.004 km track in the Ardennes, Frey-Gatting-Bovy immediately showed speed and were in the Top 5 in practice. In the Bronze Driver collective test, Sarah Bovy was second fastest, only behind the #80 sister car of Cressoni-Mastronardi-Molina. Unfortunately, qualifying didn't go how the drivers of the #83 Ferrari hoped for. Michelle Gatting got in the driving seat and set a laptime fast enough for third on the grid in LMGTE class, but the Dane saw all her times deleted for track limits - leaving Iron Dames at the tail end of the grid for Sunday's 4-hour race. Class pole position went to Proton Competition Porsche of Richard Lietz, ahead of the #80 Iron Lynx Ferrari and the #88 AF Corse Ferrari. In the overall classify, the #37 COOL Racing Oreca of Charles Milesi scored pole position, preceding the #22 United Autosports and the #41 Team WRT Orecas. The story of the race On a rare sunny day at Spa, Gatting took the start of the race from the back of the field - and quickly had to avoid the usual traffic jam at La Source when several LMP2, LMP3 and GTE cars spun and went off in the run off on the first lap. At Stavelot, the #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari hit and sent the #7 Nielsen Racing LMP3 Ligier in the gravel, immediately triggering the first Safety Car. After a chaotic first lap, Milesi held the overall lead from Robert Kubica (Team WRT) and memo Rojas (while the #22 United Autosports limped back to the pits with damage, while the #26 G-Drive retired after being hit by Salih Yoluc in the #34 Racing Team Turkey LMP2 Oreca at La Source. Gatting had already started to move up the order and slotted in seventh place at the race neutralization. At the restart, Michelle was on a charge and passed Fassbender (#93 Proton Competition Porsche) for sixth, before chasing down and ultimately overtaking the Spirit of Race Ferrari of Duncan Cameron on the Kemmel straight 30 minutes into the race. Not long after, Gatting closed in on the sister Iron Lynx car of Mastronardi and cleared him with another impressive move around the outside. The race was then back under Full Course Yellow when Yoluc - who had been given a drive through for the starting incident - went off into the gravel at Turn 5. This mixed up the team's strategies and the prototypes pitted. As the dust settled, Robert Kubica found himself in the overall lead in the #41 Team WRT Oreca, ahead of Pilet (#28 IDEC Sport) and Coigny, who took over from Milesi in the pole sitting #37 Cool Racing. Gatting also stopped under yellow and rejoined in third place after a stunning first stint.
Around the one hour mark, the Safety Car was back out for a big shunt involving a LMP2, LMP3 and GTE car: the #24 Algarve Pro Racing Oreca of Diego Menchaca hit the back of the #15 RLR MSport LMP3 Ligier under braking at Le Combes, spinning in the run-off. He rejoined right on the path of the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari driven by Duncan Cameron, who could not avoid the big impact. Both cars were out of the race. At the restart, Michelle Gatting continued to put pressure on the second-placed #95 TF Sport Aston Martin of Ollie Hancock, but the traffic of the prototypes didn't allow the Dane to go for a move every time she got close enough. In this phase, the driver of the #83 Ferrari lost a place to Mastronardi (#80 Iron Lynx) due to the LMP3 traffic. In the overall classify, Robert Kubica and Patrick Pilet battled out for first place as they navigated through traffic and the IDEC Oreca made light contact with Mastronardi, who lost his wing mirror coming into the fast left-hander of Blanchimont. Kubica defended and brought the WRT car back in the pits in first place for the driver change: Ye Yifei started his stint, while Lafargue took over the IDEC Oreca closely behind. After a perfect stint, Michelle Gatting pitted with 2h and 25 minutes left on the clock and Sarah Bovy got behind the wheel for her first driving shift in ELMS. They rejoined in third place, before Bovy led the GTE class at the mid-race mark. Slightly off-sequence in the pit strategy, Bovy had to fend off the attacks of the #88 AF Corse Ferrari of Emmanuel Collard and displayed great racecraft. Collard would eventually get the position but the order in GTE was shuffled again when the second Full Course Yellow was deployed. The #13 Inter Europol Competition of Aidan Read crashed heavily into the tyre barriers at Stavelot, tearing off entirely the Ligier's left side. Luckily the American was unharmed and jumped out quickly from the totaled vehicle. The leaders in all classes pitted, leaving Collard (AF Corse Ferrari) in first place, Cooper McNeil (#77 Proton Competition Porsche) in second and Matteo Cressoni (#80 Iron Lynx Ferrari) in third place. Bovy spun at the Bus Stop chicane and dropped to fourth. In the final minutes of her stint, the Belgian was under pressure from the return of the #83 Proton Porsche with Felipe Laser behind the wheel. The two battled hard for several laps, before Rahel Frey got ready for the final driver change. Alessio Rovera took over the leading #88 AF Corse, Miguel Molina followed in the #80 Iron Lynx and Laser held third in GTE. Rahel Frey, though, was the fastest driver in class and tried to close the gap again as she chased the final step of the podium. While Louis Deletraz now had a safe margin in the overall lead, Will Stevens and Job van Uitert had a stunning battle in LMP2; Frey was caught in the middle, but well managed traffic and ultimately Stevens made the move stick, bringing the #65 Panis Racing Oreca up to third. With six minutes to go and as teams were considering a quick refuelling, the #5 MV2S Racing LMP3 Ligier of Christophe Cresp went hard into the barriers at Radillon, bringing out a Full Course Yellow. Cresp was unscathed and the car was very quickly recovered by the marshals. The accident could have denied Rahel Frey of a final charge for the podium, but the brilliant recovery work left 3 minutes of green flag racing. Having timed the restart perfectly, Rahel Frey jumped ahead of the #93 Proton Competition and clinched third on the final lap of the race. It was the first Iron Dames podium of the season, completing a brilliant recovery from the back of the grid by Michelle Gatting, Sarah Bovy and Rahel Frey. Deletraz crossed the finish line to win the 4 Hours of Spa Francorchamps and gave Team WRT their first ELMS title at their series debut, with one round to spare. Team Duqueine (Gommendy-Binder-Rojas) was second, with Panis Racing edging Cool Racing for third. In LMGTE, the #88 AF Corse squad (Perrodo-Collard-Rovera) took home the victory, preceding the two Iron Lynx crew – Cressoni-Mastronardi-Molina in second and Gatting-Bovy-Frey in third – for a Ferrari 1-2-3. "I’m so proud of the drivers and the entire team." – commented Andrea Piccini, Team Principal at Iron Lynx. "All three cars battled incredibly hard, whether we were chasing those in front, holding off others or even defending the lead of the race. Everyone showed the true spirit, commitment and determination that underlines the ethos of the team. We are looking forward to the season finale at Portimao next month.” The final race of the 2021 European Le Mans Series championship will in fact be held at Autodromo do Algarve, Portugal, on 24th October.