The original Iron Dames trio were back together for their third European Le Mans Series campaign: at the season opener in Barcelona, Manuela Gostner, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey finished P4 after an impressive recovery in the final hour.
Iron Dames – the all-female team created by Ferrari ambassador Deborah Mayer and run by Italian powerhouse team Iron Lynx – has quickly established its project as the benchmark for female racing drivers in European GT racing, after only three seasons from its inception.
Having finished two editions of the mighty 24 Hours of Le Mans in the top ten, the Iron Dames kept expanding their racing programs and line ups: in 2021, top racing driver Katherine Legge has joined the team, and will race alongside Rahel Frey and Manuela Gostner in the World Endurance Championship. Two new additions have also been welcomed in Barcelona: former W Series racer and experienced GT driver Sarah Bovy shared the #9 Ferrari 488 GT3 in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with 17-year old rookie Doriane Pin.
But, after some shuffles in the weeks prior to the first race of the season, the three original Dames were back together for their third campaign in the European Le Mans Series – the championship that saw their debut as a team and that gave Manuela Gostner, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey five podium finishes so far.
At the 2021 season opener at Circuit de Montmelo, Barcelona, Swiss ace Rahel Frey put the #83 Iron Lynx Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo in third place on the GTE grid for Sunday's 4-hour race, lapping in 1:42.266 on her very final attempt in the 10-minute session.
Rahel's lap was just 0.225 short of pole position, which went to the #77 Proton Competition Porsche of Gianmaria Bruni, followed by the Iron Lynx sister car of Miguel Molina.
An encouraging start for the Dames, who again proved they will be fighting for podiums in 2021.
On a sunny Sunday morning at the home of the Spanish GP, Manuela Gostner got ready to take the start of the 4 Hours of Barcelona in the #83 entry, completing the first stint.
A messy start at the front of the field saw the leading G-Drive LMP2 car massively slowing and bunching up the pack: it resulted in the whole field having to avoid hitting each other, and the GTE pole-sitting Porsche dropped to third place, allowing past the #80 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Mastronardi.
There was more chaos at Turn 1, with the #32 United Autosport spinning off in the gravel. When also the #21 Dragonspeed LMP2 of Henrik Hedman was spotted stationary and facing the wrong way at the chicane, the Safety Car was deployed after just one lap.
Manuela Gostner survived the crazy start and was down to P4 in GTE.
At the restart – approximately 10 minutes into the race – Roman Rusinov led the LMP2 and overall field in the #26 G-Drive, followed by the WRT of Deletraz and the United Autosport of Hanson. In LMP3, Laurents Horr took the early lead in the #4 DKR Engineering, ahead of the #2 United Autosport Ligier and the #15 RLR MSport.
Mastronardi held on to P1 in GTE in the #80 Iron Lynx Ferrari, ahead of the #60 car of Paolo Ruberti and Christian Ried in the #77 Porsche Proton – making three Iron Lynx cars in the first four positions. Gostner follows in P4, 3 seconds adrift.
While the Iron Lynx teammates battled out for P1 in GTE, Manuela closed on the #77 Porsche of Ried and, after putting pressure for a couple of laps, the Italian driver was able to make the move and claim back the third place – locking out the top three for the team.
The Dragonspeed LMP2 of Henrik Hedman hit trouble again and, after making contact with a LMP3 car, pulled over and retired.
Former F2 racer Louis Deletraz made a stunning move on the inside of turn 1 to take the overall lead in the WRT Oreca. The G-Drive Aurus dropped to third, and was also handed a drive through penalty for the starting procedure.
Manuela Gostner came under pressure from Duncan Cameron in the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari – the two drivers being also caught by the JMW Ferrari of Sales, with the whole GTE pack running very close. Eventually, Gostner would drop back to P4, while Ruberti found a way past the sister car of Rino Mastronardi for the GTE lead.
At the first round of pit stops for the LMP2 cars, the first driver changes went underway 45 minutes into the race.
With three hours to go, Team WRT kept leading the overall and LMP2 standings with Louis Deletraz behind the wheel of the #41 Oreca. Behind the Swiss driver were the United Autosport of Phil Hanson and the G-Drive of Franco Colapinto – the latter having taken over from Roman Rusinov and having completed a bold move on the Panis Racing LMP2 Oreca of Julien Canal.
At the first stop for the Iron Dames, the #83 Ferrari rejoined in P6.
Claudio Schiavoni took over the #60 Iron Lynx and was then caught by Bruni in the Proton Porsche; the two would make contact at the chicane and Bruni fired into the lead, despite receiving a warning for causing the incident.
Ahead, Deletraz handed over to Ye Yifei, who significantly extended his lead on the #22 united Autosport of Tom Gamble. Colapinto had dropped to fifth after the drive through. Despite an impressive comeback by the young Argentinian and by his teammate Nyck De Vries later, the race of the G-Drive team went from bad to worse when they receoved another drive through for a misplaced wheel in pitlane, as De Vries hit the stationary wheel during a pitstop.
The chances of the #83 Iron Dames crew also suffered a blow when Michelle Gatting received a penalty during her stint, which demoted the three ladies back to P7 in GTE around the second-hour mark.
But the battle in GTE was as heated as ever and positions kept changing at the top of the classify: Matteo Cressoni closed the gap on Bruni and clinched back the top spot for Iron Lynx, while the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Matt Griffin – who was also fighthing for the podium – had to pit for a tyre puncture.
In the final stints, F1 star Robert Kubica made his ELMS debut and climbed in the WRT LMP2 car. He rejoined with a 30 second lead over the #65 Panis Racing Oreca of Gabriel Aubry.
Rahel Frey got behind the wheel of the Iron Dames Ferrari for her driving shift and started her usual outstanding drive: the Swiss signed the third fastest lap of the race and closed the gap to her competitors, making up three positions.
After a monumental stint, Rahel Frey found herself fourth in GTE – but almost a minute behind the third-placed car of Perel.
The 4 Hours of Barcelona saw the overall victory of the Orlen Team WRT outfit (Deletraz/Yifei/Kubica) – the first win for the team. 22 seconds behind was the #65 Panis Racing Oreca of Canal/Stevens/Aubry and the #22 United Autosport Oreca of Hanson/Aberdein/Gamble.
It was another "first" in GTE, as Iron Lynx claimed their first ever win in the series: Miguel Molina crossed the finish line of his home race ahead of the #77 Proton Competition Porsche (Ried/Evans/Bruni) and the Spirit of Race Ferrari (Cameron/Griffin/Perel).
Rahel Frey brought home the #83 Iron Dames Ferrari in fourth place – a significant recovery after the setbacks that had dropped the ladies down the order.
"Leaving Barcelona with a good feeling in the stomach" – wrote Michelle Gatting. "We did our best and managed to get the car in P4. We learned and got stronger together."
"Already looking for the next target".
While the next European Le Mans Series round will be at the Red Bull Ring on 16th May, Iron Dames' next racing commitment will be in Spa Francorchamps, Belgium, where the 2021 WEC season will get underway on May 1st. On the same weekend, Michelle Gatting will return to the Ferrari Challenge Europe at the Austrian track for the second round of the season after her victory in Monza.