ELMS: Richard Mille Racing back in the top-10 in Monza 4H
The three ladies of Richard Mille Racing - Sophia Floersch, Beitske Visser and Tatiana Calderon - had a very positive weekend pace-wise, but their result at the 4H of Monza was ultimately influenced by the unfortunate timing of a Full-Course Yellow.
Less than a month from their breakthrough performance at the biggest endurance race on the planet, the Richard Mille Racing ladies returned to their European Le Mans Series program for the 4 Hours of Monza, the fourth and penultimate event of the 2020 season.
Sophia Floersch, Beitske Visser and Tatiana Calderon became the first all-female lineup to finish the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours in a prototype class, and did it in style: with a clean and mistake-free race, the three rookies completed such a monumental challenge in ninth position.
Le Mans was also the first race where the three drivers had the chance to compete together, after clashing commitments from Floersch and Calderon prevented the three drivers to race together at the Spa Francorchamps and Le Castellet rounds. Furthermore, only Calderon had previously raced in a 24 Hour race (Daytona 2020), while both Floersch and Visser were still moving their first steps in sportcar racing. Despite all odds were against them, the all-star female team - which is supported by the FIA Women in Motorsport Commision - had a flawless run into the top-10.
“When the car crossed the line at Le Mans I was emotional. Le Mans is something special and already at the starting grid I had goosebumps everywhere, just because it is that special.” - Sophia told us.
“I think we were really really lucky to finish in the top-10 on our first Le Mans. The team did an amazing job and luck was on our side that weekend. To finish such a race, and in the top-10, it was really special and hopefully even better next year.”
Thanks to the Le Mans experience, the Richard Mille Racing team came into the Monza weekend showing great progression and noticeable confidence.
The first practice session at the "Temple of Speed" saw the trio claiming the fifth-fastest time, while they were P13 in a red-flag disrupted FP2 session.
“In Le Mans we learned a lot and we made a big step now." - said Beitske Visser on Friday. "We seem to have a very good pace so hopefully we can improve further and have a good result this weekend.”
“The car has been getting better and better.”- echoed Calderon.
After a more difficult qualifying session, the Colombian racer qualified the Signatech-run Oreca LMP2 car in P11: “It was a bit trickier for us today to be honest.” - said the Alfa Romeo F1 development driver.
“The track conditions changed a little bit from this morning to the afternoon, and we put only one set of tyres. Our spirit is more to have a good race.”
“I think I didn’t do a good enough job in qualifying, but I think we are in the mix and we can do a really good job in the race.” - she added.
Rain showers overnight washed out the Monza racetrack and represented one more difficulty for the drivers at the start of the 4 Hour race. Starting from P11, Sophia Floersch got behind the wheel of the shining red #50 Oreca to complete the first part of the race.
In tricky conditions, Floersch - who started on intermediate tyres - had an outstanding first lap and advanced into sixth place, as she masterfully avoided the chaos unfolding in front of her.
As the pack sprinted towards the famous Monza first chicane, in fact, the race order saw a big mix-up: the #39 Graff Racing punted the second-placed #26 G-Drive Aurus into a spin, just as the leading United Autosport car of Phil Hanson took to the outside gravel in the still damp conditions. Hanson rejoined in 13th place, while the G-Drive of Roman Rusinov was left stranded over the high sausage kerbs and required the intervention of the first Safety Car.
The #39 Graff received a drive through penalty for the Turn 1 incident, but the G-Drive squad saw its chances shattered when the Aurus LMP2 car made its return to the pitlane with a water leak. Despite efforts from the Russian team to fix the issue, the car was later retired from the race.
The early drama had left the #30 Duqueine Team of Jonathan Hirschi in the lead, ahead of Nico Jamin in the #31 Panis Racing and the #24 Algarve Pro.
The opening minutes continued to provide shocking developments when Jamin ran into the back of Hirschi under the Safety Car and, despite passing the Duqueine car for the lead at the restart, he had to pit to fix the damages at his front light pod.
Meanwhile, the #20 High Class Racing Oreca of Anders Fjordbach was charging through the order from P14 and, in a few laps, the Danish racer closed in on the race leader after passing the #32 United Autosport and the #37 Cool Racing. Under pressure, Hirschi made a mistake at Parabolica and, despite a good save, he dropped to fifth.
The first round of pitstops started when the drivers on inters switched back to slicks, which saw Floersch rejoining in tenth before positions were restored. After impressive opening stints, the German 19-year old lady moved up to fourth and posted what it would remain the fastest lap for the Richard Mille team.
After his first lap trip to the gravel, Phil Hanson in the #22 United Autosport made positions back and battled with the sister car of Will Owen, as the team ran out of sequence due to early stops.
Around the 1 hour mark, the #3 United Autosport Ligier of Jim McGuire hit the #60 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Sergio Pianezzola, sending the polesitting LMGTE car into a spin at Ascari. Heavily damaged, the Ferrari retired from the race and the #3 team received a 10-second stop and go penalty. The accident, though, had triggered a Full Course Yellow that revealed a real hurdle to the Richard Mille Racing strategy: Floersch, in fact, had just stopped under green and thus dropped back to P10 after some seriously competitive stints that had brought the #50 team steadily in the top six.
At the restart, Fjordbach held an over 20 seconds lead from the #24 Algarve Pro of Endqvist.
When a second Full Course Yellow came out for debris at the second chicane, Floersch pitted approximately 90 minutes into the race, handing over to Beitske Visser in sixth place after moving past the #37 Cool Racing with yet another charge through the field.
Most of the cars stopped at the caution, with Dennis Andersen getting behind the wheel of the leading High Class Racing Oreca, followed by poleman Filipe Albuquerque, Charles Milesi in the #27 Dragonspeed and Job van Uitert in the second United Autosport car.
The Portuguese ace annihilated the gap and, following another round of pitstops, the American squad successfully made the leap into the race lead.
Beitske Visser also had good pace in the #50 Richard Mille Oreca and maintained seventh position mid-way through the race, as the other all-female squad - the Iron Dames in the #83 Ferrari - was completing an impressive charge up to P3 with Rahel Frey behind the wheel in the LMGTE class.
With 1 hour and 38 minutes to go, another Full Course Yellow was deployed for debris when the engine cover from the #34 Inter Europol flew off. Visser pitted during the neutralization and, after a double-stint, the Dutchwoman left the final driving shift to Tatiana Calderon. She rejoined in P9.
When the race went back to green, the two United Autosport prototypes driven by Phil Hanson and Alex Brundle enjoyed a comfortable 1-2 over the #20 High Class Racing Oreca, now with Fjordbach back in the driving seat.
Calderon had good fights with Jon Lancaster for tenth position, before she could close in on Aubry in the #25 Algarve Pro. The Colombian pitted for one last time from P9 and rejoined in eleventh position, where she would eventually cross the finish line.
After 4 hours of intense racing, Phil Hanson and Filipe Albuquerque took the chequered flag and claimed both their third win of the season and the 2020 ELMS title with one round to go.
For the first time, the same lineup secured both the ELMS and WEC honors in the same year.
Second was the #32 crew of Owen-Brundle-Van Uitert, in a United Autosport 1-2.
Despite finishing third on track, the #27 Dragonspeed of Hedman-Hanley-Milesi was later disqualified for technical infringement, paving the way for a High Class Racing podium.
The post-race disqualification resulted in the Richard Mille Racing ladies advancing to tenth, as they ticked off their third ELMS top-10 of the season. Floersch-Visser-Calderon always showed good pace throughout the event, but the unfortunate Full-Course Yellow timings ultimately denied them of a very realistic top-6 finish.
“I don’t know if I should be happy or not about this weekend." - commented Floersch after the race. "We started P11 and I did the start, which was pretty tricky, because we had different tyre compound. The first and the last sectors were still pretty wet, but then the rest was dry so we went with the intermediates. The start was pretty good, I was both lucky and careful into the first corner because I knew there would be some stuff happening. I was P6 after the first few corners, which was good."
"The pace was really good in the beginning - at one point we switched to slicks which was exactly at the right moment to do so. I did a double-stint on slicks, I think the pace was actually satisfying and I could keep the position and gave the car in P6 to Beitske.”
“We finish P10, I think luck was probably not 100% on our side, but we’ve been as close as we’ve ever been this year; sure it could have been better but that’s racing.”
W Series runner-up and BMW factory driver Beitske Visser also highlighted their progression from the previous races, despite the race result didn't match their expectations:
“I think we had a good pace but the Full Course Yellow didn’t really come at the right time for us and it costed us a bit, but I think that compared to the races before we improved a lot and hopefully next time we’re a bit more lucky with the full-course-yellow and can do a better result.”
“I think that we showed that we had really good pace but unfortunately we were unlucky with the strategy" - reflected Tatiana Calderon. "We started on intermediates and the full-course yellow came at the wrong time. But I think we should be happy with the pace we showed and that’s racing sometimes, so I’m looking forward to Portimao and to finish on a high this year.”
The fifth and final round of the 2020 European Le Mans Series will in fact be held at the Circuit do Algarve, Portugal, in two weeks time.
“I think that Portimao is a great track, for sure a difficult track." - said Floersch. "I’ve not been there since five years so we’ll do some sim work and we’ll see, but I’m going to try and push to be as competitive as I was here, as I think we were pretty good on pace.”
Just like the young German, also Calderon has previous experience of the Portimao racetrack in single seaters: “I had been there in F3 a lot of years ago, but I think it should be an interesting race for us, with the high downforce and hopefully good weather.”
On the other hand, Visser is still uncertain about her future with the team, as Katherine Legge - who was supposed to compete for the team but had to sit out the season for an injury in pre-season testing - could potentially attempt a return for the final round.
“I don’t know if I will be driving in Portimao." - Visser told us. "If I will, any chance that I get I am always ready for it!”
By adding one more point to their championship tally, the three young women are now ninth in the LMP2 team's standings. Among the first projects to showcase female talent at the highest level of endurance racing and in top equipment, the Richard Mille Racing program is set to continue next year, as Sophia Floersch hopes for a better integration with her F3 plans that prevented her to start the first two championship rounds earlier this year.
“First of all I hope next year will be a little bit more sorted and we won’t have a really short season again. For sure the plan is to do FIA F3 again and probably ELMS again, as this is a double-year program and then we’ll see! Whether we do ELMS or WEC next year, for sure the goal is to be competitive.”