ELMS: Richard Mille Racing completes positive debut season, Iron Dames P6 in Portimao
The all-women line-ups competing in the European Le Mans Series rounded out their 2020 season at the 4 Hours of Portimao, where Sophia Floersch, Beitske Visser and Tatiana Calderon concluded their positive rookie season in endurance racing and the Iron Dames endured a troubled race to finish fourth in the standings.
The 2020 European Le Mans Series will go into history books as the first season featuring two fully-female crews at the top of endurance racing.
Thanks to the support of the FIA Women In Motorsport Commission, in fact, Swiss watchmaker Richard Mille lined up an all-woman squad in the LMP2 category - a first for the series - and provided Sophia Floersch, Tatiana Calderon and Katherine Legge with the opportunity to race at the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours. With Legge, the most experienced driver and team leader, out after a nasty pre-season test accident, W Series runner-up and BMW works driver Beitske Visser was called for the remainder of the season. Visser, Calderon and Floersch - effectively endurance and sportscar rookies - thus completed their first season in the extremely competitive ELMS championship and added a top-10 at the most famous 24 Hours race on the planet to their resumés.
The second all-women lineup, the Iron Lynx-run program in the GTE class, was back for a second year in ELMS and at Le Mans. Manuela Gostner, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey battled for podium finishes in 2019 and were back for more glory in 2020: the "Iron Dames" - this year also featuring in their own YouTube docu-series "Racing Beyond Limits" - were again ninth at La Sarthe and targeted the third place in the points standings after another very solid season.
The Autodromo do Algarve, Portimao, hosted the fifth and final round of the ELMS season, one week after Formula 1's first visit to the Portuguese venue.
The final race event started with good promises for both teams, as they completed a successful collective test day well within the top-10 in their respective classes.
Saturday, though, proved to me more challenging for the Richard Mille Racing crew.
"It was a tough day, only a lap in the second free practice due to a red flag. A difficult qualifying for the team with engine problems, but we keep smiling because we have 4 hours of racing ahead of us" - commented Calderon.
Sophia Floersch was in fact set to complete the 10-minute qualifying at the wheel of the #50 Oreca, but was halted by an engine issue.
"Due to engine issues our team is working full power today to change the engine for tomorrow so we can push and end the season on a high hopefully", said the 19-year old German.
The Signatech squad worked tirelessly and successfully fixed the LMP2 prototype in time for Sunday's race, but the three ladies were forced to start from 14th place.
On the other hand, the Iron Dames had a really strong Saturday and Michelle Gatting put the #83 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo in third place for the starting grid of the 4-Hour race.
"I managed to get the car to P3" - said Gatting, "it's our best result that we ever had in the ELMS so we're very happy, all of us. Besides that, our sister car with Andrea [Piccini] did the pole position, so today it has been a very strong day for the Iron Lynx team and Iron Dames."
"Tomorrow we'll push to finish P3 in the championship, we'll do our best." - concluded the Dane.
In a sunny and warm Portimao, the start of the race saw early drama: Phil Hanson in the #22 United Autosport Oreca made contact with Alexandre Coigny after the latter half-spun into the fast right-hander of Turn 1. Just as in Monza, Hanson saw his race going uphill and had to recover from the midfield. Ahead, Will Owen held the lead after Job Van Uitert had put the #32 United Autosport car on pole position - but it was a short-lived leadership, as Roman Rusinov had an outstanding start from sixth in the #26 G-Drive Aurus and quickly took the top position within the first few corners.
Beitske Visser, taking the start for the #50 Richard Mille Racing team, had a great getaway and advanced to eleventh place in LMP2, while Manuela Gostner, again completing the first stint for the #83 Iron Lynx Ferrari, maintained P3 behind the polesitting sister car and the #88 AF Corse Ferrari.
Rusinov led the field until the Russian made a mistake into Turn 11 as he tried to avoid a slower GTE car and went wide, opening the door for the United Autosport of Owen.
After approximately 10 minutes, the first Full Course Yellow was deployed for the #66 JMW Ferrari of Rodrigo Sales stuck in the gravel at Turn 5, triggering the first round of pitstops for several LMP2 cars.
The leading #60 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Sergio Pianezzola was given a penalty for the incident, which paved the way to the #77 Proton Porsche of Michele Beretta.
At the restart, Rusinov charged back and re-claimed the lead over Owen, before breaking away and opening an over 8-second gap to the United Autosport competitor.
The teams that opted to pit under caution found themselves at the top of the leaderboard: the #30 Duqueine Oreca with Kostantin Tereschenko in the driving seat led Phil Hansen - who also took advantage from his first pitstop to change the nosecone following his first lap tangle - while Mikkel Jensen and Alex Brundle took over in the #26 G-Drive and in the #32 United Autosport cars.
Beitske Visser had a remarkable first stint and moved up the order from P14 to P9, while the #83 Ferrari of Manuela Gostner hit trouble and stopped on track, before the Italian racer could switch the car back on and rejoined the race, despite losing many positions.
Into the second hour of racing, Francois Perrodo went off at high speed at the final corner and beached the #88 AF Corse Ferrari in the gravel trap. The incident required another neutralization and again cars seized the opportunity to perform their pitstops and driver changes. Filipe Albuquerque took over from Hanson in the #22 United Autosport Oreca but the home hero had to defend from the attacks of Brundle in the sister car. The Brit ultimately made the move stick just before pitting. Meanwhile, Jensen could extend his lead to over 20 seconds.
Sophia Floersch took over from Visser in the #50 Richard Mille Racing Oreca for her final stint in the 2020 ELMS championship. The German rejoined in eleventh place, but managed to get back into the top-10 a few laps later.
Manuela Gostner recovered back to fifth place before handing over to Michelle Gatting for the penultimate stint of the race for the Iron Dames. Gatting drove solidly between fifth and fourth place during the pitstop stages.
At the end of the second hour, Pianezzola regained the lead in GTE, before the Iron Lynx #60 car suffered a tyre delamination and scattered tyre and carbon debris all over the track.
The Safety Car was deployed to allow the marshals to clear the track.
The #74 Kessel Racing Ferrari and the #77 Proton Competition Porsche went into the lead of the GTE category - the latter with Alessio Picariello behind the wheel ultimately moving up into P1 towards the final hour of racing.
In LMP2, Jensen pitted and handed over to Nyck De Vries in the overall lead. The Dutchman enjoyed a 13 seconds advantage over Albuquerque and was almost 20 seconds ahead of third-placed Jonathan Hirschi in the #30 Duqueine Oreca.
Rahel Frey took over from Gatting for the final driving shift and rejoined P6, just as Tatiana Calderon got behind the wheel of the #50 Richard Mille Racing prototype in P13.
In GTE, Picariello's pace proved to be so dominant that he could pull away and open an over 60-second gap to the #74 Kessel Racing Ferrari. His margin allowed the Proton Competition team to perform an extra pistop for new tyres following the several delamination issues that hampered some of the GTE cars. He rejoined with a comfortable lead over David Perel and Duncan Cameron (#55 Spirit of Race Ferrari).
In the final 20 minutes, Tristan Gommendy (#30 Duqueine) found himself in the overall lead, but had to pit one final time to refuel. After the stop, De Vries returned into the race leadership, but the Frenchman slotted in second - ahead of Phil Hansen who returned behind the wheel of the #22 United Autosport Oreca.
With 11 minutes left on the clock, Rahel Frey had to pit for a rear-tyre puncture. The Swiss driver had made it back into fifth place, but the final stop relegated the Iron Dames to sixth.
Tatiana Calderon moved up to P11, but couldn't grasp a top-ten finish in the final race of the season.
Nyck De Vries took the chequered flag for G-Drive Racing and brought the Russian squad to the highest step of the podium for the first time this season, breaking the United Autosport dominance. Gommendy/Hirschi/Tereschenko were second for Duqueine Team and preceded the series champions Phil Hanson and Filipe Albuquerque in the #22 United Autosport. The sister car of Owen/Brundle/Van Uitert crossed the line in fourth, but it was enough to secure the vice-champion honors.
"Took the start today and drove from P14 to P9" - wrote Beitske Visser. "Good job by the team Richard Mille", as the #50 squad completed their first ELMS season in tenth place in the championship standings.
"Very thankful for this incredible opportunity, it’s been a privilege to be part of this amazing team!" - echoed Calderon. "Thank you Richard Mille and FIA Women In Motorsport. My first endurance season comes to an end today, learnt a lot and had soo much fun! We always want more and we will continue to push hard and see what the future holds for us." - commented the Colombian.
The fight for the title in the GTE class was as heated as ever: the crown went to the #77 Proton Competition Porsche of Ried, Beretta and Picariello, who preceded title rivals Broniszewski/Perel/Cadei in the #74 Kessel Racing Ferrari across the line and took home the championship despite being tied on points thanks to the victory at the first race event at Paul Ricard.
The #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari was third at the finish line but was handed a penalty for a driving time infringement, giving the final podium position back to the #60 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Mastronardi, Pianezzola and Andrea Piccini.
Despite signing the fastest lap in the race, Rahel Frey was sixth - a result that costed the Iron Dames the third place in the championship standings by one point.
"Yesterday was the proof that no matter how good and strong the car is, how good your position can be, (ours was a P3 in qualifying) or if you have the fastest laptime during the race. When fate decides that it's not on your side, it won't be. That's our score, everything that could possibly go wrong - actually did go wrong yesterday - but that is racing!" - said a disappointed Manuela Gostner.
"It is really disappointing to lose our position in the ELMS championship but looking back over this year, we have all learnt a lot and all matured professionally. Despite these days, we have had some very good ones too."
"Thanks to a super Iron Dames team that has grown over time, and special thanks to whoever makes this happen, to the bigger part of professionals behind the scenes and off track." - concluded the Italian.
"We got a strong car, showed great potential with P3 in qualifying and with setting the fastest laptime during the race, but it was not enough." - added Frey. "Yes, we lost P3 in the ELMS championship but I'm still proud of the progress we made throughout the season. We got stronger every race, thanks to brilliant people working all the time for and with us."
The Dames complete their second season at the pinnacle of continental endurance racing with three podium finishes - one more compared to 2019 - and another groundbreaking result at Le Mans.
In such an important season for women in motorsport, both the teams showed plenty of potential and made substantial progress. Hopefully, we'll get the chance to see both teams back together at the cutting edge of sportscar racing in 2021.