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Ferrari Challenge: Manuela Gostner takes podium on 296 debut

Manuela Gostner showcased front-running pace throughout the Mugello opening weekend of Ferrari Challenge, ultimately securing a podium on her debut with the new Ferrari 296 Challenge.

Manuela Gostner, Ferrari Challenge 2024, Mugello
Photo credits: Ferrari Races

The 32nd season of Ferrari Challenge Europe got underway at Mugello circuit in Tuscany, with the Prancing Horse one-make series debuting its new 296 Challenge car in both the Pirelli Trophy and Shell Cup divisions. The car made its first global appearance only one week before at Circuit of the Americas, where the North American series kicked off its 2024 campaign, and is the ninth generation car to compete in the championship – the first featuring a V6 engine with 700hp.

The Mugello entry list included over 70 drivers from 13 different countries; making her return to the Shell Cup was Manuela Gostner, who made great strides last year when she fought for the title. A former WEC and ELMS driver, Gostner racked up wins and podiums – starting from a victory at Valencia, to a dominant performance in a 70-car field at Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans. She would add one more victory at Spa Francorchamps to her name, alongside six podiums ahead of the season finale, where she cemented the second place in the championship standings.

Gostner – who is also competing part time in the 24H Series as part of a family effort with her sister, brother and father behind the wheel of the #58 Mercedes AMG GT3 in the AM class – was therefore back to Ferrari Challenge full time for a title assault in the Shell Cup, with a new car to learn. The Italian driver, though, soon showed impressive speed aboard the 296 Challenge and ran at the front in every session at Mugello.

With a couple of tests under her belt ahead of the season, Manuela was straight up to pace in the pre-event test, where she placed her colourful #193 machine in the top five – then established herself as a podium contender by leading the official practice session, almost two tenths clear of Alexander Nussbaumer. On Saturday morning, Gostner qualified third for the first race of the weekend, clocking a 1:49.390 lap that was three tenths short of pole position – which went to Austrian racer Nussbaumer.

A difficult start from Manuela on cold tires saw the Italian being shuffled down to fifth place, behind John Hassid and John Dhillon, but as soon as on the second lap, Gostner started to put pressure on Dhillon. Ahead, Tibur Valint had the better start and snatched the lead from Nussbaumer, then tried to open a gap.

Manuela was the faster driver and made a great move stick at turn 1 under braking with 17 minutes to go. Once in clear air, she pulled away and soon closed in on the group of cars ahead – the battling Hassid and Nussbaumer.

With ten minutes to go, Gostner had joined the fight for second place and, as Nussbaumer made a mistake into turn one and went wide, she was about to seize the opportunity to gain a position. Unfortunately, the Austrian closed the door and forced Manuela into the gravel – and #193 Ferrari 296 Challenge was out of the race.

To no fault of her own, a DNF on the first race of the season wasn't the ideal start for Gostner – but she had demonstrated great speed and potential to at least fight for the podium, and she aimed to finally achieve that on Sunday.

In the second qualifying, Manuela was fourth fastest in yet another very tightly-contested session, where she set a 1:49.544 that put her on the second row alongside James Weiland.

At the start of race 2, Gostner had a great launch and immediately picked up third place on Dhillon, and hunted down Nussbaumer as pole-sitter Hassid had retained the lead in a clean first lap.

Nussbaumer closed all the gaps and Gostner fought hard to get past while at the same time she had to watch her mirrors from Dhillon and Weiland. The latter charged from fifth to third, surprising Manuela with a pass with 11 minutes to go, then attacked Nussbaumer – but Gostner fought back capitalizing on lapped traffic and switched back.

Weiland, though, was back ahead one lap later, and he eventually got past Nussbaumer when the Austrian went deep into turn 1 with 4 minutes to go. Manuela – who had been handed a 5 second penalty for track limits – also got by Nussbaumer, but had to pull away and open a gap in order to retain the position.

In the closing stages, Gostner was faster than Weiland but couldn't afford losing too much time in a battle. After 17 action-packed laps, Gostner crossed the finish line just over 6 second clear of Alexander Nussbaumer and therefore managed to secure her first podium of the season.

"Never let a setback derail your positive attitude and goals!" – she commented. "After yesterday's DNF in Race 1. I was more determined than ever to seek redemption in Race 2. I fought until the very last second and secured a spot on the podium. While P3 isn't a victory. It's still a great success."

Her third place in race 2 despite overcoming a penalty is clearly a promising sign and highlights an even bigger potential. At the end of the Mugello double-header, Manuela now sits fifth in the drivers' standings with 11 points to her name, and will be eying further progression at the second round at the new Balaton Park in Hungary, on 1-2 June.



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