Ferrari Challenge: Manuela Gostner takes victory at Spa
Manuela Gostner secured her third win of the season in Ferrari Challenge Europe after a highly positive weekend at Spa Francorchamps that saw the Italian claiming second place in the championship standings ahead of the final round.
Manuela Gostner has claimed her third race win of the season in Ferrari Challenge Europe, bouncing back from a very unfortunate previous round at Estoril and returning to the second position in the drivers' standings of the Shell Cup with one round to go, as she aims for the Vice-Champion title.
Gostner, who returned to Ferrari Challenge in 2022 with a partial campaign following seasons in European Le Mans Series and FIA WEC, immediately impressed with two podiums out of six races. Back for a full season in 2023 under the banner of MP Racing, Manuela kicked off the year with a victory and a second place at Valencia, immediately establishing herself as one of the title contenders for the Shell category.
Two more podiums followed in Misano, before an unfortunate round under the heavy rain at Red Bull Ring that saw the Italian collecting an eighth place as her best result.
Next up, though, was the biggest race of the year - the round at Circuit de la Sarthe as support of the century edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And Gostner delivered, claiming a dominant victory in a 70-car field that brought her back in contention for the title.
A double DNF at Estoril, though, turned out to be a major setback but her experience at the fast and challenging Spa Francorchamps circuit - in addition to a positive pre-event test - was a very promising sign for the penultimate double-header.
In typical Ardennes weather, drivers were met with changing conditions throughout the weekend.
Roger Grouwels and Ernst Kirchmayr shared the front row for race one, with Manuela Gostner lining up in fifth place after having some lap times deleted due to track limits in qualifying: her 2:26.695 was in fact good enough for the third row, as a light drizzle made for a tricky start of Saturday's race.
Gostner took the inside line at turn 1 and held fifth, as the whole 26 car field took a cautious approach in the tricky slippery conditions. Grouwels and Kirchmayr led the pack, but the race was soon under caution when Henrik Kamstrup hit the barriers at Les Combes chicane.
From P21 on the grid, Ferrari Challenge North America's front runner Lisa Clark gained three positions over the first lap, slotting into P18 before the race was neutralized.
The Danish driver's big impact required a lengthy safety car to retrieve the damaged car as well as repair the barrier: the green flag was back in the air with 15 minutes left on the clock and Grouwels managed the single-file restart; Manuela Gostner immediately started to put pressure on Alexander Nussbaumer - but the battle allowed Fons Scheltema to take fifth at the Les Combes chicane, as the Dutchman went around the outside of the #193 MP Racing Ferrari 488 Challenge Evo. Scheltema, though, received a drive through penalty for overtaking under the safety car - which handed back over P5 to Gostner.
Matthias Moser beached his #159 Ferrari after being spun by Josef Schumacher at La Source, triggering another safety car with 9 minutes remaining.
With Scheltema serving his penalty, Manuela Gostner was back in the mirrors of Nussbaumer - but the Austrian defended well and survived several last lap attacks by Manuela, who crossed the finish line in P5, less than a second behind.
Roger Grouwels took a lights-to-flag victory, 2 seconds clear of Ernst Kirchmayr and Axel Sartingen - whose points' margin was enough to seal the Shell Cup championship.
Despite the safety car-disrupted race, Lisa Clark could gain one more position to finish P17 overall and fourth among the Shell-Am entries.
Fons Scheltema's 16th place finish meant that Manuela Gostner still closed the gap to second in the standings, now only one point behind after race 1 on Saturday.
Newly-crowned champion Axel Sartingen celebrated the title with a pole position on Sunday morning, preceding Manuela Gostner by 0.524 of a second. Gostner is now switching her focus to maximise every point opportunity to claim the vice-champion title, with one round to go after the Belgian weekend.
On the starting grid - also attended by Ferrari factory driver Lilou Wadoux - Gostner's front row was therefore a good chance to showcase her speed and potential at the wheel of the #193 Ferrari 488 Challenge Evo.
This time in fully dry conditions, cars accelerated away for the second 30 minute race and Sartingen took the inside line, while Ernst Kirchmayr was deep into turn 1 but couldn't make the corner and had to slot back behind the pole sitter and Manuela Gostner, who retained second after a smart start. There was chaos in the mid pack, as Fons Scheltema spun and was collected by a number of cars, but remarkably everyone could continue with minimal damage and the race stayed green.
Ahead, Manuela Gostner had a better run through Eau Rouge and Raidillon and she attempted to go around the outside of the race leader at the end of the Kemmel straight: Sartingen tried to defend but carried too much speed into Les Combes and spun, with Manuela picking up the first place in the process.
At the end of an action-packed first lap, Manuela led the race from Roger Grouwels and Ernst Kirchmayr, as the top three pulled away from the rest of the pack at a fast pace.
The leading trio remained at close distance, separated by a few tenths of a second throughout, but Gostner never cracked under pressure and, with a series of fast laps, she managed to open a one second gap at one point.
In the Am class, Motohiko Isozaki climbed the class order and overtook Kamstrup, amidst big battles in the Shell-Am top five. From P21 on the grid, Lisa Clark had another strong first part of the race and gained a few places to settle into P19.
After being tagged by Willem van der Vorm on the first lap - who was then handed a drive through penalty - Fons Scheltema recovered up to the overall top-10 after ten minutes of racing.
Manuela Gostner remained in control; the Italian never made a mistake despite the pressure of Grouwels who was back within six tenths of a second when the #193 MP Racing Ferrari started to struggle more with front tyres. However, Gostner was flawless and remained unchallenged throughout the race also thanks to a very strong first sector.
Over the uninterrupted 30-minute contest, Gostner's only worry came on the very final lap, when she encountered a group of lapped cars in the final sector: Grouwels attempted a last corner move but Manuela braked late and defended well, crossing the finish line ahead and taking her third win of the season.
“I am very happy with this win", Manuela said. "During this 30-minute race, I sweated every metre of the way. This morning, although the track conditions were not perfect and there were alternating dry and wet sections, qualifying went very well and allowed me to confidently start from second place."
"Starting from the front row is always very advantageous because I can choose the point of attack and I thought ‘If I can attack Axel Sartingen at the first corner, I will be able to hold the position and then overtake him’. I had a very good start with a slightly faster pace than Axel Sartingen, we raced close together, then I accelerated and overtook him at the first chance with a very challenging overtaking move", she recalled.
"After that I gained ground from Grouwels and Kirchmayr, but as they are such good and experienced drivers, I could not get distracted for a second; I had to be fast and focused. Also, today was the hottest race day since the start of the season. I was hoping for a break with the safety car because it is very difficult to drive in these conditions. I am really very happy.”
Following a highly positive weekend at the iconic Spa Francorchamps, Manuela now moved up to second in the championship standings, having collected 88 points after 12 races. With a 11 point margin over Alexander Nussbaumer - who also overtook Scheltema in the standings after the Belgian round - Manuela will aim to finish the 2023 Ferrari Challenge season on a high at Mugello, which is set to host the final round of the European season on 24-30 October, which will precede the Ferrari World Finals.