Floersch makes remarkable ELMS debut, as Iron Dames take P3 in GTE
With a remarkable performance by Richard Mille Racing at the Le Castellet 240, Sophia Floersch made her ELMS race debut alongside Beitske Visser, as the talented duo could not capitalise on race pace following a drive through. In the GTE class, the Iron Dames claimed their second podium of the season.
The third round of the 2020 ELMS season was scheduled to take place at Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, but was moved to Circuit Paul Ricard earlier this month due to the ongoing coronavirus situation in Spain.
The venue of the 28-29 August round - the last one in preparation to the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours classic - therefore returned to the south of France, where the series had already held its official pre-season tests and its season opener.
Following Katherine Legge's injury on the same track, the "Le Castellet 240" was the first race when the FIA Women In Motorsports-supported Richard Mille Racing team fielded a fully-female team: Tatiana Calderon was in fact joined at the wheel of the Oreca LMP2 car by Signatech experienced driver André Negrao initially, and then by both Negrao and W Series runner-up Beitske Visser at Spa Francorchamps.
With Calderon unavailable due to her commitments in the Japanese premiere single-seater championship Super Formula, German F3 star Sophia Floersch made her endurance race debut and missed the Belgian round of the international Formula 3 series, sharing driving duties in the #50 LMP2 car with Visser.
Floersch, who had previously driven the prototype only in a handful of test occasions - Bahrain in 2019 and at the Le Castellet prologue - adapted quickly to the car and had very positive sessions early on in the weekend. Both the 19-year old from Munich and Beitske Visser were close on single lap performance throughout the race meeting and Floersch qualified the #50 Oreca in 10th place under very difficult weather conditions on Saturday.
In the #83 Iron Lynx Ferrari 488 GTE Evo, the second fully-female team on the 2020 ELMS grid, qualified sixth in the GTE class, with Rahel Frey, Manuela Gostner and Michelle Gatting targeting a great result at the upcoming Le Mans 24 Hours as well.
To take pole was the #22 Oreca Gibson of United Autosport, edging the #26 Aurus G-Drive Racing by 0.01 second. The extremely challenging conditions meant that the #93 Proton Competition Porsche 911 RSR driven by actor Michael Fassbender could not take the start following a major crash that brought out the red flag. The driver was unhurt, but the chassis was severely damaged and could not be fixed.
The rain continued into the afternoon and the race was subsequently started behind the Safety Car. Phil Hanson got behind the wheel of the United Autosport pole-winning car, while Roman Rusinov started driving duties at G-Drive.
Sophia Floersch took the green flag to kick off her first ever stint in the European Le Mans Series.
The race was green-flagged after six minutes behind the Safety Car, as the rain eased despite the cars still raising big clouds of water.
Konstantin Tereschenko moved up to second as he passed his countryman Rusinov, bringing the #30 Duqueine Team into runner-up spot, while Hanson maintained the lead.
10 minutes into the race, the #83 Iron Lynx with Manuela Gostner behind the wheel moved up on the sister car, advancing to P5 in the GTE class. A few minutes later, though, a small off-track excursion brought them back to sixth.
Sophia Floersch battled for P12 with the Panis Racing and IDEC LMP2 cars, driven by Canal and Lafargue respectively. On a drying yet extremely challenging track, fourth-placed Owen in the #32 United Autosport spun and lost two positions.
When the first round of pit-stops started, Floersch advanced to sixth thanks to some extremely consistent laptimes under the 2 minutes mark. At her first stop on lap 22 - 45 minutes into the race - the young German was fourth overall.
During the stops, most teams gambled for intermediate tyres, while the United Autosport crews stayed out some more and then opted for slicks. It didn't pay off and after one hour of racing, Lapierre (Cool Racing) led from Canal (Panis Racing) and Jensen (G-Drive). Mikkel Jensen passed Canal for second and then fired into the lead, with also Enqvist in the #24 Algarve Pro joining the fight at the front.
Manuela Gostner was the first one to go out in the slicks and, after two stints, swapped with Rahel Frey in 31st overall position, 5th in class.
On fresher tyres, Floersch rejoined in P10 and started a series of fast laps that gained her a couple of positions.
While Hanson tried to break away, Lapierre defended from Tereschenko - just as the Safety Car was again deployed following an accident for the #5 Graff Racing LMP3 car that left it without a tyre on the Mistral Straight. The race was neutralized with Floersch in P8 and, as soon as the race restarted, the Richard Mille Racing squad recovered again up until third overall place, when Sophia pitted and rejoined in P5.
Just when the race was looking great for the #50 crew, they received a drive through penalty for a Safety Car infringement that brought the ladies back to tenth place.
Rahel Frey was also charging through the field and brought the #83 Ferrari up into the GTE class lead. The Swiss lady then built a significant gap on the Spirit of Race Ferrari and the Proton Competition Porsche.
At the half-race distance, the sun had already set over the French hills and cars were racing under artificial lights - an anticipation of the biggest endurance race of the next month.
After an impressive triple-stint Sophia Floersch pitted on lap 68 and handed over to Dutchwoman Beitske Visser, who rejoined in P12.
"It's something completely new for me, it's my first endurance race - normally I'm used to formulas and this is something completely different, but I'm enjoying it a lot." - said Floersch after her stint in a post-race interview.
"Le Mans is right around the corner and I'm really looking forward to it, it's gonna be the highlight of this season for me. I just did a triple-stint, which was really tough."
"In qualifying I finished tenth in wet conditions and it was my first time in the wet in ths car actually. Now we started on wets, then switched to intermediates and other people were already on slicks in the end. I enjoyed it, we got everything now for Le Mans and I'm really looking forward to it".
The Iron Lynx car driven by Rahel Frey had a spin and lost some of its safe margin, but still held an eight-second advantage from second-placed Spirit of Race Ferrari, before Frey started to build up the gap again.
Ahead, Nico Jamin led the overall classification in the #31 Panis Racing car, 32 seconds in front of Allen in the Graff Racing LMP2 when Jean Eric Vergne took over the G-Drive Aurus and went out in third place. The Frenchman spun on cold tyres and dropped to fifth, promoting Aubry in the #25 Algarve car.
The race was halted by another Safety Car when the #16 BHK Motorsport LMP3 car spun and everyone took evasive action around him. In avoiding the chaos, the #39 Graff car tagged the #24 Algarve Pro Oreca of Loic Duval, sending it on its roof and against the barriers.
Duval was out of his car and on his feet, unhurt.
The race went back to green on lap 91, with 50 minutes left on the clock. The #31 leading car of Nico Jamin took the way of the pitlane and Panis Racing completed the last driver change, with Will Stevens getting behind the wheel. Vergne could thus re-claim the overall leadership, with a 30 seconds advantage over the recovering #22 United Autosport Oreca with Felipe Albuquerque now in the driving seat.
Visser made up a few more positions and advanced to ninth before making her last pitstop - which would eventually drop the Richard Mille Racing team to P12.
The #83 Iron Lynx team also pitted for the last driver change, as Danish racer Michelle Gatting took over from Rahel Frey and rejoined in third GTE place after the last Safety Car had dissolved their leading margin.
"It was an amazing stint, we're very fast on track and very happy with the car" - said Frey in the garage interview. "We had our up and downs, it's been difficult but amazing."
With 40 minutes to go, more rain fell on the Paul Ricard Circuit, but it was a short shower that could not further alter the teams' strategies. In the closing stages, Jean Eric Vergne looked set for a comfortable win at the Le Castellet 240 event, but came under increasing pressure from the fast charging Albuquerque in the #22 United Autosport car, who had passed Will Stevens in the Panis Racing on track.
Albuquerque annihilated the gap and caught up with Vergne, passing the G-Drive racer with three minutes left on the clock as the leading pair was navigating through traffic.
After 240 minutes of intense racing action, United Autosport claimed an outstanding victory by 2.6 seconds over the G-Drive crew, with Thomas Laurent in the #39 Graff Oreca taking third.
Beitske Visser could pass the #37 Cool Racing Oreca and crossed the finish line in P11, just marginally outside the top-ten in a very solid performance for Richard Mille Racing but ultimately hampered by the drive through penalty that denied the ladies of a potential top-five or six.
"A lot of fun racing in the night under tricky conditions!" - said Visser. "We had good pace both in wet and dry, but unfortunately we had a drive through so we finished P11. Big thanks to the team Richard Mille Racing and to Sophia Floersch".
Team Realtek Racing won the LMP3 category with its #8 Ligier (Garcia-Droux), ahead of the #3 United Autosport and the #13 Inter Europol Competition of Moore/Hippe, which were handed a penalty when in the lead.
No positions were exchanged in the final minutes in the GTE class instead, where the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari took home the victory from the #77 Proton Competition and the #83 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Manuela Gostner, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting, who claimed their second podium of the season.
"Our second podium in our 2020 season." - wrote Gatting. "Quite happy to finish the 3rd round of the ELMS in 3th position, even though we for a long time really went for the win."
"Unfortunately a safety car towards the end took that chance away. Brilliant job by the whole crew, drivers, mechanics and engineers. Now onto the next one which is the big one. Le Mans 2020!"
"P3 in the Le Castellet 240" - added Gostner, thanking her colleagues. "Incredible race and team partners. What a race to remember. Now let’s focus on the big race!"
Frey echoed: "A night to remember in Le Castellet with cool fights on track and an epic team performance around it fighting longtime for victory."
Three races into the ELMS season, both the #50 and the #83 teams will now get ready for the biggest race of the year on the Circuit de la Sarthe in three weeks time.
Sophia Floersch will be back on track next weekend in Monza as she completes her maiden season in the FIA Formula 3 championship with Team Campos, before being joined by Tatiana Calderon for the 24 Hours classic. It is not clear yet if British endurance ace Katherine Legge will recover in time for Le Mans, but endurance fans will certainly have two fully-female teams to cheer on coming next 19th September.