Heartbreak for Iron Dames at 4H of Imola after tyre puncture
An outstanding first half of the race - and then heartbreak: fate compromised Iron Dames' chances at the 4 Hours of Imola in the form of a tyre puncture. What remains, though, is an unsurpassable team spirit and pace to fight for the win.
Six years after the last 4 Hours of Imola, European Le Mans Series made its return to the famous Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit in Italy for the second round of the 2022 season – a month after the season opener at Circuit Paul Ricard. In the South of France, the all-female trio had an outstanding first part of the race, as Sarah Bovy led the race from third on the grid, despite a straight-line speed deficit to some of the Aston Martin and Porsches. Ultimately, bad luck on Safety Cars and Full Course Yellow timing prevented Iron Dames to end on the podium in the last minutes of the race, when Michelle Gatting crossed the line in fourth. A trip to Spa Francorchamps for the second round of the WOrld Endurance Championship provided even more challenges, with Bovy testing positive for Covid for her home race – leading to Michelle Gatting – a close contact of the talented Belgian – to also miss the race. Doriane Pin and Christina Nielsen had a last minute call to sub in and make their WEC debut – but a crazy weather-affected race and an early contact made for a tricky race. Bovy, Gatting and Frey were back reunited at Imola – and the drivers of the #83 Ferrari 488 GTE were back in the positions they belong straight from practice: Gatting set the second fastest time on Friday and Bovy – with an outstanding drive on Saturday – put the team on the front row for Sunday's 4-hour race. “We were struggling a bit on pace in Le Castellet yet we could have won the race”, Gatting told us on Friday. “Here we’re back in the mix and now it’s all about figuring out the tyre strategy”. While the Oman Racing with TF Sport Aston Martins still had a competitive advantage over the Ferraris, Bovy's qualifying lap was highly encouraging for the fast trio, who could count on strong race pace from all three drivers and a good starting position on a track notoriously hard to pass on. “Today was good!” – Sarah told us after qualifying. “We knew it would be really really difficult to get the Aston – it’s very well driven and it’s very competitive. At the end I knew I had to push to the maximum to have a chance and so I did it!” “I’m happy with P2”, she continued. “I think we still had a little bit more in the car – but that we will never know. It’s a good position to start the race and what matters is where we finish tomorrow. We’ve focused on the race since the beginning of the week and we will try to make the best out of it.” Pole position in GTE was scored by the Oman Racing's Aston of Ahmad Al Harthy, becoming the first Omani driver to claim pole in the series.
On a sunny and very warm Sunday in Emilia Romagna, birthday girl Sarah Bovy took the start of the race for Iron Dames and, with a get getaway, she kept in contact with the class race leader – as the faster GT cars also had to deal with some LMP3 traffic. The #27 COOL Racing LMP3 Ligier of Foubert was immediately spun into the run-off of Tamburello, but the race remained green and Sarah Bovy was able to perfectly avoid the incident and held position. A first Safety Car was deployed only 10 minutes into the race, when the #6 360 Racing LMP3 of Woodward ended its race against the barriers at Tosa. A second interruption came when Proton Racing's Micheal Fassbender was collected by the #32 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari of Pierre Ehret, who retired. The Irishman made his way to the pits and could ultimately continue, but the significant damage required for lengthy repairs and the #92 Porsche lost several laps. There were more FCY in the first two hours, when John Falb beached the #47 APR LMP2 Oreca and, later, Andrew Haryanto crashed in the front-running Absolute Racing GTE and had to retire. Ahead, Ahmad Al Harthy had a clean race in the #69 Oman Racing with TF Sport Aston Martin Vantage, always leading in class – but Sarah Bovy wasn't ready to give up just yet and at one point the Belgian was almost within the one second range, as she tried to put pressure on the Omani. The two had opened a significant gap on the rest of the pack, putting between them and the closest GTE competitor several LMP3 entries. The #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari of Petrobelli/Hudspeth/Payne ran into third place in the opening stages, but the fast charging #95 Oman Racing Aston Martin driven by Hartshorne/Chaves/Adam was able to move into third. Mid-way through the race, Al Harthy and Bovy pitted, handing over to Samuel De Haan and Rahel Frey. It was another outstanding first half of the race for Sarah Bovy, already the protagonist of a flawless run at Paul Ricard. A few minutes into her race, though, drama hit the #83 Ferrari: a slow puncture ultimately led to a tyre explosion and the Swiss driver hit the tyre barrier at Tamburello. She then had to complete a full lap on three wheels and with a heavily damaged rear bumper, before making it to the pits for repairs.
"I'm a little bit lost for words – Sarah had such a brilliant start, we were in a solid second position and basically the task was just to bring it home" – Frey told ELMS pit reporter Hayley Edmonds. "I believe I had a slow puncture, we couldn't follow the pressure as the sensors were not working", Rahel explained. "At one stage I just had a tyre explosion – no contact at all, I just lost it and unfortunately I also hit the wall. Then it was even difficult to bring it back and we had to stop several times." In the hectic moments in pitlane, the Iron Lynx crew tried to fix the damage with tape and, once Frey rejoined, she lost a wheel in pitlane and had to be wheeled back for further work. The race was at this point compromised and Iron Dames lost 3 laps. To add insult to injury, the rubbing bodywork on the tyre caused another puncture, and Frey had to pit again, losing more laps. She rejoined P9 in class. Nevertheless, the Iron Dames spirit meant that both Rahel and Michelle Gatting – who got behind the wheel with a little less than one hour left on the clock – continued to push to bring the car home, although there was no chance to make up more positions on track. The two Oman Racing Aston Martins, meanwhile, had traded places at the top when De Haan was passed by the #95 driven by Jonny Adam. The #66, though, would return into the class lead when Adam handed over to Henrique Chaves for the final stint and Marco Sorensen took the helm of the pole sitting car. Al Harthy/De Haan and Sorensen led a Oman Racing 1-2, ahead of the sister car of Adam/Chaves/Hartshorne. The #57 Kessel racing driven by Kimura/Schandorff/Jensen was third across the finish line, but was later disqualified for a non-compliant rear diffuser - handing third place to the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Cameron/Griffin/Perel. Michelle Gatting had some really solid lap times in the final stint and brought the #83 Ferrari home in eighth place in GTE, in what was a really unlucky race for Iron Dames. Still, in a race compromised by fate, what remains is an unsurpassable team spirit and yet another brilliant first part of the race by Sarah Bovy, who praised the work of the whole team which resulted in Iron Dames being in contention for podiums every weekend.
"The whole work we're doing as a team is paying off" – Sarah told us after the race. "We're consistently very competitive, today we could have really fought for the win until the finish line. Now we will never know, but mechanical failures are part of motorsport and we have to accept that", she added. "It's of course very disappointing, when we know that today we were half-an-hour away from the Iron Lynx workshop in Cesena so everybody was here cheering for us. I want to thank them for that, all the fans and their support is amazing. It was good to see some people today." "There are a lot of positives today, but of course the disappointment is huge", Bovy continued. "On the level of competitiveness, it was very difficult to go and get the Aston on track, but still I think we were strong enough to have a chance at it." "Clearly the pace was a bit stronger on the leading Aston, but it's extremely well driven by the Bronze-driver. It's nice to have some good competition, to have someone that gives me a reason to try even harder – but I also knew that Michelle and Rahel were extremely fast the whole weekend, so I knew that even if I couldn't catch him up and overtake him, we still had a good chance with Rahel and Michelle." "Unfortunately they just didn't have the time. What happened to Rahel is nothing related to driving, it's just unfortunate. It happens." "Now we hope that all the bad luck is behind us, because we still have one race in Le Castellet with GT World Challenge Europe – and then we have Le Mans. Of course our eyes are on Le Mans and we focus on that target now." Iron Dames will travel again to the South of France for the second round of the SRO GT World Challenge Europe Endurance season on 3-5 June, for the 1000km of Paul Ricard. A few days later, they will be off to Le Mans, for the preparation of the biggest race of the season: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.