Iron Dames and Spa Francorchamps: a guaranteed success
Michelle Gatting, Sarah Bovy and Doriane Pin battled all the way to the checkered flag during the 4H of Spa, scoring yet another podium - the first of the season in ELMS - as the all-female team closes in on their first win in GTE.
The fifth round of the European le Mans Series went underway at the iconic track of Spa Francorchamps, where the Iron Dames had already raced twice this year: the first time in occasion of the World Endurance Championship - where they finished 10th after the most hectic race of the year - then at the biggest event in GT3 racing, the 24H of Spa in the GT World Challenge - where they won in the Gold class, making history as the first all-female team to do so.
The fifth and penultimate round of ELMS saw changing weather from session to session; yet, the Dames managed to apply all their experience and put together another remarkable weekend.
Home hero Sarah Bovy - one of the four Belgian racers on the grid - was behind the wheel for the qualifying session and set the fourth time in the LMGTE field ahead of the 4-hour race on Sunday.
With all the cars lined up on the grid, the big question mark was tyre strategy: rain had fallen all night in Spa, but stopped in the morning, just before the start of the race. The Belgian track is known for drying up quickly - which left the teams with more questions than answers on what tyre was the best for the opening stint.
When the lights went out, half of the grid was on slicks and there was early drama: the IDEC LMP2 Oreca spun two times on the formation lap, before three LMP3 cars collided at Les Combes and at Campus after the start. The #51 Team Virage LMP2 spun in the gravel trap and had to be recovered, bringing out the first Safety Car.
Meanwhile, Sarah Bovy - starting the race for Iron Dames - was straight into third place, having overtaken the Rinaldi Racing Ferrari 488 GTE.
The race resumed after 20 minutes, with Grunewald - at the wheel of the pole sitting #57 Kessel Racing Ferrari - leading Al Harty and Bovy, all bunched up and battling for the lead of the GTE race.
In a typically brilliant move from the Belgian, Bovy made her move on the Aston Martin Vantage of Oman Racing with TF Sport while they navigated LMP2 traffic and she gained the second position in class.
More LMP3 drama involved the class championship leaders and caused a yellow flag at Turn 1, before Sarah Bovy managed to avoid disaster: the Iron Dame was chasing the leading #57 Kessel Racing Ferrari, when Conrad Grunewald lost control and spun in the most dangerous place of the track, Raidillon. The spinning Ferrari was avoided by a couple of LMP2 Orecas but had the closest call with the pink Iron Dames' Ferrari, as Sarah didn't expect it to go backwards and avoided it by inches.
Everyone was shocked and relieved that no one got hurt and the first hour went by under a FCY period. The leading GTE Aston Martin pitted, leaving first place to Sarah, still going strong in her #83 Ferrari 488 GTE.
The LMP2 class, as always, featured some very entertaining battles: Ferdinand Habsburg - at the wheel of the championship leading Prema Team #9 - had a close fight with Fabio Scherer (InterEuropol Competition) and Duncan Tappy (United Autosports), while the race leader was made a mistake under pressure and went off track.
De Wilde (Muhlner Motorsport) lost the car at Eau Rouge and crashed, triggering another Full Course Yellow period to pick up all the debris scattered on track.
Iron Dames took advantage of this neutralization to complete their first driver change, that saw Sarah Bovy passing on the car to Doriane Pin - at her proper debut in the series.
"The beginning of the race was complicated with the track still being wet, and I’m really happy I managed to stay out of trouble and be competitive." - Sarah said.
The Frenchwoman was lucky enough to have a drama-free stint. She led for the whole stint, showing an incredible race pace that kept the other GTE behind. Doriane also set the fastest lap of the race in the GTE class, with a 2:17.365 that speaks volume about the potential of this young driver.
With an hour to go, Doriane entered the pits to hand the car over to Michelle Gatting, who rejoined the track for her stint in second place, but earned back the lead as soon as the #35 pitted for its last stop.
“After I jumped in the car, it was very good." - Doriane told us. "We had strong pace throughout the stint, and I managed the traffic well, so I’m very happy about my first stint in ELMS."
With 49 minutes to go, Mikkel Jensen (Kessel Racing) hunted down the Iron Dames Ferrari and, after an all-Danish tightly-fought battle, he was able to gain first place. Michelle kept a good pace until the end, got closer once again, but couldn't get back into striking distance.
“I’m very happy with the final result of the race. Obviously, we were leading for about 80 per cent of it and were hoping to bring it home for the team. It would’ve been great to finish P1 in my home race, but in the end I think we showed very strong pace for all the drivers and the car." Bovy said.
After the last FCY caused by an LMP3 machine, Gatting saw the finish line in second place, joining Kessel Racing (1st) and Absolute Racing (3rd), after an incredible race from the whole team. It was Iron Dames' first podium of the season in ELMS - and the best result for the project in the series since 2019.
"I was leading the race and was struggling to keep Mikkel [Jensen] behind. I knew he was fast, but at that point in the race he was faster than me." - Michelle recalled.
"The team did a very good job once again on the pit stops and the strategy was very strong once again, so step-by-step, we are getting closer to the top step of the podium." - Gatting added.
“In the end, I think P2 on such a challenging track, in such a challenging race, is a strong result from the team once again. So a very good day today and it feels very good to jump on the podium at home.” - Sarah Bovy concluded.
The Iron Dames will be back on track in Barcelona for the last round of the GT World Challenge Europe next week, while ELMS will see its season finale in Portimao, Portugal, on 16th October.