"We drove our hearts out" - At their return to Portimao after their historic win in ELMS, Iron Dames were back in contention for the top spot in the WEC second round. With strong stints by all three drivers, the Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting secured their first podium of the year.
A sunny circuit of Portimao hosted one of the most thrilling and exciting races that WEC has recently seen, with battles in every class, new winners and spectacular overtakes: it had everything a great race should have. Furthermore, after Toyota's win, Ferrari's second consecutive podium and Porsche's maiden third place in Hypercar, the GTE Am podium saw a historic moment: four out of the five women competing in WEC were in fact in the top three in class. Iron Dames, together with Lilou Wadoux, were back to where they belong, in their first time with the Porsche 911 RSR GTE.
The heartbreaking first round of the World Endurance Championship already seems far away, as Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey were again at the top of their game at the thrilling 6H of Portimao. The trio was already fast during the free practice sessions and Sarah Bovy managed to snatch second place and a start from the first row in qualifying - with an amazing lap just 2 tenths short of pole sitter Ben Keating's effort.
The #7 Toyota claimed the overall pole position, while in LMP2, Mirko Bortolotti emerged as the fastest driver on track - a result that Iron Dame Doriane Pin started the 6H of Portimao on pole position - in yet another record.
"We got a small taste of it in Sebring where we were also very close. Of course we want to be on the top of it. We are aiming to having our first win in FIA WEC this year and I am sure we are going to achieve it." said Gatting.
The race began with many battles in all the classes: Alessandro Pier Guidi splitted the two Toyotas and the #31 WRT led the pack in LMP2 after battling with Pin at the start. In GTE it was Diego Alessi who managed to take the lead at the wheel of the #21 Ferrari by AF Corse.
Sarah Bovy settled in third position, but soon resumed her two seasons-long battle with Corvette's Ben Keating. Bovy set the fastest laps in GTE and got progressively closer until she was able overtake the #33 Corvette. The Belgian then started opened a gap to complete her first stint and pit safely, also catching up Alessi. She would eventually claim the lead.
After completing the first pit stop, Bovy rejoined behind Keating, albeit she managed to gain back the position quite rapidly, when her tyres were warm enough. Meanwhile, the first troubles for Toyota meant that the #7 machine was called into the pits for a broken sensor that had to be changed upon FIA request. The two Ferraris 499P moved up to the virtual podium in Hypercar.
Lilou Wadoux meanwhile had stepped into the #83 Ferrari by Richard Mille AF Corse and started battling with Bovy for second place: the pair fought for a couple of laps until the Frenchwoman got by.
Bovy pitted after two hours of racing to hand the bright pink Porsche to Rahel Frey, ready for her double stint. The Swiss driver was back out on track in third position but chased back the leaders with phenomenal pace.
With her great speed, Frey reclaimed the class lead by the end of the third hour, pitting for fuel and tyres by the end of the third hour of racing. Young promising driver Nicolas Varrone was leading the GTE pursuers at the wheel of the Corvette, but Frey increased her gap from the chasing cars. A small mistake did not cost positions, but Wadoux was starting to close in.
Rahel pitted and Michelle Gatting took the wheel of the #85 Porsche for the final double stint of the race: the Dane would have to defend a potential victory. With a faster pace, though, Alessio Rovera battled with Gatting for a couple of laps but the Ferrari was just too fast and Michelle had to settle for third position.
Meanwhile in LMP2, everyone was battling their hearts out for the lead and in Hypercar the #51 Ferrari suffered braking issues.
With just an hour to go, the Vanwall Vanderwall spun and hit the wall due to a brake failure. Jacques Villeneuve was unable to continue, and the accident triggered the only Safety car of the race. As soon as the race restarted, Gatting headed to the pits to complete her final pitstop, holding position.
The #8 Toyota of Buemi, Hartley and Hirakawa was the first to see the chequered flag, followed by the #50 Ferrari and the #6 Porsche. In LMP2, it was United Autosports 1-2, while third placed was the #41 WRT of Kubica, Andrade and Deletraz.
In GTE Am the battle for the win saw Rovera, on the #83 Ferrari, trying to steal the lead from Catsburg, on the #33 Corvette, until the last corner. The Dutchman was able to defend and took victory in an exciting finish. After a brilliant performance, the three Iron Dames clinched their first podium of the season - and the first with the new machinery. While the Corvette and the #83 Ferrari proved to be a bit too fast for the #85 Porsche, Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting took out the most of the performance. They were joined by Lilou Wadoux, at her first podium in WEC.
"We drove our hearts out today", said Frey. "We tried to do our best and it was not enough, a few mistakes happened again but we keep pushing. Clearly the Corvette and the Ferrari were faster. Next race will be Spa and then Le Mans. If we continue like this, clearly the first win will come."
"P3 at the end, I think it is a good result considering the fight was very tough on-track all race. All three drivers did an amazing job on the track and we can be very happy with the result." - Bovy added.
"We were missing just a little bit of pace compared to the Corvette and the Ferrari but at the end we fought through the race and we will be back in Spa even stronger."
The 6H of Portimao turned out to be a highly spectacular race. Next up on the WEC calendar will be the 6H of Spa Francorchamps in less than two weeks' time: the stakes are more than open and we can't wait to see what these three ladies have to show.