Iron Dames narrowly miss out on podium finish at ELMS opener
Despite a brilliant first half of the race, a series of Safety Cars and Full Course Yellow denied Iron Dames of a podium at the first ELMS round at Le Castellet - but Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting could leave with good points for the remainder of the season.
At their fourth season in European Le Mans Series, Iron Dames are looking stronger than ever. The all-female team launched in 2019 by now-FIA Women In Motorsport Commission President Deborah Mayer has expanded its presence to the world's top GT and endurance championships and, under the competent guidance of Iron Lynx, is consistently getting closer to its first victory with its GTE line-up. Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting and Sarah Bovy returned to the track two weeks after an unlucky Imola round in GT World Challenge Europe and again showed their potential on Friday, when Sarah Bovy topped the practice session for Bronze-rated drivers. The Belgian racer has once again proved to be one of the world's top bronze-rated drivers and had high hopes for Saturday's qualifying. In a very competitive LMGTE field, Bovy was in contention to put the bright pink Ferrari 488 GTE clear of the competition, signing very fast times in the first and third sector, but her effort wasn’t enough in sector 2 to claim Iron Dames’ first pole position and she would end third fastest.
Bovy was again behind the wheel of the #83 Ferrari for the start of the race and, as soon as the lights went out on Sunday at 11:00am, she started an outstanding first part of the race. On the opening lap, Bovy overtook Christian Ried (#77 Proton Competition Porsche) just before the first race neutralization, caused by an incident on the final corner involving the #3 United Autosport LMP3 and the #69 Oman Racing by TF Sport Aston Martin. When the race went back to green, Bovy immediately hunted down Pierre Ehret in the pole-sitting Rinaldi Racing Ferrari. 16 minutes into the race, Sarah completed a stunning move at the final corner and took the LMGTE lead, soon pulling away from the rest of the pack. A second Safety Car within minutes, though, shattered Bovy's margin, when Felbermayr spun in the 15 RLR Msport LMP3. She then had to force her way past a few LMP3 cars at the restart, as she defended from the return of Ried among the traffic - but once cleared, she was able to open a gap of almost 20 seconds. All her hard work was again all vain when a third Safety Car was deployed for debris at around the 45 minute mark, when the #27 Cool Racing LMP3 Ligier was tagged and sent into the barriers by a LMP2 car. Bovy had to build all over again and pitted on lap 32 for Iron Dames' first pit stop of the day - remaining behind the wheel for a double stint. The Belgian had another impressive stint and recovered positions - ultimately passing Michael Fassbender in the #93 Proton Porsche after they had gone off-sequence due to an early stop after a spin. Both the Proton and the #32 Rinaldi Ferrari had in fact dropped down the order in the opening stages, but were able to gain back the top of the GTE field thanks to favourable SC timing. Memo Gidley took over the Rinaldi Racing's Ferrari from the top spot but, just after the 2 hour mark, it would be Sarah Bovy to gain back the class lead, with another stellar performance.
Arguably the star of the race, Sarah Bovy pitted on lap 61 to hand over to Rahel Frey, who rejoined in fourth place during the round of pit stops. Frey claimed back third and had a great battle with the Proton Competition Porsche of Richard Lietz. Despite masterful defense from Frey, the fast Porsche 911 RSR left no chances to Iron Dames on the long Mistral straight - this weekend featuring no chicane. After a battling stint, Frey handed over to Michelle Gatting with one hour left on the clock. Just as the Danish driver was starting her charge, another unfortunate Full Course Yellow hampered Iron Dames' recovery, when the #4 DKR Engineering LMP3 Duqueine got stuck in the gravel trap. Once the race went green for the final 46 minutes, Gatting immediately went on the hunt for Zacharie Robichon (#93 Proton Porsche), with a podium still in contention. In the midst of LMP3 and LMP2 traffic, Gatting struggled to get past and the duo was caught by Gianmaria Bruni #77 Proton Porsche), who overtook both cars and advanced to third in class. Meanwhile, the #60 yellow Iron Lynx Ferrari had led in the second part of the race in the hands of Davide Rigon, but the Italian had to pit for a late refueling after being off-sequence and dropped to seventh.
“Both cars had a very good pace through the race" - commented Andrea Piccini, Team Principal at Iron Lynx. "For sure, the Porsches and Aston Martins had much more speed on the straight and this made it a bit difficult for us to fight and pass, but we managed to lead between the two cars for 90% of the race. “We never got a full course yellow or safety car period at the right moment and this massively limited our potential, but we know this is part of the game in endurance racing." After four hours of intense racing, the Rinaldi Racing Ferrari of Ehret/Varrone/Gidley took a surprise victory, ahead of the Proton Competition Porsches of Ried/Ferrari/Bruni and Fassbender/Robichon/Lietz. Michelle Gatting gave her all but was fourth across the finish line, ending a challenging race for Iron Dames that nevertheless confirms their position as series front-runners and potential winners despite lacking some straight line speed. "It’s P4 for us at the end of a tough week" - summed up Sarah Bovy. "We take it, good points for the championship, even if we were struggling a bit all along the meeting, we led the race for more than 2 hours, fought for the podium until the end, had some very strong moves on track - job was done from everybody, I’m proud of being part of the Iron Dames and Iron Lynx family, also for our ability to stay strong together and never give up"
"Leaving Le Castellet with P4 and some solid points", echoed Rahel Frey. "Much more would not have been possible from our side because we lacked pace throughout the event" - she continued. "So congratulations to our competitors, because they were simply faster today." Despite the challenges, there is no doubt that a first victory in either ELMS or WEC is approaching; the Le Castellet season opener is just the beginning of what is looking like a really encouraging season for Iron Dames - who will return to European Le Mans Series on 15th May, at Autodromo Enzo and Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy.