Iron Dames on the podium, Richard Mille Racing secures first top-5
In the ELMS season opener at the 4H of Le Castellet, the fully-female Iron Dames squad claimed a podium finish, while Tatiana Calderon secured her first top-5 in the series with Richard Mille Racing.
The 2020 edition of the European Le Mans Series got underway in the sunny backdrop of the Circuit Paul Ricard, in the South of France.
In preparation to the 24 hours classic, the ELMS was set to feature two fully-female teams, both supported by the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission. In the LMP2 category, Richard Mille Racing was launched with the aim of entering a women-only crew in the prototype class for the first time. The Swiss luxury watch-maker partnered title-winning team Signatech and lined-up an all-star trio of female racing driver: F1 development driver Tatiana Calderon, FIA F3 racer Sophia Floersch and one of the most accomplished female drivers in today's motorsport, Katherine Legge.
French squad Signatech thus made its return to the continental championship after winning both the World Endurance Championship and the Le Mans crowns.
At the same time, Iron Lynx Motorsport will support the "Iron Dames" project in the GTE class, previously lined up by Kessel Racing in their 2019 series debut. Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting and Manuela Gostner will again contest the full ELMS season after finishing 4th in last year's standings, with two second places to their name.
The delayed season kicked off at Le Castellet on 15th July for the official collective test.
Sophia Floersch joined Calderon and Legge at the wheel of the Oreca prototype for their second test together after Bahrain last year, despite the 19-year old German was then scheduled to race at Hungaroring with FIA Formula 3 at the weekend.
With less than an hour to go in Wednesday's morning session though, Katherine Legge had a big crash coming off of Signes corner: she impacted heavily with the barriers and required extrication. She was later airlifted to a local hospital with fractures in her left leg and a sprained right wrist. Legge underwent surgery the following day and is now recovering from her injuries at Sainte Anne hospital.
With Floersch unavailable, the accident left Richard Mille Racing with only Tatiana Calderon on the entry list and the team opted to join forces with former Signatech driver André Negrao.
The #83 Iron Dames squad, on the other hand, displayed consistent speed throughout the testing days, where the three ladies were often found in the top-3 positions, together with the Iron Lynx sister car of Schiavoni-Pianezzola-Piccini.
After their third place finish at last year's 4 Hours of Le Castellet, expectations were high for the fast trio.
Qualifying saw the #22 United Autosport car of Hanson-Albuquerque taking pole position in the LMP2 class, ahead of the G-Drive squad by Rusinov-Jensen-De Vries. Tatiana Calderon qualified the #50 Richard Mille Racing Oreca in P13, with a 1:40.123 lap: it was the fastest lap recorded by the team at Paul Ricard during both testing and practice.
In GTE, Kessel Racing clinched pole with the #74 Ferrari F488 GTE Evo, which topped the #98 Aston Martin Vantage by Dalla Lana-Lauda-Gunn. Michelle Gatting signed a 1:52.820 that put the #83 Iron Lynx pink-coloured Ferrari into 7th place.
When the green flag was waved on Sunday at 12:00, Phil Hanson held the lead from Mikkel Jensen and Will Owen after the first corner, with the top-3 cars covered by a fraction of a second but maintaining positions.
The #4 Idec Oreca driven by Paul Lafargue was the first high-profile casualty of the season, as the 2019 champion team slowed down at Signes while in fourth place overall and slowly made its way back to the pits with electrical issues. The same fate occurred to the #24 Algarve Pro Racing Oreca, that blew out a tyre when in P4.
In the GTE category, the polesitters were handed a drive through penalty for a jump start which elevated the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari into class lead, after also the #98 Aston Martin would later be penalized for a contact with the Graff LMP2 car.
Michelle Gatting completed the first stint of the race and immediately started to charge through the field. The Dane battled hard with the #77 Porsche driven by Christian Ried but could not find a way past her opponent and lost a place in the process to the #66 JMW Ferrari of Hunter Abbott. One lap later, Gatting moved back ahead at Turn 1.
The third-placed United Autosport car of Owen found a way past the Aurus G-Drive to advance into second place. At the first round of pitstops, the two United Autosport cars stayed out, while Jensen pitted the G-Drive and handed over to Rusinov.
Actor Michael Fassbender - making his ELMS debut in the #93 Proton Competition Porsche - was caught off guard when the #8 Realteam LMP3 Ligier moved past him, cutting across his racing line. The Porsche driver spun and went into the barriers with significant damage, while the #8 crew were given a drive through penalty.
Meanwhile, Gatting kept lapping very competitively and overtook the Kessel Racing Ferrari of Broniszewski-Cadei-Perel.
The first full-course yellow was deployed when the GTE leading #55 Spirit of race Ferrari driven by Duncan Cameron went into the barriers at Signes after making contact with Konstantin Tereschenko.
The race neutralization was good news for the United Autosport team, who pitted both cars under FCY and performed their driver changes: Owen handed over to Brundle, as Albuquerque swapped seat with Hanson.
After the restart, GTE polesitters in the #74 Kessel Racing were back into class lead, with Italian racer Manuela Gostner now behind the wheel of the #83 Iron Lynx Ferrari.
The green flag brough a new order in GTE, with the #77 Proton Porsche making a decisive move with Alessio Picariello overtaking Nicola Cadei for P1.
In LMP2, Brundle pulled away and left Rusinov battling Albuquerque for second. The Russian driver then pitted for fuel and Mikkel Jensen got back behind the wheel. When he seemed able to catch back up the leaders, a Safety Car freezed the action following Julien Canal's accident at the last corner in the #31 Panis Racing Oreca: the French driver suffered a rear suspension failure and was a passenger when his LMP2 car hit the barriers on the left-hand side of the track.
Brundle led Albuquerque, ahead of Allen's Graff Racing #39 Oreca and of André Negrao's Richard Mille Racing - who had performed an remarkable recovery up to fourth place.
Throughout the next stints, the United Autosport cars fought for the overall leadership, with Will Owen and Job Van Uitert alternating onboard of the #32. When Formula E driver Nyck De Vries started his driving shift in the #26 G-Drive, the Dutch driver closed in on the leaders again and passed his compatriot Van Uitert into Signes corner.
With 1 hour and 17 minutes left on the clock, Tatiana Calderon jumped in the #50 Richard Mille Racing Oreca and made her race debut in the ELMS. The Colombian's only other endurance race so far was this year's Daytona 24 Hours, where she shared a Lamborghini with Katherine Legge, Christina Nielsen and Rahel Frey in the GTD class.
Calderon rejoined the track in P5 and held on to her position with a very consistent stint until she came under pressure from Nicolas Lapierre in the #37 Cool Racing.
In the final stages, Van Uitert battled again De Vries, but the latter had to pit again for fuel and rejoined P4. When a United Autosport 1-2 looked likely to open the ELMS season, Hanson slowed down from the overall lead and had to pit with a puncture. Van Uitert inherited first place, ahead of the #39 Graff Racing and over 30 seconds in front of the #26 G-Drive.
After the last pistops, Picariello handed over to Beretta in the GTE leading Porsche before making his return for the last stint, where he extended his lead. Behind him, it was the #74 Kessel Racing Ferrari and the #83 Iron Dames trio, with Rahel Frey at the wheel. The Swiss GT ace had a very challenging last stint due to fuel strategy, but was able to bring the car across the finish line in third place and claimed the first podium of the season for the new Iron Lynx team.
Positions were maintained until the chequered flag in the overall classify as well, but a post-race penalty for the Graff Racing squad stripped Allen-Laurent-Cougnaud of their podium and promoted the second United Autosport LMP2 car to third place.
Following the penalty, Tatiana Calderon brought the #50 Richard Mille Racing Oreca to fifth place overall, in a very positive debut for the Swiss team.
“We finished the first weekend of the European Le Mans Series championship with the Richard Mille Racing Team, obviously we did not start as we would have liked due to the accident that my teammate Katerine Legge had in the pre-race tests." - commented Calderon. "But I think the team has done a great job finding a replacement with a lot of experience in the car and who knew the team."
“It was my first race with this type of car, my first race with an LMP2." - added the Colombian. "There are still many things to learn from this type of long-term competition, but I think it was a great start, as we were able to come back from 13th place to do claim our first top-5 in the first race is a great result. I am very happy and grateful for all the great work the team did."
“Now I am looking forward to continuing in this direction, to continue learning and I can't wait for the next race. Obviously I am also very happy to have the full support of the FIA Commission on Women in Motor Sport, which gives importance to this great project that wants to enhance all the talent of women in motorsports."
"So hopefully we can continue with these good results and continue learning in what comes for this season."
A delighted Iron Dames trio celebrated the podium, equalling their 2019 result at the French venue: "P3 in the first round of ELMS. A result we can be well satisfied with as a team." - said Gatting, who drove brilliantly since the prologue test. "The car was fast and stable through all 4 hours, and the team worked as expected. A great way to start the season where we proved again that Iron Dames are to be watched. Next time up it will be Spa in Belgium, a circuit that we don't have the best memories from in 2019. But I'm convinced that our new team can give us a strong car."
"Talent wins you a game, but team work does the rest" - said Gostner. "After such a weekend I can undoubtedly say that great teams produce great results and I am so proud to be part of the Iron Dames with my teammates Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting."
"But it's not just about us, it's about everyone's little step, it's about my gratitude for Deborah Mayer who made all of this possible, my driver coach Giorgio Sernagiotto, every engineer and mechanic and everyone involved in the race." - she added on her social media feeds.
"What a stunning kick off!" echoed Rahel Frey. "We are so proud of our Team and grateful for the visit of FIA - Women in Motorsport. We missed you, fans, but we know you are cheering for us."
Both the Richard Mille Racing and the Iron Lynx teams, in fact, received on Sunday the visit of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission President, motor racing legend Michéle Mouton.
In the afternoon, Michelle Gatting entered the Michelin Le Mans Cup race as well, partnering Iron Dames' mastermind Deborah Mayer. They finished fifth in the #9 Iron Lynx Ferrari.
The second round of the European Le Mans Series will be in three weeks time, as the teams will hit the track again on the legendary Spa Francorchamps circuit on 8th-9th August.