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Iron Dames storm to race victory at 4H of Imola

“Today is a race we can be very proud of because we showed once again that regardless of the circumstances we are in, we always try to do our best" - Iron Dames claimed a thrilling victory at the 4 Hours of Imola, the first of their European Le Mans Series campaign, overcoming a penalty through exceptional teamwork and strategic driving by Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey, and Michelle Gatting.


Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting, Iron Dames Porsche, European Le Mans Series, 4 Hours of Imola 2024
Photo credits: Iron Dames

Iron Dames stormed to a spectacular victory at the 4 Hours of Imola, following up from their third consecutive pole position of the season in European Le Mans Series, in a tightly contested home race for the team.


The all-female squad led the vast majority of the race, with Sarah Bovy fighting through early neutralizations that forced the Belgian star to start building her gap again and again, before Rahel Frey drove a superbly solid central part of the race, holding off with confidence the strong competitions. A bold strategy in the final stint eventually allowed Michelle Gatting to retain track position after a 10 second penalty; the Danish ace was finally the protagonist of a heroic drive to bring the car home in the lead, having endured heavy pressure.


“Today is a race we can be very proud of because we showed once again that regardless of the circumstances we are in, we always try to do our best", stated Rahel Frey. "We proved that again today."


Iron Dames therefore emerged as the winner of the third round of the 2024 European Le Mans Series, bouncing back from the recent setbacks and especially from a rough start of the weekend at Autodromo Enzo and Dino Ferrari in Imola, where the team struggled to find pace in practice.


The team was also making its on-track return after Sarah Bovy's significant crash at the latest Sahlen's Six Hours of the Glen, which resulted in the Belgian driver being hospitalized overnight. A small concussion then forced her out of the 24 Hours of Spa, ran just a few days later: the Iron Dames team regrouped and focused on the 4 Hours of Imola, aiming to return to the front-running positions after a really strong start of the campaign aboard the pink #85 Porsche  911 GT3 R.


And Bovy, the team's appointed bronze driver for qualifying, once again did not disappoint.

On one of her favourite racetracks, Sarah claimed her third consecutive pole in European Le Mans Series with yet another stellar performance on Saturday, which saw the Iron Dame topping the timing sheets with a brilliant final run: with fastest sectors in the first and third sectors, she crossed the chequered flag with a time of 1:43.349 - and nobody could demote her from the top spot.


“I’m super happy to be back in pole position in ELMS", Bovy said after qualifying. "Every little point we can score is going to be important for our championship and personally, it feels great to confirm that I am fit to drive the car fast."


Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting, Iron Dames Porsche, European Le Mans Series, 4 Hours of Imola 2024
Photo credits: FocusPackMedia - Tim Hearn

On Sunday morning, Sarah Bovy started from pole position in the 4 Hours of Imola, amidst a field of 43 cars and 11 LMGT3 competitors. At the green flag, Bovy cautiously navigated through the tightly packed traffic, eventually losing the LMGT3 lead to Derek Deboer's Racing Spirit of Leman Aston Martin. Nevertheless, she stayed out of trouble in the opening laps, before switching into attack mode.


Quickly recovering, she deftly maneuvered through the LMP3 prototypes, narrowing in on Deboer. The two engaged in a thrilling battle for the class lead, with Bovy maintaining relentless pressure. On lap 5, Deboer made a mistake at Tosa, going too deep into the corner. Bovy seized the opportunity, passing him to reclaim the lead just ten minutes into the race.


Once in front, Bovy demonstrated her usual speed and consistency, quickly building a gap. Her pace was unmatched in the class, and within a few laps, she had opened up an eight-second advantage over her rivals. However, a full course yellow was soon deployed when the #24 Nielsen Racing LMP2 car got stranded in the gravel at Acque Minerali.


Fortunately, the full course yellow procedure did not involve a full safety car, which meant the field was not bunched up. When racing resumed, she continued to extend her lead, gaining almost a second per lap. Meanwhile, Deboer came under pressure from Hiroshi Hamaguchi in the Iron Lynx Lamborghini, shifting the battle behind Bovy.


As the first hour approached, Bovy pitted from the lead on lap 27, executing an efficient stop. Moments later, however, another incident involving the #27 Nielsen Racing LMP2 at Rivazza required assistance from the marshals, leading to a second full course yellow. This allowed Deboer’s Aston Martin to pit under caution and snatch the lead from Iron Dames, with Deboer taking the restart with a five-second lead over Bovy.


Undeterred, Bovy quickly closed the gap and caught up to Deboer just before another full course yellow for the beached #50 Formula Racing Ferrari of Johnny Laursen. In a textbook move, Bovy overtook Deboer into the Variante Alta seconds before the caution was called, reclaiming the lead.


At that point, Sarah continued to push hard, extending her margin once again: by lap 43, she had rebuilt her eight-second buffer.


Despite facing traffic from lapped LMGT3 cars, Sarah showcased great racecraft, making her way through the #66 and #50 Ferraris, although losing some time. Iron Dames opted to pit for their second stop with 2 hours and 23 minutes to go, and Bovy handed over the car to Rahel Frey.


“I had a good battle with Derek [Deboer] at the start", Sarah summed up her stint. "He took a bit more risk than me, but I managed to find an opening after he made a mistake, and I retook the lead."


"I was then able to open a bit of a gap, but he got lucky with the Full Course Yellow in his first pitstop. That meant I had to do the job all over again, and I got it done just before another Full Course Yellow", the Belgian recalled. "For me, racing is about fighting, and we had a good battle which I really appreciated."


Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting, Iron Dames Porsche, European Le Mans Series, 4 Hours of Imola 2024
Photo credits: FocusPackMedia - Tim Hearn

Frey’s initial laps were marked by heavy traffic, which cost Iron Dames a few seconds to the Racing Spirit of Leman Aston Martin, now driven by Casper Stevenson. When Matteo Cressoni pitted the #60 Proton Competition Porsche, Frey brought the Iron Dames Porsche back into the lead as the race reached its midpoint.


Taking over with an 18-second advantage over the #59 Aston, Frey kept up the pace, further growing the gap by a couple of seconds, matching Bovy's impressive pace.

Rahel maintained a solid rhythm, but an accident between the #37 COOL Racing LMP2 Oreca and the #4 DKR Engineering LMP3 Duqueine ultimately required the intervention of the first safety car of the race.


During the safety car period, Iron Dames found themselves with a full lap advantage. However, the pass-around procedure allowed everyone to close back in, meaning Frey would have to rebuild their lead from scratch.


The race resumed with 1 hour and 29 minutes left on the clock, and Frey had a clean getaway, retaining the top spot from Stevenson’s Aston Martin and Esteban Masson’s Kessel Racing Ferrari. Rahel held on well, setting the car's new best lap in 1:43.599, although Stevenson closed back in by lap 80. Despite this, Frey managed to maintain the lead and keep Stevenson at bay.


In a dramatic development, Iron Dames received a ten-second penalty for a full course yellow infringement. Frey kept her cool and continued to keep Stevenson behind, as the leading LMGT3 trio pulled away from the rest of the field. Frey, Stevenson, and Masson were significantly faster than the rest, with Jefferies following over ten seconds behind.


The top four in the LMGT3 class all pitted on lap 98, with 46 minutes to go. Iron Dames served their penalty, and smartly opted to not take new tyres: Michelle Gatting rejoined in the LMGT3 lead, also aided by a stall for Valentin Hasse-Clot's #59 Aston Martin and a slower stop for the #57 Kessel Racing Ferrari, which fell behind the #97 Grid Motorsport by TF Aston driven by Lorcan Hanafin.


With 40 minutes to go, Michelle Gatting had a 1.3-second margin over her closest rival, despite being on much older tyres. Hasse-Clot quickly closed in, and despite Gatting's strong pace, the Dane had to start checking her mirrors frequently.


Michelle survived a full course yellow restart with the Aston Martin glued to the back of the #85 magenta Porsche; Hasse-Clot continued to apply pressure, and a contact on the main straight on lap 110 saw Gatting defending as hard as she could. Despite the contact, she heroically retained the lead.


Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting, Iron Dames Porsche, European Le Mans Series, 4 Hours of Imola 2024
Photo credits: FocusPackMedia - Marcel Wulf

Michelle put on a remarkable fight, and after another full course yellow to remove the stranded Iron Lynx LMP2 Oreca, she was three-tenths ahead of Hasse-Clot and six-tenths ahead of the #97 Aston of Hanafin, in a spectacular battle for the win with ten minutes to go.


As the green flag waved, Gatting defended fiercely, with Hanafin having a look at Hasse-Clot. The TF Sport Aston, however, dropped a few seconds behind, leaving Gatting and Hasse-Clot to fight hard when the clock signaled the final 5 minutes of racing.


The final laps were tense but Gatting incredibly held off Hasse-Clot and the fast-charging Daniel Serra in the thrilling finale on 70-lap-old tyres: she crossed the finish line and finally secured Iron Dames' first race win of the season in the European Le Mans Series.


“The final stint was incredibly intense, but I got into the zone very quickly and I felt at one with the car", the heroic Michelle gatting commented. "In that situation, it was basically all or nothing and Valentin [Hasse Clot] put a lot of pressure on me."


"It was difficult at times, but I kept cool, and I knew that I had Sarah and Rahel with me, and the whole team behind me", she continued. "Winning is such a good feeling, and it gives us the boost we needed this season, especially after a few races which haven’t gone our way.”


"Winning on track is the best feeling you can have and I’m super proud of the entire team today", echoed Frey, whose central stint was just as crucial. "We did the best job we could have done, both on the track, and off it.”


The return of Sarah Bovy at the very top-end of sports car racing after her accident was another great confidence boost, as the Belgian made once again the difference both in qualifying as well as in her opening stint.

"We didn’t break under immense pressure, and this makes me very proud", Sarah added. "The race was very intense from start to finish, but we had a brilliant car to work with and I’m super proud of the entire team.”


The Iron Dames' pole position and race victory allowed the all-female team to advance to third place in the LMGT3 championship standings - only eight points behind the class leaders and one point behind the second-placed team.


While the ELMS will resume for the 4 Hours of Spa on 25th August, Iron Dames will now head to Brazil for the upcoming 6H of Sao Paulo, fifth round of the FIA WEC in a week's time.


Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting, Iron Dames Porsche, European Le Mans Series, 4 Hours of Imola 2024
Photo credits: Iron Dames

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