Le Mans 24: Iron Dames five seconds away from podium in heroic run at La Sarthe
"I think we did the most important thing: We gave our everything and we drove our hearts out." - 24 hours of fighting at the top of the class. 24 hours of pure determination. Five seconds short of a podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans due to a late brake change, Iron Dames still secured their best ever finish at La Sarthe with a heroic run.
Iron Dames completed 24 hours of unbelievably close racing with a fourth place in class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The all-female trio, at their fifth participation at the most legendary of the endurance races on the planet, topped their best result of seventh, secured in 2022.
The Centenary edition turned out to be a highly spectacular competition, with position changes for the podium until the final minutes. The team - composed of Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting and Sarah Bovy - remained in contention for the victory for most of the race, only to lose the lead with three hours to go.
Having started from P12 in the GTE-AM class, Iron Dames' race was perfectly executed from the first lap. Rahel Frey's first stint was a mix of great experience in avoiding troubles and flawless strategy from the team, with well timed pit stops that brought the #85 pink Porsche from 12th on the grid to second in class at the four hour mark.
When Sarah Bovy got behind the wheel under safety car conditions, she held on brilliantly in a sudden downpour and then took over the lead in class, extending the gap as bronze drivers took over. In the hands of Michelle Gatting, Iron Dames retook the lead at yet another well-timed pit stop, then kept battling solidly in the top three.
Six hours in, the rain was back at La Sarthe: it was a few minutes of madness again, with cars going off all over the track. Gatting pitted just at the right time to bolt on rain tyres under yellow, and gained back the lead with another perfect strategy, which gained her over 40 seconds.
Sarah Bovy had more very strong stints towards the end of the night, when Frey and Gatting alternated again. The #85 Porsche continued to run in contention for a podium, despite losing some time after a few pit stops under green during the night.
A few safety cars also hampered the Dames' chances when they attempted to build a gap, but 20 hours into the race, the all-female trio remained steadily in the battle.
After another superb stint from the team's bronze-rated Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey took over driving duties, with the big goal of securing a first, historic podium.
Having led the race at the 20 hour mark, Sarah Bovy pitted with 3 hours and 43 minutes to go under a slow zone. After yet another round of pit stops, Sarah slotted into second place. With three hours to go, Iron Dames remained in the game.
The excitement was not only for LMGTE-AM, as every class was as open as ever: with the #51 Ferrari and the #8 Toyota separated by approximately 10 seconds after 21 hours of racing, as well as the leading LMP2 Inter Europol Oreca received a drive through penalty - which would just about allow the #34 machine to retain the class lead over Robert Kubica's Team WRT.
After 6 hours and 35 minutes of running at her third Le Mans 24 hours, Sarah Bovy completed her driving time with yet another incredibly solid performance - and the longest driving time for any bronze driver in GTE-AM. Sarah handed over to Michelle Gatting with 2 hours and 43 minutes to go.
Next up to complete his driving shifts was Nicolas Varrone - who set the fastest lap of his crew before platinum-rated Nicky Catsburg got behind the wheel of the #33 Corvette that retained the lead.
With platinum and gold drivers Cairoli and Eastwood behind, Michelle Gatting would have to defend a historic podium for Iron Dames.
The #85 Porsche, though, struggled for pace in the following hour, with the #25 Aston Martin and the #56 Porsche making up ground. At the following stop, it was Rahel Frey back on board. It would come down to a handful of seconds - lap after lap - with a Le Mans podium on the line.
Frey tried to hold on but she was struggling with brakes towards the end of the race and the ORT by TF Aston became bigger in her wing mirrors. She lost second to Eastwood with 1 hour and 20 minutes to go; Rahel attempted to respond at the second chicane, but Iron Dames were down to third place.
Into the final hour, Rahel Frey had a margin of 38 seconds to manage in order to claim a first podium at the most legendary of the races. Rahel matched the times of Matteo Cairoli for a few laps - before the latter pitted for his final stop. Frey stopped one lap later, with 50 minutes to go.
Cairoli hit trouble at the pit stop and dropped down to seventh - but the #85 Porsche required a brake change which resulted in Riccardo Pera (#86 GR Racing Porsche) incredibly snatching third in the final hour, gaining two positions in one stop.
Now fourth, Rahel Frey had a mountain to climb to claim that hard-fought top three.
Faster than Pera, Rahel gained a few tenths per lap - but it wasn't ultimately enough to come back on the #86 Porsche, who finished 5 seconds ahead.
Five seconds away from a Le Mans podium after 24 hours of running: this is how competitive GTE-AM was in the Race of the Centenary - the last for the category.
"P4 at Le Mans, our best result so far but after being in the top two for so many hours, a brake change took us away from the podium in the end, although safety comes before anything else", perfectly summed up Gatting. "I am proud of our team."
Iron Dames had in fact offered a masterclass in endurance racing, running at the front throughout a breathless competition and proving once again to belong to the very top of the strongest fields on the planet. A result to be proud of, for a team that has witnessed an impressive development in just a few seasons.
"I think we did the most important thing: We gave our everything and we drove our hearts out." - Frey added, after a heroic final stint.
"As an Iron Dame, we never ever give up, we are driven by a dream. So we keep dreaming, we keep working hard and hopefully we will come back."
Only fate could deny Iron Dames to stand on the rostrum at Le Mans but, after two ninth place finishes, a recovery drive from last to seventh in 2022, a battle for the win and for the podium now feels like a continuous progression - albeit clearly a bittersweet one.
"Obviously we are super disappointed. Finishing so close to the podium after fighting for the lead for so long is painful", Sarah Bovy commented.
"The team did a tremendous job. At the end we were fourth and it is the best result we have done so far at Le Mans".
The team's hard work and commitment inevitably inspired fans from over the globe, gaining countless new fans. Who will no doubt root for the unmissable pink car again in next year's running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.