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Célia Martin and Karen Gaillard make GT3 debut with promising Le Mans Cup opener

New Iron Dames recruits Célia Martin and Karen Gaillard made their GT3 racing debut with a promising outing in the Le Mans Cup season opener at Barcelona, showing great qualifying speed and potential for a top three.

Karen Gaillard, Célia Martin, Iron Dames Lamborghini HuracanGT3, Michelin Le Mans Cup 2024, Barcelona Circuit de Catalunya
Photo credits: FocusPackMedia - Jan Patrick Wagner

Célia Martin and Karen Gaillard completed their first race as part of the Iron Dames team, as they tackled the first round of the 2024 Michelin Le Mans Cup season.

The two new recruits made their GT3 racing debut with a promising outing, showing great potential and a particularly positive qualifying – which proved their ability to contest for the top three.

Martin and Gaillard were announced as part of the Iron Dames roster as the team returned to Michelin Le Mans Cup for the first time since 2021, when both Doriane Pin and Sarah Bovy climbed the ranks of GT racing via the main ELMS stepping stone.

Célia Martin started her career in 2014 and she moved to the Nürburgring to pursue a professional career in the sport in 2017. Until 2019, she mainly raced at the Nordschleife-based NLS; as part of the Girls Only by WS Racing squad, she took pole position and class victory in 2021 in the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring, then added another podium the following year in the same class. Having collected experience in GT4 machinery, she stepped up to a full ADAC GT4 campaign in 2023, before her GT3 move with Iron Dames, aboard the pink #83 Lamborghini Huracan Evo2.

She shares the car with young Swiss talent Karen Gaillard, a Filière Endurance graduate in 2020 that has made her way up the ladder of endurance championships such as the Ultimate Cup and the 24H Series. In 2022 she contested her first sprint race championship in the French Mitjet 2L series, then made a remarkable debut in prototypes in 2023, finishing runner up in the Ultimate Prototype Challenge. After a testing program with Iron Dames, the Barcelona season opener was therefore also her GT3 debut – in a field that features some highly experienced silver and also gold rated drivers in the GT3 class.

Karen Gaillard, Célia Martin, Iron Dames Lamborghini HuracanGT3, Michelin Le Mans Cup 2024, Barcelona Circuit de Catalunya
Photo credits: Iron Dames

In the first practice session, both drivers got up to speed with the car and the track, and Gaillard made good improvements towards the end of the session, setting the car's best lap in 1:42.148 that put the team seventh in the timing sheets.

Martin then showed her potential in the bronze driver collective test, where she clearly emerged as one of the top bronze-rated drivers, placing the #83 Lamborghini in fourth place.

The second practice session was yet another step forward for both drivers: Martin and Gaillard significantly closed the gap to the front runners – with very fast Ferraris almost always locking out the top three or four positions – and were fifth fastest, with both drivers very close to each other in performance.

Martin was then the protagonist of a remarkable qualifying effort, as she took on driving duties for the 15 minute, closely fought session.

Célia was fifth after her first run, but then her first representative time put her third fastest. Once she got into the rhythm, Martin improved once again with two minutes to go; albeit the two AF Corse Ferrari were half a second ahead, she put together a stellar final run with a purple first sector – before a spinning Ferrari in the final sector right in front of her hampered her chances. Nevertheless, she had again improved on her personal best and retained third, thus securing a start from the second row on her first ever outing in Le Mans Cup.

As the bronze driver, Célia Martin also took over the Iron Dames Lamborghini for the first stint of the race, behind the two AF Corse Ferraris of Matt Kurzejewski and Custodio Toledo.

The 35-car pack kicked-off the 2024 season in chaotic fashion, as several LMP3 cars made contact at turn 1 and went around, although the race remained green throughout the action-packed first laps. The AF Corse Ferraris navigated the field and gained positions, mingling with the LMP3 class; Célia Martin initially had a brilliant getaway but then had to take evasive action and slammed on the brakes; she masterfully survived the first lap, although she lost third to Andrew Gilbert's Kessel Racing Ferrari.

Solidly in fourth, Martin had rapid pace and set purple sectors early on; after great laps she caught Gilbert and managed to find a way past – although a few corners she was caught out by a spin in the final sector. While she could rejoin, the #83 Lamborghini was now all the way down the order.

Karen Gaillard, Célia Martin, Iron Dames Lamborghini HuracanGT3, Michelin Le Mans Cup 2024, Barcelona Circuit de Catalunya
Photo credits: FocusPackMedia - Marcel Wulf

Martin kept pushing hard and set the fastest lap among all the GT3 category in 1:44.354, before the safety car was deployed for two LMP3 cars stranded in the gravel in unrelated incidents. The neutralization was the opportunity for Célia to catch back the pack and the green flag was waved on lap 15, with Martin back in seventh position.

Kurzejewski cleared some traffic and held the lead from Toledo and Gilbert, now in LMP3 traffic. Amidst contacts, Jousset (Kessel Racing Ferrari) was spun around by a prototype and Célia Martin picked up one position, then continued to chase the High Class Racing Porsche, just a few tenths ahead.

Mid-way through the race, Nicholas Jones pitted, finally leaving Martin in clear air. As the fastest bronze, Martin extended her stint as Iron Dames opted to keep her out, climbing up into the GT3 lead and running in the overall top five and waiting for a safety car. When all the LMP3 cars also stopped, Martin grabbed the overall lead on lap 31, before pitting for her mandatory driver change one lap later.

Karen Gaillard jumped aboard the #83 pink Huracan, now back in seventh place in class.

Gaillard improved the cars' fastest lap, although she now had 23 seconds to close to the High Class Racing Porsche. Unfortunately, the Iron Dames Lambo was handed a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane and she served it on lap 38, retaining seventh in class - although one lap down.

With 25 minutes to go, the #24 IDEC Sport LMP3 went off and got beached in the runoff of turn 14. The unfortunate safety car timing could not result in a pass around to get the lap back; in the final minutes of the race, Gaillard still valiantly pushed and ran on the same times as some of the front runners. She eventually took the chequered flag in P7 among the GT3 entries.

Despite an overall unfortunate first race, there were plenty of positives to take for the two new Iron Dames, who both made their GT3 debut and collected valuable track time. Martin, in particular, showed brilliant pace among the bronze drivers and was clearly in contention for a podium in the early stages. Célia and Karen will start from these positives to resume their Michelin Le Mans Cup rookie campaign.

"Célia and Karen started the Michelin Le Mans Cup in a very determined and encouraging way, giving them invaluable experience", commented Deborah Mayer, Iron Dames founder. "Seeing this family of drivers grow up with a shared passion, determination and team spirit warms my heart and I can't wait to see them all race again in Paul Ricard!"

The second round of the championship will in fact be held in the south of France in three weeks' time (3-4 May).

Karen Gaillard, Célia Martin, Iron Dames Lamborghini HuracanGT3, Michelin Le Mans Cup 2024, Barcelona Circuit de Catalunya
Photo credits: FocusPackMedia - Marcel Wulf



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