Masterful recovery for the Iron Dames at Le Mans
"What we did today is the spirit of endurance racing" – From the tail end of the field to topping their best finish at La Sarthe: the 90th Le Mans 24 Hours was surely a testing journey for the Iron Dames, who recovered from an early puncture to finish P7. Here's what they told us after the race.
At their fourth entry at the most prestigious motor racing event in the world, Iron Dames knew that you can never fully tame a beast like Le Mans. You can plan, rehearse, but it is like a living being that sometimes goes in unexpected and unpredictable directions – and all you can do is react.
Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting and Sarah Bovy were very strong in all practice sessions, consistently running within the top-five in class – and entered the race with high ambitions.
Team captain Frey went out on track for qualifying on Wednesday and put the pink #85 Ferrari 488 GTE in the top six, gaining access to HyperPole. She became the first woman to ever contest the HyperPole session and secured P6 on the grid.
But the start of the race was not what Iron Dames expected. On the second lap of the race, Michelle Gatting picked up a puncture and had to limp back to the pits at slow speed in order not to damage the car. The Danish racer rejoined at the back of the pack, almost a lap down. In a blink of an eye, all the strategy was scrapped.
“The start was rough. After one lap I got a puncture and I had to slow down a lot to avoid any damage to the car. We lost quite a lot of time there.” – Gatting explained.
“At the end of the day, we knew the race was long and we kept going.”
Le Mans might very well be the epitome of uncertainty and nothing is lost until the chequered flag. But, surely, making up for the lost time wasn’t an easy task. With good lap times, Gatting was back from P23 in class to P21 before having to stop for fuel at the first hour mark. She double-stinted and handed over to Rahel Frey from P19. The Swiss driver made up a few more positions before Sarah Bovy climbed in the driving seat from P18.
After steady progress, Bovy had further advanced into P15 when she had a contact with a LMP2 car that tried to lap her. Having been hit into the fast Porsche curves, Sarah masterfully managed to save the car from contact with the barrier and was soon back in the race after a trip to the gravel at speed. The contact was deemed a racing incident by race direction.
The Belgian had been closing in on the #86 GR Racing Porsche before the contact and handed the car back to Michelle Gatting into the sixth hour.
Two hours later, Iron Dames were up to P11 on the timing screens, with Frey at the wheel.
When the night fell over Le Mans, the #85 Ferrari was running flawlessly.
It would be Rahel Frey again to break into the top-ten for the first time during the eleventh hour, just before having to pit for driver change. From then on, they ran from 11th to 12th throughout the demanding night hours.
The light of the day made its way back onto the spectacular Circuit de La Sarthe at around 6am; the Iron Dames survived the night and continued an impressive charge stint after stint.
The work of the pit crew was impeccable and good strategy calls allowed them to get closer to the top ten in the early morning hours. It would be Michelle Gatting to move up to tenth when she overtook the #21 AF Corse of Christoph Ulrich.
Sarah Bovy was briefly into P9 during the pit stop sequence and then chased and passed the #86 GR Racing Porsche, advancing into eighth place. A great stint from Frey then passed on the baton to Michelle Gatting for the final section of the race – which turned out to be a real thriller. The Dane was catching the Porsche of Fred Poordad by over 4 seconds per lap and, when the third-placed Proton Porsche of Sebastian Priaulx hit trouble, Gatting found herself in fifth place in between the rounds of pit stops. Back in eighth after the stops, Michelle started an exciting yet equally nerve-wrecking battle with the #21 AF Corse Ferrari of Simon Mann that also saw a few close moments when prototypes went around them.
With a fantastic move at Arnage, Gatting finally made the move stick before the final round of pit stops. The unreal charge was completed with a seventh place across the finish line that resulted in Iron Dames’ best ever finish at Le Mans, breaking the ninth place finish spell.
“We broke the curse of P9, at least that’s over” – joked Sarah Bovy at the end of the race.
“At some point we really thought we would end P9 again to be honest”, she continued “but we pushed even more and tried even harder”.
“Sarah and Rahel did an amazing job in the car and we all pushed” – continued Gatting. “In the end, we managed to bring the car back in P7. To be honest, it’s not something that I’m super happy with because we came here with really high expectations – but in the end this is what we could do with the BOP we had.”
One of the biggest topics of the race throughout the GTE classes was the unfavorable balance of performance for the Ferrari cars compared to Porsche and Aston Martin and the Italian brand suffered from top speed on the long Le Mans straights.
“We were surprised by the Balance of Performance during the race itself, as basically Aston Martin and Porsche had their own race and for us, to finish as the second best Ferrari is good.” – Rahel Frey told us.
“We had a bad start and a happier ending – but not the happy ending we wished and worked for. We hoped and dreamt to finish higher up. It didn’t happen, so it means we have to come back and work even harder as we did”, she continued.
“We are driven by dreams and we never give up, which means that we keep on going.”
At her second participation in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Sarah Bovy was nevertheless happy about the progress made.
“We had a crazy race – on track we didn’t leave a tenth out there, really”, she commented. “It was great to drive and I felt I pushed my own limits. During the night we did some very strong stints and in the morning we had some great strategic moves. For me, what we did today is the spirit of endurance racing – and that’s why we’re here.”
“Of course we’re here to do results and I agree with Michi and Rahel that P7 is not what we’re aiming for – we know we can do better than that. But everything considered, coming back from P-last almost a lap down to P7, less than 50 seconds away from the first Ferrari is a good result. The competition was essentially the other Ferraris.”
“We have to be happy with that, but I think it will take us probably 24 hours more to realise it.”
The Iron Dames will be back on track in July for the Monza double, as the famous Italian circuit hosts both the third round of European Le Mans Series (3 July) and the fourth round of the World Endurance Championship (10 July). And at the end of next month it will be time to hit the track for another iconic 24-hour race: the 24 Hours of Spa Francorchamps.