Promising starting positions for Theeba, Iron Dames and STR ahead of 1000km of Paul Ricard
In a dry qualifying, Reema Juffali's Theeba Motorsport made big steps forward and will start from P5 in class in the 1000km of Paul Ricard - followed by Iron Dames in P9 in Bronze Cup.
Also with podium ambitions in ProAm, Samantha Tan Racing will line up in P3.
On a dry Saturday morning, GT World Challenge's qualifying set the grid for the upcoming 1000km of Paul Ricard, which is set to get underway later this afternoon at Le Castellet.
In finally sunny conditions after a rainy pre-qualifying on Friday afternoon, the 57 entries of the unbelievably competitive GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup battled through the three 15-minute sessions, with combined average lap times setting the starting field.
Five female drivers are contesting the full Endurance Cup season of the SRO European series: joining the Iron Dames trio of Bovy, Gatting and Frey are driver/owners Reema Juffali (Theeba Motorsport) and Samantha Tan (ST Racing).
After her first GT3 campaign in GT Open in 2022, Juffali opted to make the jump into GT World Challenge Europe, teaming up with Ralf Aron and Alain Valente.
A rough season opener for the Saudi team at Monza - where the #81 Mercedes AMG GT3 struggled to battle for the top ten in the Bronze Cup - was quickly reversed at Le Castellet, as the team was back on the right path in practice, showing top5-worthy pace in all sessions, with potential for a top three.
Juffali, Aron and Valente will in fact start from P5 in class in tonight's 6 hour race, following a very solid qualifying effort from all three drivers: Alain Valente took the reins of the Theeba Motorsport's Mercedes in Q1 and set the seventh fastest time, with a 1:55.187. Juffali took over in Q2 and, with a 1:55.872 was in a solid P12 among the Bronze Cup entries.
The team's fastest lap came in Q3 with Estonian Ralf Aron, who clocked a 1:54.260 - that brought the average time down to 1:55.106. Their team effort gained Theeba Motorsport fifth on the grid, with the #188 Garage 59 McLaren claiming the class pole position for the second time this year.
Having battled for the Gold Cup title in 2022, Iron Dames' Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey are now competing in the Bronze Class, in the team's new #83 Lamborghini Huracan GT3 EVO2. A top-10 at the Monza season opener highlighted a step forward for the all-female team, which headed to Paul Ricard - some sort of home race for the team that has always collected important results at the venue - with high hopes.
Practice and pre-qualifying confirmed that the #83 pink Lamborghini would need to find some speed ahead of the race, but the drivers' qualifying performance was another great step: Rahel Frey was behind the wheel for the first session and the Swiss ace set a 1:56.277 that put her in P15 in the bronze class and P49 overall.
It was then time for Sarah Bovy to take over the Huracan GT3 - and the Belgian improved on her teammate's previous time by a little over one tenth of a second, setting a 1:56.120 which put her in P15 in class.
Michelle Gatting has often been the driver most at ease with the new Lamborghini machinery out of the trio; Gatting continued the trend and, having also led briefly the session with 10 minutes to go, she eventually completed Q3 in P11 among the Bronze Cup entries, clocking a 1:44.943 that represented Iron Dames' best lap across all sessions.
The improvement allowed the #83 Lamborghini to move up to ninth in the aggregate classification, with an average of 1:55.763.
At her debut to GTWC Europe after successful outings in the American series, Canadian racer Samantha Tan had a heartbreaking start of the season: after a promising qualifying and having shown good progress in the #38 Ferrari 488 GT3 - in her first ever season at the wheel of Ferrari machinery, alongside her American campaign with the BMW M4 GT3 - Tan was pushed onto the grass and into the wall at the start of the Monza season opener.
Isaac Tutumlu Lopez - who unfortunately didn't get to make his debut with the Canadian outfit after the early retirement at Monza, was behind the wheel for the first qualifying session: the Spaniard set the third time in Q1 in the ProAm class, with a 1:55.802.
2021 24H Series champion Samantha Tan was up next; while still learning the car - which she barely drove in a pre-season test at Circuit Paul Ricard, hampered by same technical issues - was fourth fastest in class, before Jon Miller took over in the final 15 minute session.
Miller was the fastest of the trio, with a 1:55.347 that was enough for secon in ProAm, behind the #78 Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini of Dennis Lind who eventually scored pole position.
In the combined result, Samantha Tan Racing slotted in third place in class and will therefore start from the 49th place overall.
The 1000km of Paul Ricard will go green at 18:00 local time for six hours of thrilling action at dusk and into the night; with plenty of time to make up positions, the five female drivers on the grid can aim for a strong result at the second round of the GTWC Europe Endurance season.