It was heartbreak for Iron Dames at the GT World Challenge season opener at Imola – but the talented drivers of the #83 Ferrari proved they belong to the top-end of the Gold Cup class with a strong qualifying performance.
It was one of those races to quickly forget and regroup for Iron Dames, who luckily have a very busy schedule in 2022 and will be back on track stronger than ever.
At Imola, season opener of the 2022 Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe powered by AWS, the all female team that has been making strides in endurance racing had pace for a top-five finish in the Gold class, but it all went wrong soon after the green flag.
While the beautiful new bright pink livery made its debut in Europe after running a very encouraging first round in WEC at Sebring, Iron Dames were no rookies of GTWC, having entered last year's 1000km of Le Castellet and the season finale at Barcelona. Still, Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey are eyeing a learning season in one of the most competitive GT3 championships in the world, going against some of the most experienced teams and drivers of the GT3 platform.
The weekend had started with the right foot, as Sarah Bovy was quick in the bronze-rated drivers practice session, ending fourth fastest in class.
Practice and Pre Qualifying were just as encouraging, with a ninth and a seventh place in class despite the massive traffic management required by the 53-car field.
On a very chilly yet not rainy Sunday morning at Autodromo Enzo and Dino Ferrari, Rahel Frey started the first 15-minute qualifying session and immediately put the #83 Ferrari in fourth place – and within the overall top-20. The Swiss ace was the fastest Ferrari on track and laid the foundation for a good starting position.
The three qualifying sessions were halted by several red flags, making the job of the drivers even harder to find the right spot of tarmac among the traffic in the short minutes of green flag running. Chaves (#188 McLaren) was off in the gravel at Rivazza and brought out the session-ending red flag in Q1, as Christopher Haase and Adam Eteki scored an Audi 1-2.
Sarah Bovy was back behind the wheel in Q2 and also had to put together her fast lap after a red flag triggered by the Aston Martin of Theo Nouet and – in an unrelated incident – the Barwell Lamborghini of Rob Collard. Still, Bovy was in the class top-three for most of the session and, having been as high as second, she finished seventh.
Michelle Gatting took over in Q3 and also had to navigate the wild traffic. When the pole-sitting #32 Audi got stuck in the gravel at the Tamburello chicane, Michelle sealed the fourth place in the combined times – a great joint effort by the three Iron Dames, who could have probably also aimed higher.
“P4 in class is quite okay, we could have done more, but this championship is about putting it all together and I think for our first qualifying we can be quite happy.” – told us Gatting after qualifying.
“It’s all about managing traffic: with all these cars out there, the drivers that know the championship well know how to do it. But I think it’s a good beginning", she continued.
“In Q3 I always had a Mercedes in front and he was basically slowing me a bit down – but the thing was I couldn’t slow down because I had other cars behind. It was a bit unlucky, we could have done more for sure, as we know that one or two tenths can be a lot of positions. But for now we can be happy.”
In a packed Imola for the official car racing debut of MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi – big motorbikes fan Sarah Bovy took over the helm of the Iron Lynx / Iron Dames Ferrari 488 GT3 for the race start. Cold conditions made it difficult for drivers to get tyres into temperatures in the first laps and, with a 53 car grid, the first corners were chaotic.
Unfortunately, it was Iron Dames' Sarah Bovy to get the worst of the outcomes, as she was out of the race at the Rivazza corner on the first lap after contact with the #112 JP Motorsport McLaren of Patryk Krupinski.
The Safety Car led the field in the opening 10 minutes and there was a lead change at the restart: Weerts opened the door to Christopher Mies after putting a wheel on the grass at the Villeneuve chicane. Marciello and Haase followed, with 6 Audis making up the early top-ten.
A second Full Course Yellow was deployed after Rob Collard ended up in the gravel at Rivazza at around the 30 minute mark, but the race went back underway shortly. Mies left no room for Weerts and Marciello and defended the top spot until the first round of pitstops.
Kelvin van der Linde, in fact, successfully completed the undercut in pitlane and went into the lead, preceding Lucas Legeret (Sainteloc Audi) and Marco Sorensen (Beechdean AMR).
Legeret, though, went off at Tamburello and dropped all the way to 14th.
Local hero Valentino Rossi made his race debut and got behind the wheel of the #46 WRT Audi R8 LMS, immediately finding his rythm and battling just outside the top-ten.
The central stint, though, was again severely hampered by FCY and Safety Car interventions: the stationary #97 Aston Martin of Theo Nouet was followed by a bigger incident, when the #107 CMR Bentley of Matthieu De Robiano crashed into the back of Jordan Witt's Leipert Lamborghini – scattering pieces of carbon fibre all across the track.
The neutralization was a longer one and extended into the second pit window. Valentino Rossi overshot his pitbox and had to complete another full lap before handing over to Frederic Vervisch – which resulted in the #46 WRT Audi dropping to 27th.
The green flag waved again with 52 minutes left on the clock and, having taken over from Kelvin van der Linde, Dries Vanthoor led the pack ahead of Jules Gounon (Akkodis Mercedes) and Luca Stolz (GetSpeed Mercedes).
Caution brings caution – and we didn't even have a full lap under green before the following Full Course Yellow, as the #87 Akkodis Mercedes of Casper Stevenson hit another car after overshooting the breaking point at Rivazza.
The final 45 minutes were finally caution-free, with two main battles taking over: Luca Stolz had to deploy all his racecraft to defend against Mattia Drudi and Dennis Lind for the overall third place, while Thomas Neubauer couldn't hold off a group of cars for the tenth place, as he battled with Kirchhofer, Farfus and Martin.
Dries Vanthoor opened a 5-second gap and wasn't seen again, as Gounon also enjoyed a 5-second margin to the battling Stolz and Drudi. The Italian went for a final move with 10 minutes to go, but he clipped the gravel and backed off.
Dries Vanthoor/Kelvin van der Linde/Charles Weerts brought home the victory across the chequered flag, with Gounon/Marciello/Juncadella finishing second in the #88 Akkodis Mercedes. Stolz/Engel/Schothorst (GetSpeed Mercedes) held on to third for the final step of the podium.
Former F1 driver Christian Klien – alonsgide Vincent Abril and Dennis Lind – were a solid fifth, in a strong performance by the JP Motorsport McLaren.
A great final stint by Frederic Vervisch brought the #46 WRT Audi shared with Nico Muller and Valentino Rossi to 17th place.
It sure was heartbreak for Iron Dames – but Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey will have plenty of opportunities this year to bounce back, with important events on their calendar: they will be back on track at Le Castellet for the first round of the EUropean Le Mans Series in two weeks' time, while they will return to the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup on 3-5 June, again on the French venue, for their second start in the 1000km of Le Castellet.