"You have to see it to believe it” - Why the two fully-female teams at the 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours are not there to make up the numbers and could help breaking down the glass ceiling for the next generation of female talents.
Last year, a fully-female crew returned to Le Mans for the first time in over 10 years: the Iron Dames project, led by French driver and advocate for women in motorsport Deborah Mayer, entered the biggest endurance race on the planet in a Ferrari 488 GTE. Behind the wheel of the #83 car, Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting and Manuela Gostner finished P9 in the GTE-Am category. It was the first top-ten for an entirely-women team at La Sarthe.
Thanks to the remarkable efforts from the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission, the 2020 edition of the legendary race will see two fully-female crews on the grid - the first time since the mid-70s: while Iron Dames will be back for their sophomore Le Mans in GTE-Am, an all-star team composed of Sophia Floersch, Tatiana Calderon and Beitske Visser will be the first ever women-only squad in the LMP2 class. Racing for team Richard Mille Racing, the #50 Oreca 07 run by powerhouse team Signatech will take the start from the 25th position out of the 60 entries following Friday qualifying.
Behind the wheel of the Richard Mille-sponsored prototype should have been also British ace Katherine Legge, one of the most talented and experienced female racing drivers worldwide. Legge, though, suffered a big crash on the first day of pre-season testing at Le Castellet, when she went off at high speed and was airlifted to a local hospital with a broken leg, a sprained ankle and an injured wrist. With Floersch unable to race at the first two European Le Mans Series events due to clashing commitments in the FIA F3 championship, André Negrão joined Calderon at the season opener. In Spa Francorchamps, acclaimed BMW driver and W Series runner-up Beitske Visser was called to enter her first LMP2 race, as the Dutchwoman then also competed in the third round at Paul Ricard alongside Floersch.
Le Mans marks the first event where the trio will share the Oreca 07 all together, as Katherine Legge is still recovering from her injuries.
“It’s tough to be sitting at home rather than where the girls are." - said Legge during an online video conference on Wednesday. "Obviously I’m with them with spirit and I wish them all the best."
Even though the British driver has been cleared to drive, she took the decision to sit out the endurance marathon of Le Mans in order to make a full recovery for the next ELMS rounds.
"It was unfortunately the right decision for me not to be there, I didn’t want to put the team in a position where I, for example, do three double-stints and I’m in so much pain I have to say, sorry Tatiana, you have to do the last four hours. It is really hard, but it’s the right thing for the team: this is a team sport, it’s not single-seaters anymore, it’s about us as a group.”
Despite some pain, Katherine's medical condition is making good progresses, with her ankle now back in shape: "I’m walking now, which is good! - they said I’m doing very well and the big bone is bonding back together. I’m just waiting on that one now and trying to get stronger because when you sit on a wheelchair for a couple of weeks you lose a lot of mobility and a lot of strength. Everyday I’m in the gym, I do a lot of swimming, a lot of stationary bike and I hope to come back very soon."
A driver with experience spanning from F1-testing, DTM, ChampCar, IndyCar, Formula E, prototypes and an IMSA-vice champion, Legge will have to postpone her Le Mans 24 Hours debut to next year. Her goal-oriented attitude was once again put to the test, but she is definitely not giving up: "Mental strength is sometimes underestimated" - she said. "The target was Le Mans, now it's Monza. With Covid, this year has been a horrible horrible year to me". A British expat to the US, Legge was in fact also scheduled to race stateside in the IMSA championship in another all-female team, the GEAR Racing project. Unfortunately, after the 2020 Daytona 24 Hours - contested with Tatiana Calderon, Rahel Frey and Christina Nielsen - the team folded for funding issues.
While Calderon made her endurance debut at the Daytona event, it will be the very first 24 hours race for both Visser and Floersch, who are moving their first steps in sportscar.
"We have been preparing in ELMS, but Le Mans will be the first time the three of us will race together, and it will be very intense, a huge challenge: three rookie drivers in a very condensed schedule without the usual previous test,” commented Calderon. “I think we are all starting to understand how the endurance races work, how you need to approach them as a team while sharing a car. The only sad part is we won’t get the full Le Mans experience without the fans being there, but I hope they can cheer us from home. We are ready for the challenge."
The condensed schedule for this year's edition will also mean less track time, especially in the night, before heading into the race. Nevertheless, one experience could prove helpful in this crazy 2020: Floersch, Calderon, Legge and simracer Emily Jones entered the Le Mans 24 Hours Virtual back in June, when they shared the simulator for the full race length.
“Simracing is something different, totally different." - said Floersch, recalling the Richard Mille Racing preparation for the virtual event. "We spent 24 hours in the simulator and the team's engineer, Paul, was with us for the whole time - you could text him at 2 am and he would be online on Discord talking to us about what we could improve and what to do different. You could really feel the team spirit even if it was just an eSport race”.
"It was good to bond as a team and also to learn the track" - she added, with also Calderon agreeing that this could potentially turn out to be a valuable experience for three rookie drivers given the reduced weekend at La Sarthe in mid-September. The calendar revision from June to September will also mean an extended night-time: “The weather is pretty similar, it’s actually been pretty hot surprisingly" - said Visser. "The biggest difference is going to be the night, which will be very long. I think it’ll be 11 hours compared to 8 hours normally”.
Visser and Floersch had their first night-shifts behind the wheel of the Richard Mille prototype at the 240 Le Castellet event less than one month ago, where they finished P11 after a drive through denied them of a potential top-6. With both having spent the majority of their careers in single-seaters, they found surprisingly easy to adapt to the Oreca LMP2 car.
“It has a roof but it feels like a formula car, with a lot of power” - said Beitske, who jumped in the car after a last minute call at Spa Francorchamps and had to learn quickly.
“Switching cars was not really a struggle," agreed Floersch. "It has more power than a F3 car and more aerodynamics but the driving feeling is very very similar. The hardest thing for me to adapt was power-steering” - she added, as the 19-year old has been racing non-stop in two of the highest-ranked championships worldwide and just completed her rookie season in the uber-competitive FIA F3 championship.
Coming from formula cars, the Richard Mille Racing ladies quickly found out that endurance racing is about finding the best compromise: “That’s the most difficult thing, every driver has its own driving style." - explained Visser. "I think we’re not too far apart, it’s never going to be perfect but endurance racing is not about one lap, you need consistency throughout the whole race.”
And in this regard, team leader Katherine Legge will surely help and support her teammates given her impressive endurance racing experience - starting from strategies to even the small tips about when to sleep or eat during the race: “I can guarantee you that no one of you on your first Le Mans 24 Hours race will be able to sleep more than 10 minutes, if at all” - joked Legge, recalling Calderon's first endurance race at Daytona earlier this year, when the Colombian racer was so full of adrenaline that was "jumping around and not even sitting down, let alone sleep."
Racing alongside some of the biggest names in motorsport - and childhood heroes, such as Juan Pablo Montoya for Calderon - the most legendary endurance race will obviously be a big challenge for the three rookies. “What everyone needs to see is progression”, said Legge. "It’s not a one year deal, it’s a two-year deal". And while a dominant victory doesn't feel realistic, both the female crews are certainly not there just to make up the numbers.
With former Le Mans champions Signatech and with the ambitious Iron Lynx program, the six FIA Women in Motorsport ambassadors have been provided with highly competitive equipment.
“Amanda Mille and Richard Mille have given us the opportunity to compete with one of the best teams, not only in ELMS but in the world." - said the British driver. "I think it is really significant that it marks the first time that we’ve been given the opportunity to go out and win."
"As all the girls will tell you, we really struggled in the past to be with a top team because they maybe don’t want to take the 'risk' of putting a girl in the car. So for the first time in my history - and I’ve been racing for as long as those three together - I think it’s the right opportunity and we’re very grateful and there’s a lot of weight on our shoulders”.
“This is also about changing opinions. A lot of people have a belief of what female drivers are capable of, whether it is conscious or not. By doing things like this team and being successful, that in part changes their belief system and creates more opportunities for others coming along.”
It is very much a matter of "You have to see it to believe it”, as Calderon puts it. By supporting projects like these, the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission and sponsors like Richard Mille are helping in breaking down that glass ceiling that so far prevented more women to access the top-tier championships for numerical reasons.
Among the field of 22 GTE-Am entries, the Iron Dames are also eyeing another competitive result at La Sarthe, after a strong start of their 2020 ELMS season with two podium finishes out of the three race events.
The team, run by Italian Iron Lynx Motorsport Lab, will again field the same line-up that finished P9 in 2019: Swiss GT ace Rahel Frey will share the seat of the #85 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo with Danish racer Michelle Gatting and with Italian Manuela Gostner. Now in their second ELMS season together, the three drivers have gained crucial experience and will now focus on further improve their best result at the French classic despite a challenging qualifying that brought them to P18 in class.
“There should be no doubt that we definitely arrive at Le Mans with much more experience as a team and drivers. This helps us to focus on the race as we all have an idea of what we are up against,” said Michelle Gatting. "I think we should aim for a top 10, the field is big with 22 cars and a lot of strong competitors.”
When the green flag will be waved at 14:30 CEST, Manuela Gostner will take the start and, after a double stint, she will hand over to Rahel Frey. After another double stint, driving duties will pass on to Michelle Gatting, who will start the first night shift. Tatiana Calderon will start for Richard Mille Racing in the #50 LMP2.
“Le Mans is very special and to have two female crews on the start line is incredible." - commented Michéle Mouton, President of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission.
"It is a real step forward and evidence that our top women drivers have their place within professional teams. Tatiana, Sophia and Beitske are on a steep learning curve in endurance racing, but they have had some really positive races so far this season and their motivation to improve lap by lap is high."
"In their second season in GTE, Michelle, Rahel and Manuela have shown they are capable of podium finishes and I know they will be pushing even harder now they have the experience of a Le Mans race behind them. There is no underestimating how tough the challenge will be, but all six drivers are well prepared and have great teams behind them; we wish them all a safe and successful race.”