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Road To Le Mans: Karen Gaillard and Célia Martin face challenging Le Mans debut

Karen Gaillard and Célia Martin faced a challenging debut at Le Mans, showcasing promising speed but ultimately being hindered by unfortunate circumstances and limited green flag running, yet still demonstrating their potential with the Iron Dames team.

Célia Martin, Karen Gaillard, Iron Dames Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo2, Michelin Le Mans Cup, 2024 Le Mans
Photo credits: Marcel Wulff / DPPI

Karen Gaillard and Célia Martin had a challenging weekend at Circuit De La Sarthe in their first race at Le Mans, as the Michelin Le Mans Cup supported the legendary 24 Hours race for its traditional Road To Le Mans event. The duo showcased good speed, particularly with a very competitive first qualifying from Gaillard, and through great recoveries in the races by Martin. However, they could not ultimately capitalize on their speed due to unfortunate circumstances and extremely limited green flag running.

The two new Iron Dames joined the revolutionary all-female team in 2024, both making their GT3 debut. Gaillard came from prototypes and a remarkable season in the Ultimate Cup, while bronze-rated Célia Martin had contested the uber-competitive ADAC GT4 Germany.

Martin shone in the previous rounds at Barcelona and Le Castellet, with remarkable qualifying performances as well as impressive runs in the races. Silver-rated Gaillard is also making significant progress in her first GT season, and the duo secured their first podium together at Circuit Paul Ricard, in only their second round together as teammates under the banner of Iron Dames.

Le Mans is the dream for every driver, representing the pinnacle of sportscar racing with its rich history and unparalleled prestige. The Road To Le Mans event offers an invaluable platform for up-and-coming drivers to gain experience on this iconic circuit. It's an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of the teams and spectators of the legendary 24 Hours race.

Building on their strong results from Le Castellet, Karen Gaillard and Célia Martin arrived at Le Mans with high hopes for another significant point-scoring round. Their performances had already demonstrated their capability to compete with the front runners, and they were determined to maintain this momentum.

However, the massive 58-car field at Le Mans presented some extra challenges, and the lengthy 13.626 km track was rife with incidents throughout the weekend, leading to numerous neutralizations, slow zones, and red flags. These disruptions severely limited the amount of green flag running, making it difficult for drivers to find a rhythm and build consistent lap times.

Célia Martin, Karen Gaillard, Iron Dames Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo2, Michelin Le Mans Cup, 2024 Le Mans
Photo credits: Paulo Maria / DPPI

In the first practice session, Gaillard and Martin focused on building their speed and confidence, but they struggled to get a clean lap. Despite these challenges, Martin managed to record a 4:04.134 lap, placing the #83 pink Huracan 13th fastest in class. In the second session, they continued to improve, with Gaillard setting a promising 3:58.049 lap that placed them into the top ten.

The Swiss racer was in charge of Qualifying 1 - her first ever in GT3 - and she produced a stellar performance, slotting into seventh place despite a red flag just before the final runs. With just one shot in the end, she managed to improve and clocked a 3:57.111, which put the Iron Dames machine seventh on the grid for Race 1, in a session with several very experienced drivers.

"Firstly, I'm really happy to be here because it's a dream to drive on this track," said Gaillard.

"Free practice was a bit difficult. I had no clear lap, or maybe just one. Then free practice two was better. I did the qualifying 1, P7 out of 18 cars."

"I was happy I had one lap after the red flag to do it - I was a bit too careful at the end of the lap, because I really wanted to make no mistakes, no track limits. But the lap time was okay."

In the second qualifying session, more chaos ensued: plenty of accidents, red flags, and nobody could set a representative timed lap. Therefore, the starting order was set based on the second practice times.

“Unfortunately, we had two red flags and nobody could set a lap," commented Martin. "I’m a bit sad that I could not do a push lap on new tyres at Le Mans. It’s a shame, but it’s the race that matters.”

Iron Dames opted to start race 1 with Célia Martin behind the wheel. The #95 Racing Spirit of Leman Aston Martin took pole position in the GT3 class ahead of the two Kessel Racing Ferraris, driven by Andrew Gilbert and David Fumanelli. The #34 Intereuropol LMP3 suffered a suspension failure on the formation lap and scattered debris all over the track; the start of the race was therefore postponed by one lap as marshals cleared the stricken prototype, its left rear wheel, and the remains of its suspension.

This was bad news for the teams that opted to start with their Pro drivers, although most teams lined up their bronze racers for the first stint.

When the race finally got underway, Martin perfectly managed the first corners, avoiding chaos and immediately climbing to fifth, although she settled in sixth behind the #18 High Class Racing Porsche. The Frenchwoman pressured Jones, but she was then passed by Gold-rated Rory Butcher at the start of the second lap.

Meanwhile, three Ferraris led the GT3 class, with Fumanelli firing into the lead, ahead of AF Corse’s Kurzejewski and Toledo, just before yet another safety car, which neutralized the action on the Mulsanne Straight following several incidents in the LMP3 category.

Pit stops started as early as lap 3, with the pack still bunched up by the safety car. The Iron Dames pitted Célia Martin on lap 4, having completed one lap at racing speed. Most of the GT3 field also completed their driver change within the first few laps behind the safety car, with Emmanuel Collard’s AF Corse leading overall, having pitted one lap earlier, ahead of the two Blackthorn Aston Martins of Hanafin and McDonald on the same strategy.

The top three, though, were placed under investigation for a driving time infraction.

With Karen Gaillard now behind the wheel, the pink #83 Lamborghini Huracan was down to tenth in class, with 21 minutes left on the clock.

The green flag finally waved with 17 minutes to go on lap 5; however, halfway through the lap, the red flag was deployed for a major accident involving the #9 Graff LMP3 Ligier of Louis Rossi, who totaled the car and the barrier but was luckily out of the car under his own power.

The race was called after 6 laps - and just one under the green flag. Karen Gaillard and Célia Martin were classified P10 after one of the most chaotic races of the season to date. With the result being taken to the lap before the red flag, Kessel Racing’s Fumanelli and Jousset took victory in GT3, preceding the #51 and #88 AF Corse Ferraris.

After post-race penalties, the updated result placed the Iron Dames in seventh.

"Célia started from P7 and we finished P7. She had less than one lap before the safety car and I had less than one lap", Gaillard summed up.

"The crash was just in front of me, so I'm happy that, luckily, I was able to avoid it, and happy to know that the driver is more or less okay."

Célia Martin, Karen Gaillard, Iron Dames Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo2, Michelin Le Mans Cup, 2024 Le Mans
Photo credits: Marcel Wulff / DPPI

The grid for the second race was set by the second practice times, as nobody had managed to set a fast lap amidst the Q2 red flags. Célia Martin was tasked with taking the start for the first stint again, starting from ninth position. The lineup predominantly featured bronze-rated drivers.

At the first chicane, there was contact between the leading LMP3 prototypes, but no spins or significant incidents occurred, and everyone managed to continue. Martin had a strong start, quickly moving up to eighth place after the first sector. Unfortunately, she would soon found herself at the back of the field after an early contact, which complicated her race further.

A safety car was soon deployed due to the #62 Ligier of Ladniak stopping on track with suspension damage, followed by the #29 MV25 Racing of Cresp ending up in the gravel after contact with the Eurointernational #31 car.

The early attrition left Célia Martin with the daunting task of recovering from P54 overall and P18 among the GT3 entries. The restart saw her making immediate progress, overtaking the Biogas Motorsport Ferrari, which had gone off at the Dunlop chicane. The implementation of a slow zone on the start-finish straight caused additional chaos, and a contact at Turn 2 took out the #82 AF Corse Ferrari.

Célia capitalized on the confusion, moving up to P14 in class. She then began a determined attack on the cars ahead, which were significantly slower. With strong pace, she cleared four cars in a single lap, breaking into the top ten by lap three, just before another safety car was deployed due to multiple LMP3 cars experiencing trouble.

As the race approached the halfway mark, most teams pitted with 25 minutes to go for their mandatory driver change. However, Célia stayed out and moved up into the lead of the race in both the GT3 class and overall - as the only driver in the entire field not having pitted.

Another safety car was deployed at the end of the lap, which definitely ruined all the chances for the #83 Lamborghini: with the radio not working, Martin was in fact in the dark and missed the ideal moment to pit.

When she eventually pitted from the lead under green track conditions, she dropped down the field and handed over to Karen Gaillard for the second part of the race. Karen found herself with clear air to set fast times, but she was a long way off from the nearest car, running 49th overall and P16 in the GT3 class.

Célia Martin, Karen Gaillard, Iron Dames Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo2, Michelin Le Mans Cup, 2024 Le Mans
Photo credits: Marcel Wulff / DPPI

As the race continued, Reiter Engineering's Miklas Born hit the wall, prompting yellow flags and a slow zone at the Porsche Curves. Despite being about 1 minute and 30 seconds behind the main pack of GT3 cars, Gaillard pushed hard to make up ground.

On lap 9, she managed to overtake Doppelmayr on track, showcasing her determination.

In the end, Karen Gaillard and Célia Martin finished an unfortunate race P46 overall and P16 in the GT3 class, wrapping up a challenging round by the Iron Dames.

"Race 2 was a shame, because the radio didn't work and we didn't pit in at the right time", Gaillard said. "However, it's a nice feeling [to race here]. I gave everything, and I hope that one time I will be in the 24 hours race."

"With Iron Dames, it's a big opportunity", the young Swiss racer continued. "The best I can have in my life, I think. And I'm so, so happy and thankful for it. I'm still learning,

GT3 is very different from the prototypes I previously drove, but I'm very motivated for the rest of the year. I hope that we will do some podiums."

"To be part of the Le Mans 24hr weekend and do it with Iron Dames was amazing and really a dream", echoed her teammate Célia Martin. "I certainly hope to be back in the future taking part in the main event!"

"To experience the track for the first time, the fans and the whole weekend, I understand why people say it’s special - the atmosphere is incredible. This first time will stay with me forever."

The Michelin Le Mans Cup will return to action at Spa Francorchamps on 23-25 August, as the series' fourth round will support the European Le Mans Series at the Belgian circuit.the series' fourth round will support European Le Mans Series at the Belgian circuit.



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