"That’s it. You are here, you are doing your first lap in Le Mans" – Sarah Bovy's first Le Mans 24H
Sarah Bovy will be on the starting grid of her second 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 2021, she fulfilled a lifetime dream – and now she's aiming even higher. Relive her first race at La Sarthe in her own words.
"It was unreal – everything happened so fast for me and I almost didn't have the time to realise it was happening."
This is how Sarah Bovy started describing her first ever participation at Le Mans last year, when she turned her dream into a reality and entered the biggest endurance race on the planet with just one previous race in GTE machinery and having joined the Iron Dames project only a few months before.
The Belgian driver had one dream throughout her career – and that was racing at Le Mans.
Not only she raced, but she finished in the top-ten in 2021 – and she's now back for more, as the Iron Dames continue to step up their game in the world's top sports car championships.
Here's what she told us last year, summing up that life-changing experience.
"One month before I was not supposed to race in Le Mans and suddenly, not only I raced in Le Mans, but I finished it. I’m still trying to process all that information. It was my dream."
A few drivers had told us how they could only grasp the importance of such an event afterwards, as the busy racing schedule often means they could only focus on performance. For Sarah, she had dreamt for that moment for a long time – and was going to savour it.
"I had 17 years to think about it", she continued. "I’ve been here many times, I’ve been following some teams and working as a consultant for one of the main sponsors of the event. I’ve been interviewing drivers. So I had time to realise the magic of Le Mans before even thinking of racing in it."
"I knew from scratch what to expect, what the week would be like in the paddock", Sarah explained. "But it is true that when you arrive there and receive your pass with 'driver' written on it, all of a sudden it’s much more emotional. For sure, once you are in the racing week, in between practices and qualifying, your head is in the work you have to do."
There truly are some pivotal moments in a career that will stay forever in memories and Sarah Bovy's description of her first lap around the 13.626 km-long legendary track is the essence of the passion that drives this sport.
"I took a lap on Sunday – the official test day. I was the first one out on track and there were not a lot of people yet because it was early in the morning", she recalled.
"And I actually took a lap just to enjoy being in Le Mans. I was not even completely flat on the straights, I was like – 'Whoa, that’s it. You are here, you are doing your first lap in Le Mans. I took my first lap just to savour the moment, taking the maximum happiness out of it. It was just one out lap, and then it was back to business."
"I did my first 24 hours of Spa when I was only 18 years old, and I didn’t really take the time to enjoy my racing week. This time, to be honest, I really made sure that from time to time I was taking five minutes just to sit down in the hospitality and watch over the paddock at sunset, enjoying the moment. It’s a souvenir you keep for life."
Bovy, 32 at the time, might have been a Le Mans rookie, but she was definitely no endurance rookie, as she had entered several times the 24 Hours of Spa Francorchamps – her home track – where she collected some crucial experience that proved to be useful at La Sarthe.
Among the skills she had to master was traffic management.
"Everyone was warning me about traffic management in Le Mans – and you surely have to be very careful because they arrive behind you very fast – but to be honest, for me, traffic management at the 24 Hours of Spa while you’re in the midfield is even harder."
"In Spa you only have GT3 cars and all the cars have similar performances", she told us. "There’s not a lot of difference in terms of lap times between the cars fighting for the top-10 of the race and the cars fighting for the last ten positions. Spa is complex because you never know if the car behind you is slower than you or if it’s the leader of the race. You don’t know who you should be attacking or not."
"Especially during the night, traffic management is kind of complicated. Of course we have the radio, but with over 60 cars on track it’s difficult even for the engineers or spotters.
In Le Mans – firstly, the track is longer, twice as much as Spa and with more or less the same amount of cars. And then of course, most of the time when you’re being overtaken it’s by a car that it’s 20 or 30 seconds faster than you per lap, because the LMP2 and hypercars are so much faster that they can overtake us very easily."
Bovy's previous experience in long-races surely gave her the chance to approach Le Mans with a better awareness of the energy level required – and how to get some sleep despite the adrenaline flowing.
"In my first 24-hour race, or even my first 12-hour race, I was in the garage all the time, looking lap by lap and sector by sector how my teammates were doing. I wanted to be in control of everything – and at the end of the day once you get out of the car you’re already exhausted", she said.
"I knew that energy management was a big thing, even if I was feeling very well in the car in terms of physical condition. In order to avoid making stupid focus mistakes you need to force yourself to rest."
"We’ve talked a lot about that with Rahel and Michelle, about how we would try to save ourselves for the race. We’ve all fallen into the trap of being over-enthusiastic and not being ready when we need to be ready, so during the race week we set up a routine with the physio. We were double stinting all the time, so we would have four hours in total in between our stints and we had approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes to eat after jumping out of the car, having a massage with the physio, and more or less 45 minutes of sleep. It’s not heavy sleep, it’s quite light, before being back in the garage one hour before the next stint, fully awake."
"Even if you don’t want to sleep – you are always a bit afraid to wake up and discover that your car has quit the race or something like that – you have to, because you need to be ready for the next stint."
At the same time, nutrition is also important in between race stints, in order to keep the energy levels steady.
"You always have some recommendations from your physio and then you also have some comfort food. I ate some pasta with parmigiano and a bit of olive oil, or I had some toast with ham and cheese. Basically, we try to have a stable energy in terms of sugar input and don’t eat anything that is difficult to process. For instance, we try to avoid eggs or heavy stuff. I also try to have some red berries with my coffee when I wake up."
In the 2022 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the public will be back in full attendance after two years – with all the traditions such as the Drivers' Parade making their way back in the schedule. While Sarah had her first Le Mans in 2021, she was now looking forward to the full-experience.
"The public is super important and we need it", she told us. "I was missing the parade a lot, because I’ve seen it when I was working at the event and that is definitely a nice experience. Not only for the public, but for everybody. It’s chill and it’s a nice moment to spend in the city of Le Mans. And I was missing the contact with the fans in the paddock, because everything was closed and we could not go into the village."
Sarah Bovy has now checked a big lifetime dream on her list. The target now is shifting towards raising the bar, season after season, race after race.
"We are not here to be cute on the starting grid – we’re here because we want to be competitive, make it on the podium and win some races", she said. "Even if I’m the bronze driver, I’m still a racing driver and a competitive one."
"The team itself is a big family. Iron Lynx was initially built by Andrea Piccini and Sergio Pianezzola, who have such extensive experience in racing – and with the support of Claudio [Schiavoni] and Deborah [Mayer], they have what it takes to go directly to the top. We can achieve a lot of things."
The 90th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours will get underway on Saturday at 16:00 local time.