"This is exactly what we want to achieve; we want to prove that we can compete on exactly the same terms as everybody else and we are here to win races" - Michelle Gatting, Rahel Frey and Sarah Bovy conquered a groundbreaking first victory at the pinnacle of sportscar racing, in a memorable day for the sport.
Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting wrote yet another page of motor racing history when they crossed the finish line of the 2023 8 Hours of Bahrain, taking victory in the last ever GTE competition - while also claiming their first victory in FIA World Endurance Championship.
At the wheel of the #85 Iron Dames Porsche 911 RSR-19, the all female trio completed a perfect race, battling at the top of one of the most competitive GTE fields in almost uninterrupted green-flag racing: despite a tense final hour, Bovy, Frey and Gatting optimized the strategy, didn't crack under pressure and emerged victorious in a historical result for the team, for the series and for the sport itself - as the Iron Dames project established once again the presence of successful women at the very top of endurance racing.
"It's hard to put into words so much joy and emotion" - said project founder Deborah Mayer, who has believed in this trio from the beginning. "This first victory in the FIA World Endurance Championship is a very special moment to me because it gives full vindication to the project itself and to the passion, the dedication, the hard work of all the people within the team, both trackside and behind the scenes", she commented. "I'd like to pay tribute to each and every one of them. This historic moment is theirs as well. It's a world championship victory, but it's also a family victory."
Moving up the ranks of international motorsports - from European Le Mans Series to WEC, GT World Challenge and, lately, IMSA in North America - Iron Dames claimed some groundbreaking successes, such as the 2022 24 Hours of Spa in the Gold class, and the 4H of Portimao in ELMS, consistently raising the bar. By maintaining an unbreakable team spirit through the hardships that are naturally part of the sport, the Dames are continuously setting an example and inspiring new generations of female and male fans alike - proving that, as Deborah Mayer said, "dreams have no barriers if you give yourself the means to make them come true".
Starting the 2023 season with a pole position right after a brand change - from the Ferrari 488 GTE to the Porsche 911 RSR GTE in anticipation of the team's commitment with Lamborghini - the team claimed a podium in Portimao, showing amazing adaptation to the new car. After a second pole position in Monza, qualifying specialist Sarah Bovy secured the third pole in Bahrain - in what was her fifth ever pole position in WEC and the final one of the GTE era.
As per tradition, Bovy took the start and perfectly navigated through the messy first lap, where hypercars and LMP2 entries made contact and spun at turn 1. The Belgian mingled with some LMP2 prototypes, clear of the other GTE entries. At the same time, Matteo Cressoni, the only silver driver to take the start, climbed the order up to second in the sister #60 Iron Lynx Porsche.
Cressoni would take the class lead on lap 5, passing the pink Iron Dames Porsche on the main straight. Bovy, though, still retained a healthy gap on the D'Station Aston Martin of Talbot, 5 seconds down the road - as well as Ian James, Ben Keating, Thomas Flohr and Takeshi Kimura, in a busy midfield. Bovy opened a 25 second gap to Talbot on race pace, as the two Porsches led three Aston Martins.
Sarah was back in the lead after Cressoni pitted for the first time at the one hour mark; the Belgian resumed her run in second after the round of pit stops, having stretched her gap to over 30 seconds to the closer pursuer. In a typical Bovy double stint, she was the class of the field in GTE and cycled back to the lead towards the end of the second hour, when she went a few laps longer than Cressoni - who alternated behind the wheel with Alessio Picariello.
Bovy stopped from the lead in GTE with almost a minute gap over the Aston Martins in second and third: Michelle Gatting climbed aboard the #85 Porsche and soon improved the team's personal best - setting one of the fastest times in class. Michelle was one of the quickest drivers on track and kept her pace very consistent, retaining a big margin over Davide Rigon's #54 AF Corse Ferrari, who had climbed the order after the opening stint.
A really strong Michelle Gatting and Alessio Picariello alternated at the top of the class in between stops, when Sarah Bovy took over once again into the fourth hour for her second stint - when the sun went down and the night embraced the Sakhir International Circuit.
Having completed 85 laps at the wheel of the #85 machine, Sarah Bovy handed over to Rahel Frey at the half race mark, when the Swiss racer started her first driving shift of the race. Frey had highly consistent pace, although the Northwest Aston Martin - now with Alex Riberas at the wheel - was closing in. Matteo Cressoni, meanwhile, was again in charge of the race leading #60 Iron Lynx Porsche.
After a pitstop for fuel, Rahel remained at the helm of the Iron Dames Porsche and she soon got under the 2 minute mark, running on almost the same pace as the #98 Aston Martin, now following approximately 5 seconds behind. With 2 hours and 20 minutes to go, the race leading #60 Iron Lynx retired, as the ill Claudio Schiavoni couldn't unfortunately take over driving duties.
On lap 164, Rahel Frey was leading the race with a 5 second margin on the #98 Northwest AMR of Daniel Mancinelli; the latter, though, received a drive through penalty for a contact with a LMP2 car - which dropped him behind the #777 D'Station Aston Martin of Tomonobu Fujii. The top two GTE cars pitted at the same time on lap 175: Michelle Gatting took over and rejoined ahead of Casper Stevenson - separated by around 20 seconds after a remarkably solid stint by Frey.
Gatting had a strong start of her stint by improving the car's best lap and kept the gap stable. The Dane always remained in control of the race and pitted with one hour to go for one final time: she stayed at the wheel and, once back out, she was within tenths to her fastest lap. Casper Stevenson, though, slowly closed in.
After the final stop, Stevenson was on a mission and cut the gap to a handful of seconds with 30 minutes to go. Once Stevenson got closer, Gatting ran consistent laps and - making the most out of the traffic, she managed to slightly extend her gap in the closing minutes.
In one of the most tense races ever, Michelle outstandingly held pressure and, not having set a foot wrong all race, she brought the Iron Dames Porsche across the finish line to take the historic win.
"The final stint was pressured and stressful for me inside the car, but in the end, the feedback I was getting from our engineer helped made me stay calm", said Michelle Gatting. "At one point I could really see the #777 Aston Martin was very close. I pushed a bit more to increase the gap a bit, and in the end with the traffic I managed to increase the gap even more and feel pretty in control. To be honest, I just enjoyed the last ride in this car. It's been an absolute pleasure having the opportunity to drive the Porsche this year."
Pit stop strategies, drivers stints, tyre management, traffic management: everything worked perfectly in a safety-car free race that really allowed Iron Dames to maximize their speed and consistency in the GTE-Am field at the end of a proving 8 Hours of Bahrain.
"This race was definitely about tyre management, and I think we managed that pretty well", explained Sarah Bovy. "We anticipated the race conditions, the fact that we were going into the night and we really tried to nurse our very nice Michelin tyres for one last time."
The team's work had also been put to the test after a sand storm - followed by heavy rain - had disrupted practice on Thursday, severely limiting the track time.
"In my stint, as I was also taking the start, we didn't know what to expect in those temperatures. But at the end the pace was there. I think the whole crew did a good job and I'm so proud of everybody. We've been working really hard for this, and it's finally here – our first win in FIA WEC. The wait was long, but we are all super happy to be here tonight."
The Iron Dames' first victory in FIA WEC was also a particularly important result in the battle for the second place in the championship: Bovy, Frey and Gatting secured in fact the Vice-Champion title, having outscored the #54 AF Corse Ferrari.
"I think today, the whole GTE field put a great display on and this is what we all want to see, so thanks very much to all our competitors to keep us busy and to keep the pressure high" - Rahel Frey added. "I think we proved today that we do not crack easily under pressure."
"To get this win now after five years is really emotional, and we will use it as momentum to hopefully be on the starting grid for 2024. What we always aim for is to make the team stronger. To see that we can win races with the Iron Dames in the highest level in GT racing makes me very proud."
The emotional victory was the first ever win in FIA WEC for an all female crew, after Lilou Wadoux had claimed a first ever win in class earlier this year at the 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps. Having four female drivers climb the top step of the podium at the pinnacle of sports car racing is yet another strong message from a group of growing number of elite athletes that are changing the status quo.
"This is exactly what we want to achieve; we want to prove that we can compete on exactly the same terms as everybody else and we are here to win races", Gatting said.
"I also hope this experience is seen by the younger generation", echoed Frey, who is also one of the reference figures for the up and coming talents. "We have younger Iron Dames coming up, this is a project I am so heavily involved in, and this makes me very proud. But nevertheless, I'm still a racer, I love to race, and I love to continue racing and do more to keep fighting for more wins."
There was no more memorable way to send off the GTE category, which will be replaced in FIA WEC and around the globe by the new LMGT3 regulations.