Top-10 at GTWC Europe opener for Iron Dames
"We made a step, now it is important to keep improving for the long races ahead, especially in this championship where the level is very high." - Iron Dames secured a top ten in class at the GT World Challenge season opener at Monza, with promising take-away points to build on. A challenging first round for Theeba Motorsport leave Reema Juffali P15 in Bronze Cup.
Iron Dames conquered a top ten in Bronze Cup at the 2023 GT World Challenge Europe season opener in Monza, after a tightly fought 3 hour race that saw the all-female trio of Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting crossing the finish line in eighth place in class.
The first race day of the GTWC Europe Endurance Cup season opened with power outages at the Italian venue that disrupted the schedule, eventually leading to a delayed qualifying start and the cancellation of Q3. The grid was therefore set based on the combined laptimes of the first two sessions that went underway: Rahel Frey had set a very encouraging fourth place in Q1, followed by the sixth fastest time in Q2 by Sarah Bovy.
Also in the Bronze Cup, Theeba Motorsport's Reema Juffali was making her full-season debut in the series, as the Saudi driver/owner teamed up with Alain Valente and Ralf Aron - at his return to racing after 2018.
Juffali made her GT3 debut in 2022, switching from single-seaters to sportscar racing in the International GT Open. Battling for the ProAm title and with several class wins and podiums to her name, she stepped up to the SRO series, after a one-off in 2022 - a class win at the 24H of Spa.
In qualifying, Juffali was the fastest of her team, topping Valente’s time by around one tenth of a second and slotted in P12 in the combined classification.
Also at her second race in the European series and at full-time debut after last year's Spa 24 Hours was Samantha Tan. ST Racing is in fact partnering with Rinaldi Racing for the European campaign, where she will race for the first time the Ferrari 488 GT3. The Canadian is combining a double program with the GTWC America campaign, again in her BMW M4 GT3.
ST Racing's Isaac Tutumlu Lopez and Samantha Tan were the two drivers that got to set times in the shortened qualifying and, with a P2 and P4 in the Pro-Am class, the #38 Ferrari was set to line up in fourth place in class for the 3-hour race.
In the overall classification, BMW dominated the field, with four cars from the Bavarian brand in the top four. The #98 Rowe Racing BMW M4 GT3 claimed pole position, ahead of the #46 and #32 Team WRT cars. The #25 Sainteloc Junior Team Audi was the first non-BMW machine in fifth. With a remarkable Q1, the #188 Garage 59 McLaren driven by Henrique Chaves secured pole position in the Bronze Cup.
Contrary to what was forecasted, the sun was out for the first race of the season and, albeit a bit cloudy in the latter stages, no rain made it onto the Temple of Speed.
Sarah Bovy, Reema Juffali and Samantha Tan were the drivers elected for the opening stint.
At lights out, the 55-car field flashed down the iconic Monza straight - but there was early heartbreak for the #38 ST Racing Ferrari, as Samantha Tan was firstly pushed onto the grass, then hit and sent into the wall by the #3 GetSpeed Mercedes of Florian Sholze. The impact destroyed the front end of the Ferrari, as Tan was out even before the first corner.
The accident required the safety car intervention, as the massive pack completed the first lap with Philip Eng leading Valentino Rossi and Maro Engel, who had gained several positions at the start. The #188 Garage 9 McLaren retained first place in Bronze, with Bovy eighth in class and Juffali holding 12th.
At the restart, a further accident involving the Gold class pole sitter #99 Audi of Patrese and the Lamborghinis of Rolf Ineichen and Kay van Berlo brought out another neutralization.
The action eventually got underway almost 30 minutes into the race, as Eng led the 50-car pack from Maro Engel, who jumped ahead of Valentino Rossi at turn 1. Both Sarah Bovy and Reema Juffali gained a position in class.
But incidents continued to take out one team after the other – the #24 Porsche went off at speed under braking at Prima Variante, scattering debris all over the track and destroying the front end of the car. The car was then removed under local yellow, with no further neutralizations.
Valentino Rossi’s BMW went deep into turn 1 and got a rather big hit on the sausage kerb, which cost the third-placed WRT BMW 11 positions.
As the first round of pit stops approached, Sarah Bovy was up to sixth and Juffali ninth in Bronze. Reema Juffali pitted on lap 29 from seventh and handed over to Alain Valente.
Rahel Frey was up next in the Iron Dames Lamborghini, seventh after the round of pit stops.
Augusto Farfus, now behind the wheel of the #46 WRT BMW after Rossi’s stint, suffered a puncture, and with damage, the team eventually retired the car. Marco Wittman emerged as the leader in the #98 Rowe Racing BMW, followed by Weerts and Verhagen in just as many BMWs.
The #81 Theeba Motorsport Mercedes unfortunately received a drive through penalty for overtaking under yellow flags during the chaotic first laps. Valente would also receive a warning for track limits. The penalty cost the team a shot at a top ten in the Bronze Cup.
Meanwhile, Frey battled with the #44 CLRT Porsche of Hugo Chevalier; Rahel settled in ninth place in class as the race approached the half-way point. The duel with the #44 Porsche would go on for the entirety of the second half of the competition.
A contact between the #40 Audi of Christopher Mies and the #88 Mercedes of Boguslavskiy caused heavy bodywork damage to the Akkodis ASP car, but Boguslavskiy missed the pit entry and dropped all the way down the order. The #88 eventually had to retire.
The #188 McLaren – now with Miguel Ramos behind the wheel – never gave up the lead in Bronze Cup after the first two stints, followed eight seconds down the road by the #79 Haupt Racing Mercedes and the #911 Pure Rxcing Porsche.
With one hour to go, the teams performed the final driver change: Rahel Frey handed over to Michelle Gatting for the final stint of the race, as the Dane rejoined seventh in Bronze.
Gatting traded positions with the CLRT Porsche, which had been battling throughout the second stint with Rahel Frey.
Alain Valente also left the #81 Theeba Motorsport Mercedes AMG GT3 in the hands of Ralf Aron from 15th in class.
Nick Yelloly started his driving shift in the overall-leading Rowe Racing BMW, followed by Dries Vanthoor and Max Hesse. Fourth overall before the stops, the K-Pax Lamborghini was looking strong for a potential podium recovery, but a suspension failure took the #6 Huracan out of the race.
The race dominant #188 McLaren lost the Bronze class lead after the final pit stop, overtaken by Klaus Bachler (#911 Pure Rxcing Porsche), Eddie Cheever (#92 SKY Tempesta McLaren) and Arjun Maini (#79 Haupt Mercedes), triggering a big battle for second place in class. A contact at Ascari resulted in a trip to the gravel for Chaves, who lost a run for the podium.
A late pit stop for a slow puncture dropped the #32 WRT BMW of Vanthoor from second to seventh, which promoted the #63 Iron Lynx Lamborghini to a podium position. Bortolotti, though, had to watch his mirrors from the return of the #25 Sainteloc Audi of Niederhauser.
With 10 minutes to go, Michelle Gatting closed in on the #44 Porsche. The Danish ace could get within a second gap, but never had an opportunity to pass. Eng/Wittman/Yelloly took a dominant overall win in the ROWE BMW M4 GT3, which preceded the sister #998 car of Harper/Verhagen/Hesse and the #63 Iron Lynx driven by Bortolotti/Caldarelli/Pepper. Iron Dames claimed a top ten in the Bronze Cup, with a promising eighth place at the Temple of Speed. Bovy/Frey/Gatting battled through adversities and came home with a respectable top-ten, as drivers and team are getting up to speed with the new Huracan EVO2. "We started the GT World Challenge season motivated with high hopes", explained Frey, "unfortunately, It was not our easiest weekend but we always grow with difficulties." "In the end, we finished P8 with important points for the championship", the Swiss racer continued. "We will keep on working, we keep on going, then we will see an improvement on the next one." While it certainly was an improvement compared to their latest IMSA outings overseas - where BOP has played an important role in the lack of performance for the Lamborghinis - an eighth place is a good first step forward, but not quite yet what the team that marginally missed out on a Gold Cup title in 2022 is aiming for. "We managed to finish P8 in class, not the result we hope for but we have learned a lot of things", echoed Michelle Gatting. "We made a step, now it is important to keep improving for the long races ahead, especially in this championship where the level is very high." The overall podium for the sister #63 car is also another positive point for Iron Lynx, as the team will use all the data from its first podium with Lamborghini machinery to advance with all its crews. "It was an intense weekend for the all team", Sarah Bovy added. "The positive point is that we have been working very well together even through the adversity, we managed to support each other and found a solution to every issue we faced. In the end, we had some good fights on track." "P8 is clearly not the result we want in that class but we know we have the potential to do much more and we will build up during the season."
Reema Juffali’s Theeba Motorsport Mercedes AMG GT3 finished 15th in class, in an overall difficult first race but with a positives to move forward ahead of the Paul Ricard round, where the team had a positive collective test last month.
"I started the race - and it was a chaotic start, definitely the most difficult one" - Juffali recapped. "We had a few safety cars and full course yellows - and it caught me out and unfortunately it cost us a drive through penalty."
"We're also struggling with pace, so there's something we need to work on as a team, but we know with my teammates and everyone around me we'll be able to get through it."
"Overall a lot of learning - I think it was very good to get out there and at the end of the day it's still the first round so I'm looking forward to the next one at Paul Ricard".
The second endurance round of the 2023 GT World Challenge Europe season will in fact be held in the South of France, on June 2-4, for the 1000km of Le Castellet.
Iron Dames, though, will be back on track next weekend at Spa Francorchamps, for the third round of the FIA World Endurance Championship.