"We're here to win championships" – Michelle Gatting on "life-changing" Iron Dames project
The Iron Dames project has been a disrupting force in the world of sports car racing and, with its first major victory, it has only just started. We sat down with Michelle Gatting to reflect on her career, the progress of the programme and its future.
When the pink #83 Ferrari 488 GT3 driven by Rahel Frey crossed the finish line claiming victory in Gold Cup at the 24 Hours of Spa, the other three Iron Dames could finally let go of their emotions and burst into a liberating cry. The longest final hours were a mix of joy and fear; nerves and excitement. Endurance racing can be cruel and the smallest issue can wipe away the work of a whole week – even on the final lap. But not this time.
It was only a matter of time, we kept saying after the last few races. Le Mans, Monza. That first, historic win had slipped away from them on a few occasions – but the fact that it did eventually come at one of the biggest sports car races in the world made it even more special.
A few weeks after making history in WEC – when they became the first women to get pole position in the World Endurance Championship, as well as the first all-female crew to stand on the podium – were ready for another chapter of motorsport history.
Rahel Frey, Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting – with the addition of a bright star of the future like Doriane Pin - are very different personalities that all complement each other. This resulted in Iron Dames becoming a real family-like environment, with a driver line up that works extremely well together and pushes each other on track, while being very close friends outside the track.
Michelle Gatting, 28 from Denmark, has been part of the project since its inception: she is the young gun with high ambitions, who has found in the Italian team the perfect opportunity to strive and showcase her talent on the world stage.
“There’s no doubt that Deborah [Mayer] and Claudio [Schiavoni] changed my life four years ago when I met them" – Michelle told us before the Spa weekend, when we had the chance to sit down with the Danish star, reflecting on the impact that the Iron Dames project has had on her career.
The project was launched by women in motorsport's visionary ambassador Deborah Mayer, alongside her life partner Claudio Schiavoni in 2019, with Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting and Manuela Gostner entering the very competitive European Le Mans Series. Gatting – a big name in the karting world – had previously competed in Formula Ford Denmark, in the Scirocco Cup Germany and Porsche Carrera Cup Germany, but was lacking the funding to step up to the big international series. A test day at Misano with the brand-new program indeed changed her life.
"I had an opportunity to do a test, and the project really surprised me for what they wanted to achieve", she recalled. "Getting the opportunity we have is very rare. So of course I went for it, and I will always be grateful."
"They made a lot of things possible for us – and I think what we are going to achieve in the future is something that we will remember for the rest of our lives. For sure, the project will go in the history books", she continued. "It’s just a life changing project for all of us."
"I think it’s important for us to enjoy this journey – but also we want to prove that we’re not here just to make up the numbers, we’re here to win championships. We’re here to win races and take pole positions" – Michelle stated. "This is what Deborah and Claudio want – they want to prove that the pink car can be at the front."
Since its first season, the Iron Dames project has changed significantly: it evolved into a full team under the supervision of Italian GT powerhouse Iron Lynx, with an ever-growing structure and bigger and bigger goals – whilst always retaining its original vision: proving that with adequate support, an all-female team can conquer the top of sports car racing.
"A lot of things have changed", Michelle told us. "We started very small, a lot of things have evolved in terms of the team: Iron Lynx itself has grown into a team by itself, which is already a huge step in such a short amount of time."
That special bond between the drivers that we now see was also part of a process. Coming from sprint races, Gatting certainly had the speed – but had to learn to work in a new environment that requires flawless teamwork.
"The personal relationships between drivers, mechanics, engineers and other team members have grown because we got to know each other better", she continued. "For sure in the beginning it was not easy to find a way to work together without competing against each other".
"At the end of the day, we’re talking about lap times. But we have really found a way to work together that I think is very healthy for all of us. We want to achieve the same things, we know each other very well – both the good and bad sides, as every person has."
Like many talented racing drivers, Michelle Gatting is an uber-competitive person. "I can have a bit of an ego", she says jokingly. "I’m a racing driver and I want to be the fastest – but I learned to do it in a healthy way" – she explains. "In the first year, if I was not the fastest in the car I would break down mentally. It was really tough. Now I know what I can do in the car, so if I’m not the fastest I know that I’m not going to have a mental breakdown, I’m going to see what’s the issue and then I’m going to work on it. I really developed as a driver – also with the help of the team and my teammates."
"I grew into a better endurance driver and a good teammate."
As things evolved, the competitive level increased – and goals were clearer: Iron Dames had the potential to disrupt the industry. "I think that the mindset went from ‘let’s see what we can achieve' to ‘we want to win races’, which is where we are now" – Michelle reflected. "This year we had many chances to win races" – she added, as she recalled how this year's edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was a clear example of the Iron Dames fighting spirit. "The determination, the mindset at Le Mans was extremely strong. We came to Le Mans thinking that we would be able to claim a podium. Unfortunately the BOP completely changed that, but the mentality during the whole race was so strong." A puncture in the very early stages of the race, though, forced Gatting, Frey and Bovy to a 24 hour marathon to catch up with the front runners. "We never settled. We could never accept giving up after the puncture", she continued. "There was a very special atmosphere because we just kept fighting for 24 hours until the checkered flag. And I think that’s quite a statement: we never gave up. Nothing could kill us there." At the 6 Hours of Monza, they managed to put it all together and claimed the historic pole position. "We knew that the pace had been there the whole season to do it. We knew it was in the car", Gatting emphasized. While she did not expect the first win to eventually come at her first ever participation at the 24 Hours of Spa, it was the result of everything finally working out smoothly.
18-year-old Doriane Pin joined the usual trio at Spa Francorchamps, in what was her first 24-hour race. The young Frenchwoman currently leads the Ferrari Challenge Europe standings and aims at succeeding Michelle Gatting as the series champion. But the similarities between Doriane and Michelle are even deeper. "I see a lot of myself in her." – Gatting told us. "She’s a very determined and strong young woman, with fire in her eyes. She’s not somebody who would ask too much for help, because she’s sure she can manage it herself – and I was exactly the same at her age. When I entered the team, I would never go to Rahel and ask for help. It's a bit naive, but that's how it is when you're young." "But Doriane is really a fantastic driver and a huge talent. She’s going to go very far and the team is going to help her go far in her career. I just go back and see myself in her – it’s funny, but it’s nice to have her here." With Pin now on the rise, Iron Dames continue to expand their programs across motorsport, with Maya Weug in the Formula 4 team – which is also set to welcome the new FDA recruits from the Girls On Track programme. Gatting believes that the development path she experienced with Iron Dames is what's making the difference. "We know that we can find girls and take them in at an early age and we can develop them to become very good racing drivers and win races", she stated. "I feel the team is now spending a lot of energy in making us better drivers, because they can see that with this line up we are able to achieve big things." In such a short time since its launch, the Iron Dames project has achieved tremendous success – both on and off track. Victories such as the class win at Spa Francorchamps unequivocally prove not only the quality of the project, but also the impact it has on future generations. Iron Dames are tearing down barriers and centuries of stereotypes, one mile at a time. "It’s important that we try to be role models", Michelle said. "It's about encouraging young girls, or young drivers in general." The key, she believes, is to gain that respect on the ground.
"I just want to be respected in the paddock as a fast racing driver. I don’t want to be the fastest woman in the world – I want to be a world champion."
"Here we’re competing against the best drivers, and I want to be seen as one of them. I’m pretty sure it’s the same mindset for Rahel and Sarah. Personally, it doesn’t really matter if we are women or men: the team, the engineers and everyone work with us in the same way they would with men." Speaking about the different challenges and approaches she has experienced as a woman in the sport, Gatting described overthinking as a consequence to expectations. "If you’re asking our engineer he would say that we’re overthinking a lot" – she explained. "We really want to prove to a lot of people that we can do it – which means that we’re often overthinking the situation." "Our engineer would say that basically this is the big difference between men and women; we think a lot, maybe too much sometimes. But I also think that it can benefit us on track, because we think more about situations and consequences." "We know that there’s a lot of attention on us, we know that a lot of people are expecting us to fail. And that is the worst case scenario, so sometimes you are afraid of failing – because you know that’s what people are expecting." "But I also have the feeling that after what we've shown on track this year, we got the respect from a lot of people in this paddock", she added. "We have proven that we are here to fight. It’s an achievement for all of us."
Together with Iron Dames, Michelle Gatting has already ticked off her bucket list some of the most iconic races in the sport and she has driven at some of the most legendary racetracks. We asked her what would be the one event she would like to have the opportunity to race sooner or later in her career. "It's the Daytona 24 Hours", she replied. "It would be amazing for our lineup. I think we checked quite a lot of boxes already, but that would be cool." The success of Iron Dames is to be attributed to a multitude of people: Iron Lynx truly is a big orchestra. But none of this would have been possible without Deborah Mayer's vision. Her contribution to the movement of women in motorsport has been remarkable and now, at the helm of the FIA Women In Motorsport Commission, Mayer is taking her involvement to the next level. Under the presidency of rallying legend Michéle Mouton, the Commision has made great strides; Mayer's task will be carrying momentum. "I have a huge respect for Michéle Mouton and the work she has done over the last eleven years" – Gatting commented. "What’s important for Deborah is to continue the work of Michéle – and I know that she has a lot of ideas, a lot of plans, as well as support from a lot of good people." So far, though, Gatting wants to remain fully focused on her racing career: "I’m happy honestly right now to just being involved as a driver. I’m still young, I hope I still have a lot of years behind the wheel. So far, I want to develop myself as a driver and become the best version of myself."