WEC: Double Top-10 for Richard Mille Racing and Iron Dames in Bahrain finale
Completing their first season at the top of world's endurance racing, Richard Mille Racing and Iron Dames rounded out the Bahrain 8 Hours with a double top-10 in their respective classes.
The Bahrain double-header rounded out the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship season and, with it, the debut year for both Richard Mille Racing Team and Iron Dames at the top of the world's sports cars. Having made their switch to WEC from ELMS, both the all-female crews had a very positive season, claiming top-10 finishes and getting closer to break into the top-five on a couple of occasions. While Richard Mille Racing confirmed its drivers line up from 2019 - with Sophia Floersch, Tatiana Calderon and Beitske Visser - Iron Dames shuffled its line-ups throughout the season. At the season opener at Spa, British ace Katherine Legge joined the team for the first time and competed alongside Rahel Frey and Manuela Gostner. The Italian was then moved to ELMS and then Le Mans Cup, with Gatting and new entry Sarah Bovy making appearances in the world championship. With outstanding performances in the #9 GT3 Ferrari in Le Mans Cup, bronze-rated Bovy made her debut in WEC at Monza - and impressed so much that she was confirmed for the rest of the season. Katherine Legge was back Stateside and contested the IMSA season with Team Hardpoint, before coming back to Iron Dames for the final double-header at Sakhir. After missing last week's 6H of Bahrain due to a clash with the final race of Super Formula in Japan, Tatiana Calderon also was back into the Richard Mille Racing's seat, which was temporarily filled by Signatec's Gabriel Aubry in the penultimate race of the season. Coming off a sixth place - which equalled their best WEC result from Portimao - the first ever all-female crew in LMP2 could also count on Sophia Floersch's strong momentum. The young German had in fact stepped on the overall podium for the first time in the ELMS history - in a one-off appearance with Algarve Pro - and was committed to finish the season on a high. Floersch showed again great speed in practice and qualifying, as she put the #1 Oreca in fourth in class in FP3 and qualified in sixth place, keeping behind drivers of the likes of Robert Kubica and Juan Pablo Montoya in one of the team's best qualifying efforts. Similarly, Iron Dames also had a remarkable Friday, as Sarah Bovy completed a blistering lap to take third in LMGTE-Am in qualifying. "P3, very happy with the quali result for us, super nice car to drive", commented Bovy. "I really made some good laps and I was pushing a lot, it was cool. It's good for the race tomorrow - we'll keep pushing as much as we can."
The story of the race Beitske Visser and Katherine Legge got behind the wheel for the opening stints, starting respectively from P6 in LMP2 and P3 in GTE-Am. After a few hectic laps, the pole-sitting Toyota of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez had been demoted to second place, as Nicolas Lapierre brought the Alpine hypercar to first place overall. Huge battles also in the LMP2 field saw Team Nederland's Giedo van der Garde taking the early lead, followed by the Jota Orecas. Visser dropped to eighth, while there was more drama among the GTE field when the title contender TF Sport Aston Martin of Ben Keating was hit by the #98 Aston Martin of Dalla Lana and both cars suffered punctures. Katherine Legge had a great launch and moved up to second place, behind the Cetilar Racing Ferrari of Lacorte that would lead most of the opening part of the race. The first hour of racing was marked by the incredibly close racing between the GTE-Pro entries: the #51 AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado and the #92 Porsche of Kevin Estre traded places at the front and continued to run in close proximity for the whole race, igniting the title fight which would see the top finisher at the season finale taking home the world championship. 30 minutes into the race, the Alpine hypercar started to struggle for tyres and was overtaken by the two Toyotas, which then started their solitary run towards an unchallenged victory. Their mission was also helped by some gearbox issues that forced Lapierre to pit after 40 minutes and that gained Toyota four laps over their only competitor. Tomonobu Fuji (777 D'Station Aston Martin) overtook Legge for second in GTE-Am and she started a close battle with Francesco Castellacci and Khaled Al Qubaisi. Under pressure, Legge dropped to eighth place ahead of the first round of pit stops. Sernagiotto took over the leading Cetilar Ferrari from Lacorte, followed by Alessio Rovera (#83 AF Corse Ferrari) and the Project 1 Porsche of Pera. Hoshino (#777 Aston Martin) had in fact dropped to seventh in class after making contact at Turn 1 with the leading car and receiving a drive through penalty. In LMP2, Baitske Visser settled in eighth position after a double stint before handing over to Sophia Floersch. Meanwhile, Ferdinand Habsburg (Team WRT) had moved up to third place after some great racing at the top end of the field, having passed the Jota cars. Van Eerts inherited the class lead ahead of the Reateam Racing Oreca of Esteban Garcia.
Just before the driver change, Iron Dames hit trouble: Katherine Legge attempted a move on Hoshino and the two made contact, with the #85 Ferrari suffering from left-front damage. Legge received a drive through penalty for the incident and - to make things worse - she had to pit when the tyre delaminated as a consequence of the car damage. The debris from the Iron Dames' car triggered the first Full Course Yellow of the day and, after some quick repair from the Iron Lynx crew, Sarah Bovy went out again, albeit in P12 and a three laps down. "I thought he opened the door and that he thought I was a Pro car or something, and he would let me go by, so I went to the inside and he came back and closed the door." - explained Legge. "I take responsibility for it, but it's just one of those things that it's unfortunate for everybody involved." "It wasn't that big, it just cut the tyre and then it got worse and we had to pit", she added. "We had a good start, but then we had a bit of an issue with the first set of tyres and when we went out on the second set we were actually throwing down more competitive lap times, so we thought not all was lost - and then that happens. Definitely a day to forget". Sarah Bovy was then forced to do some extra repair at her next stop when the number plate on the #85 Ferrari got loose.
Charles Milesi brought Team WRT's LMP2 Oreca to the class lead and started to build a comfortable gap over the Jota crews and Team Nederland, slipped to fourth. As the sun went down and the yellow-tinted sky set the scenery, Sophia Floersch ran solidly in P8. The #38 Jota driven by Anthony Davidson received a drive through for speeding in the pitlane, after the British former F1 driver drove through the pitlane by mistake having misheard a team radio. At the three hour mark, Rahel Frey got behind the wheel of the Iron Dames Ferrari from P12 in class. She moved up one position when Axcil Jefferies missed his braking point at Turn 1 and hit the #98 Aston Martin Racing of Marcos Gomes. Unfortunately for the #88 Proton Porsche crew, the car could not be restarted and that marked the end of the race for Khaled Al Qubaisi and Julien Andlauer. At the Full Course Yellow, most of the LMP2 teams pitted, including the Richard Mille Racing Oreca of Sophia Floersch. At the half-way point, Hartley/Nakajima/Buemi led by approximately 17 seconds over the sister car. WRT was in complete command of the LMP2 field, preceding the #28 Jota and the #22 United Autosport Orecas. During another FCY for debris, Floersch pitted and handed over to Tatiana Calderon, rejoining in eighth place.
Calderon started an exciting battle with the #70 Realteam Racing of Esteban Garcia and the Colombian ultimately moved up to seventh. After her first stint, Calderon caught up with Team Nederland's Van der Garde, but the duo was joined by the fast charging United Autosport of Fabio Scherer, who eventually passed both competitors. Having taken over from Garcia, Loic Duval got back ahead of Calderon - who continued to fight around eighth and ninth place in class. With 4 hours and 15 minutes elapsed, Rahel Frey pitted and remained for a second stint in the driving seat - but Iron Lynx were again forced to fix the number plate on the left door. In a very troubled race the GTE-Am championship contenders #33 TF Sport Aston Martin were protagonists of an impressive recovery, before Ben Keating made contact with the AF Corse Ferrari of Flohr - which would reveal terminal for the Aston. Sarah Bovy had started her second driving shift and thus moved into tenth in class. Another Full Course Yellow was deployed when the #57 Kessel Racing Ferrari of Andrews hit the back of the #98 Aston Martin driven by Marcos Gomes, ripping off the rear diffuser of the Aston and scattering debris all over Turn 1 and Turn 2. Most of the teams pitted under yellow; Bovy gained a position, while Calderon handed over to Visser from tenth in class. At the five hour mark, Visser made a move on Hedman for P9 and set the team's fastest lap. The Dutchwoman was then under pressure from Loic Duval, who had pitted off-sequence. The GTE-Pro race continued with some of the best wheel to wheel racing, as Estre and Calado consistently swapped places in the class lead.
The leading #8 Toyota pitted and changed the steering wheel as a precautionary measure when Brandon Hartley had reported shifting issues. The problem was easily solved and Buemi rejoined with an over 25 second gap to the sister #7 car of Conway/Kobayashi/Lopez. Just before the 6 hour mark, Sophia Floersch and Rahel Frey started their final double-stints. In GTE-Am, the #77 Proton Porsche of Jaxon Evans caught up with Antonio Fuoco and engaged in a great battle with the Cetilar Racing Ferrari, which had re-claimed the lead from the #83 AF Corse of Nielsen. The top-three remained close - but the latter knew they only had to bring the car home to seal the title. In an emotional moment, Anthony Davidson (#38 Jota) completed the final stint of his career, having decided to retire from racing. A few minutes later, the fifth Full Course Yellow was deployed for debris. It was unfortunate timing for the Richard Mille Racing team, and Calderon got back in the car for the final double-stint. The final hour was all about the Ferrari-Porsche duel in GTE-Pro, with Christensen and Pier Guidi fighting for the win and title. With under 10 minutes left, Christensen slowed down ahead of the final corner to allow past a LMP2 car and Pier Guidi hit the back of the #92 Porsche, spinning it around. In a slightly unconventional stewards' decision the Ferrari was not handed a drive through but was instead instructed to give the position back. The decision was nullified when the #92 Porsche took the way of the pitlane for a splash and dash - then followed by Pier Guidi, who was back ahead and took a controversial victory. Kazuki Nakajima brought the #8 Toyota across the finish line to take the final win of his career, ahead of the sister car and the #36 Alpine - that had regained third overall after a race-long recovery from the first hour troubles. Team WRT secured victory in LMP2 and took the class title at the team's first season in WEC, doubling on the Le Mans success. Robin Frijns, Ferdinand Habsburg and Charles Milesi preceded the Jota crews of Gonzalez-Da Costa-Davidson and Gelael-Vandoorne-Blomqvist. United Autosport was fifth with the #22 Oreca and the Intereuropol Competition squad (Smiechowski-van der Zande-Brundle) rounded out the top-five. Tatiana Calderon crossed the finish line in ninth place, completing Richard Mille Racing's first season in FIA WEC with yet another top-ten. “It was the last good race of the FIA WEC season and the whole team did a great job to be able to finish this very tough race." - said Calderon. "We'll see what comes next year ”. "Was a hard one for us but still loved driving around Bahrain during the night", added Floersch, while Visser stated that the team "made another good step but were a bit unlucky with Full Course Yellow timing".
The same result awaited Legge-Frey-Bovy in the Iron Dames' #85 Ferrari, who managed to score another Top-10 despite a difficult day. "We were ready for so much more than a P9 finish", said Sarah Bovy, "but a contact after 2h of the race cost us 2 laps, despite the best efforts and incredible work of our mechanics". "Then from being dead last we managed to push hard and bring the car back into the top 10. We never give up, we keep our heads down and we will come back for more!" “It was an unfortunate situation with the Iron Dames car, but the driver in front was pretty slow and Katherine went in and it ended in some contact." - echoed Andrea Piccini, Iron Lynx Team Principal. "Our mechanics did a great job to repair the car, and the pace has been pretty good, so it’s a shame they couldn’t do a better result, but that’s racing." On Sunday, Floersch had the opportunity to enter the Rookie Test with Championship-winning team WRT and topped both morning and afternoon's sessions, as she is currently evaluating her options for 2022. Richard Mille Racing tested Alice Powell, Jamie Chadwick and Lilou Wadoux - all at their first taste of LMP2 machinery. More info on the FIA WEC rookie test will follow. Iron Dames will be back on track in two weeks' time, as Michelle Gatting will fight for the Ferrari Challenge Europe championship title at the World Finals in Mugello, Italy. The FIA WEC 2022 season is set to kick-off its new journey on 18th March 2022 at Sebring International Raceway.