WEC: great progress for both Richard Mille Racing & Iron Dames in clean Portimao 8H
At the second round of the 2021 World Endurance Championship, the all-female crews of Richard Mille Racing and Iron Dames had clean races and were closer than ever before to a top5 finish in their respective classes.
The 2021 WEC season opened over a month ago with the curtain-raiser at Spa Francorchamps – constantly one of the drivers and fans' favourite tracks – for the first 6 Hour race of the world's top endurance championship.
Joining the series that is probably most famous for hosting the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, were two fully-female teams: Richard Mille Racing and Iron Dames, projects that brought women crew to a top ten at La Sarthe in 2020.
Both teams graduated from the European Le Mans Series, in the LMP2 and GTE class respectively.
With its all-rookie lineup in 2020, Richard Mille Racing had an impressive campaign as Sophia Floersch, Tatiana Calderon and Beitske Visser took their first steps in endurance racing. Just one year into their new adventures in prototypes, the three ladies stepped up to WEC.
Similarly, Iron Dames' Manuela Gostner, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting battled for podiums in ELMS for two years in a row and the project founded by women in motorsport's advocate and Ferrari brand ambassador Deborah Mayer gained an entry in WEC in 2021.
Katherine Legge was announced as part of the program – and indeed contested the first race at Spa at the wheel of the #85 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo. A clash in the calendar with the American IMSA series required Legge to be Stateside – giving the opportunity to Danish racer Michelle Gatting to make her WEC debut in Portugal.
Both teams were eighth across the finish line in Belgium, scoring a promising top-10 at their series debut. But, at the warm venue of Circuit do Algarve, they aimed higher.
"It's been a long wait from Spa and I'm happy to finally get back behind the wheel of the LMP2 this weekend." – said Calderon before the race weekend.
"Portimao will present a very different challenge, with much warmer weather and a track that will be more challenging on the low downforce setup." – added the Colombian, who is also competing in Japan's premier single seater championship Super Formula, but had to miss the last rounds due to travel restrictions.
"We have been working very hard with the team to understand our performance in comparison with the front-runners in Spa and we have a lot to prove. It will be important to understand the car and the tyres, especially in hot conditions so as not to have issues and to continue our momentum heading into Le Mans. "
Under blistering heat at the undulating and technical track also home of the Portuguese GP, the #36 Alpine Elf Matmut took the start from pole position, leading the two Toyota Gazoo Racing hypercars – as the Japanese manufacturer contested its 100th race in the series.
There was some extra media attention for the debut of the brand-new Glickenhaus Racing hypercar, which qualified 11th in its very first outing.
Fourth and fifth overall were the two JOTA LMP2 cars, with Gelael-Vandoorne.Blomqvist taking class pole position.
The Richard Mille Racing squad sent out young German star Sophia Floersch for qualifying; they were P10 in class, after Floersch could only complete very few laps in practice due to a series of red flags.
Manuela Gostner had a remarkable qualifying session on Saturday and brought the #85 Ferrari to fifth place in LMGTE-Am class.
The overall GT pole went to the Pro-squad of Estre-Jani-Christensen for Porsche, followed by Alessandro Pier Guidi and birthday-boy James Calado in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari.
In the Am-class, the two Porsches of Perfetti-Cairoli-Pera (Team Project1) and Ried-Evans-Campbell (Dempsey Proton) edged the Ferrari of Cetilar Racing and AF Corse – just ahead of the Iron Dames trio.
The story of the race
In the opening stages, the Alpine Hypercar tried to open a gap at the front, as the Toyotas went for the opposite strategy and opted to save fuel aimed at completing less pit stops.
At the wheel of the #36 Alpine Elf Matmut, Nicolas Lapierre extended the lead to the closest Toyota before handing over to Negrao 90 minutes into the race. The Brazilian rejoined with a seven second gap to Sebastien Buemi – the latter struggling for pace and coming under pressure from Jose-Maria Lopez in the sister #7 car.
The first turn of events came around the three-hour mark, when the Glickenhaus driven by Ryan Briscoe made contact with the #777 D'Station Aston Martin and the #77 Dempsey Proton Porsche. Both the GT cars were ultimately forced to retire, while the American Hypercar was back into the garage for a long stint before rejoining the track. The Glickenhaus prototype had already endured a challenging first stint, with Richard Westbrook struggling with tyre overheating.
The LMP2 category remained the most competitive and closely-fought throughout the race; the Team Nederland Oreca 07 Gibson led the early stages, with Giedo van der Garde defending from the WRT entry of Robin Frijs – but positions at the top swapped when Ferdinand Habsburg pulled a move for the lead on van Eerd after the first driver change.
The WRT team, though, would have its race compromised by a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane.
The pole-sitting JOTA LMP2 car of Tom Blomqvist had slipped down the order after spinning on the first lap due to a collision with its sister car of Felix Da Costa. The latter managed to keep third until the driver change – when Roberto Gonzalez was hit by the Dragonspeed car of Ben Hanley, who received a drive through penalty.
Beitske Visser was up to ninth in the first hour, before pitting from tenth in class after her first driving shift. The Ducthwoman handed over to Tatiana Calderon, who had a great stint and recovered two positions. The Colombian battled hard with the Realteam Racing Oreca of Mathias Beche, but she defended superbly.
The #92 Porsche Team continued to lead in LMGTE-Pro after the first two hours, but James Calado closed the gap in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari.
In GTE-Am, the pole sitting Porsche of Perfetti dropped down the order soon after the start, leaving Castellacci (AF Corse) in the lead. Once Giorgio Sernagiotto had climbed behind the wheel of the #47 Cetilar Racing Ferrari, though, started to hunt down Flohr in the leading Ferrari.
Manuela Gostner had a very solid first stint and pitted from seventh to hand over to Rahel Frey. The Swiss ace had a stunning second stint and climbed the order up until first place in class during the second round of pit stops. After everyone had pitted, Frey found herself fifth in LMGTE-Am.
Around the mid-race mark, the Alpine hypercar continued to lead, with Negrao extending the lead to the Toyota opponent that had swapped places when Mike Conway moved ahead of Brendon Hartley.
Ultimately, though, the fuel strategy played out in favour of the Toyota Gazoo Racing cars, that leapfrogged the Alpine prototype into the fourth hour of racing due to one less stop.
A Safety Car into the fifth hour – the first of a very uninterrupted race, caused by a spin by the ARC Bratislava LMP2 Ligier – gave the opportunity to the Alpine car to close back the gap to the Toyota duo. Nicolas Lapierre, though, had to pit again before attempting a move on Kazuki Nakajima.
In LMP2, the #22 United Autosport Oreca of Paul Di Resta took over the lead and managed to open a 1-minute gap to the JOTA crew. The latter re-gained the top of the leaderboard in the round of pit stops, with many teams going for different strategies. The Inter Europol Competition Oreca of Alex Brundle was up to third after a great stint by the British racer, as the WRT team was hit by another drive through penalty for a blue flag infringement.
Sophia Floersch got behind the wheel of the #1 Richard Mille Racing Oreca and continued to cut the gap to the cars ahead. The 20-year old German moved up to seventh in class and tenth overall at the 5-hour mark.
The battle was also very tight in GTE-Am: Augusto Farfus climbed the order in the #98 Aston Martin Vantage. Second-placed Sernagiotto pitted for Antonio Fuoco, who battled for the lead with fellow Italian driver Matteo Cairoli when the Aston Martin dropped down the order due to a mistake by Paul Dalla Lana into Turn 8.
At the Safety Car restart, Fuoco advanced into the lead for Cetilar Racing and held position.
In the closing stages, the Two Toyota GR010 Hybrid swapped positions once again and Buemi got ahead of Lopez, bringing home the victory for the Japanese manufacturer at their 100th race in sports cars since 1983.
Negrao-Lapierre-Vaxiviere were third across the line and secured another podium for Alpine in the overall classification and in Hypercar.
The rookie Glickenhaus Racing squad completed the race in 30th overall position after the long stop, but crucially collecting more data for the upcoming races.
LMP2 saw even more drama: JOTA secured a 1-2 finish with Antonio Felix Da Costa taking a home win after an exciting battle with the sister car of Blomqvist in the final minutes.
United Autosport took third with its #22 Oreca of Hanson-Boyd-Di Resta, who led the Team WRT Oreca of Frijns-Habsburg-Milesi in fourth despite the two race-defining penalties.
Beistke Visser, Tatiana Calderon and Sophia Floersch all completed another double stint to finish the race in sixth for Richard Mille Racing – a remarkable result for the three drivers at their second race in the series.
“I'm really happy with sixth place, I think the team did a great job during the weekend." – commented Calderon.
"After Spa, we have made quite a few changes in the right direction. There is still a long way to go, but every time we hit the track we improve. So I am very happy with the result."
"Driving more than three hours is what we're going for, so I think we're on the right path. Now we have a test day next week, as we keep improving with our eyes set on Monza, which will be the next race ” – she concluded.
Ferrari overturned the qualifying results in both LMGTE-Pro and LMGTE-Am: the Italian brand secured victories in both classes, with AF Corse taking a 1-2 in the Pro category: Calado and Pier Guido managed the race in the #51 488 GTE Evo despite tyre difficulties caused by the scorching temperatures and led Serra-Molina by over 25 seconds across the line. Estre-Jani-Christensen were third in first of the Porsche GT Team 911 RSR, one lap ahead of the sister car of Bruni-Lietz-Makowiecki, also struggling for blistering.
In the Am-class, Catilar Racing clinched its maiden victory in the championship with Fuoco-Sernagiotto-Lacorte edging the Project1 Porsche of Perfetti-Cairoli-Pera by just 5 seconds.
The Iron Dames completed 273 laps in seventh position, following a trouble-free race.
Rahel Frey was able to climb as high as fifth after her stints, but a P7 nonetheless represents the team's best result so far in one of the closely fought categories.
The upcoming FIA World Endurance Championship round will be in Monza, at the Temple of Speed on 16-18 July. Since then, Visser, Floersch and Calderon will remain in Portimao for a test day, while the Iron Dames will tackle the ELMS race at the same venue, one week before. Michelle Gatting, also, will head to Valencia, Spain, for the upcoming fourth round of the Ferrari Challenge Europe championship.