WEC: Heartbreak for Iron Dames at Sebring
Having led over three hours of the race in their first outing with a new car, it was a heartbreaking finish for the Iron Dames at the WEC season opener - but the 1000 Miles of Sebring undoubtedly showed that there are plenty of positives to take away.
After a long winter break, the FIA World Endurance Championship returned to the track, in the USA, for the 1000 Miles of Sebring - the race that opened a new era for sports car racing. A new golden era, we might say, as the Hypercar class will see for the first time seven different manufacturers battling out: Ferrari, Porsche, Toyota, Cadillac, Peugeot, Glickenhaus, Vanwall. But there was plenty of excitement also in the other categories, with the history-making all-female team Iron Dames switching from Ferrari to Porsche machinery, in the last year for GTE cars before a regulation change to GT3. Also in the now sole GTE class, French young talent Lilou Wadoux made her debut as Ferrari GT factory driver, only one year after starting her first WEC race. Wadoux, one of the most promising young talents on the grid, was in fact part of the LMP2 Richard Mille Racing Team in 2022, where she impressed the Italian manufacturer that signed her as the first ever female factory driver. In 2023, she is teaming up with Alessio Rovera - LMP2 Pro Am 2022 Champion and Ferrari Factory driver - and Luis Perez Companc, at the wheel of the 488 GTE Am of the Richard Mille by AF Corse entry. She adapted to the car in no time and was immediately up to pace, both in the Prologue and in the free practices - ending the pre-event test with the second fastest lap in class. Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey already showed promising results in the Prologue, topping the timing sheets on more than one occasion, and they continued with their great pace also in the three free practice sessions. The trio is returning to FIA WEC after a remarkable 2022 season, when they were able to claim multiple podiums and two pole positions, showed their potential on a world's stage; the early pace showed at their first official outing in the pink #85 Porsche 911 RSR is highly promising for a potential title battle.
The first Qualifying round of the year saw Antonio Fuoco snatch the overall Hypercar pole position, in a surprise pole for the new Ferrari 499P. Oliver Jarvis was the fastest in LMP2, at the wheel of the #23 United Autosport Oreca. But the star of the day was GTE-Am pole-winner Sarah Bovy, who completed a brilliant lap to put the Iron Dames on pole, followed by Ben Keating's Corvette and the #25 Ort by TF Sport Aston Martin. Wadoux's teammate Perez Companc also had a strong qualifying in fourth position.
Racing legend and Women in Motorsport North America's President Lyn St James waved the starting flag at 12:00pm local time and the 2023 WEC season was underway: Fuoco led the prototype class without drama, as well as Sarah Bovy managed to keep first position in GTE Am, defending from the attacks of Ben Keating's Corvette.
On lap 3, Keating temporarily overtook the Iron Dames' Porsche, but Bovy was immediately able to fight back one lap after, with a brilliant move around the outside at Turn 1.
In the #83 Richard Mille AF Ferrari, Luis Perez Companc had a good start and moved up to third place. Unfortunately, the Argentinian driver lost the car at Turn 1 on lap 4 and crashed heavily into the tyre wall, flipping the car upside down. Perez Companc was out of the car and uninjured, but the accident ended the #83's race very early. Lilou Wadoux's first weekend with Ferrari was over before it started - but she will have more chances to prove her talent.
The Safety car was deployed and Bovy gave up the lead for a quick first pit stop, followed by Keating in the Corvette and most of the GTE Am class. The only car that did not opt to pit was the #777 Aston Martin, who earned the lead.
As soon as the green flag was waved, Keating and Bovy traded positions once again, and the pair battled until the first Full Course Yellow of the race was deployed: the #56 Project 1 Porsche had hit the barriers. Meanwhile, the Hypercar lead changed hands, as Antonio Fuoco pitted, leaving Sebastien Buemi's Toyota on top. The Italian driver was also later penalized for overtaking under Safety Car and received a drive through.
At the restart, Bovy was back in the lead, just before the second pit stop. Michael Dinan's #25 Aston Martin got a puncture when passed by the leading Toyota and scattered bodywork debris, which triggered the second FCY of the race. At the next green flag, the Iron Dames could finally start to build a gap, with clean pit stops and smart driving by Sarah Bovy.
The Italian team anticipated a Full Course Yellow with a perfectly timed pit stop for Bovy, which extended Sarah's lead to the closest rival to over 40 seconds. Comfortably in the lead, the gap continued to grow over the over 2 hour stint.
At the first driver change, Bovy handed the car over to Rahel Frey in first position and the Swiss ace further pulled away. Everything was looking great for Iron Dames - until the smallest mistake over the kerb of Turn 1 resulted in the rear end of the Porsche completely falling off; Rahel had to bring back the car to the pits for repair and, unfortunately, the Iron Dames dropped to the back of the field, two laps down.
The #33 Corvette earned the race lead. Yet, the Iron Dames never gave up and continued to push, even with a car no more in ideal conditions.
Frey pitted and Michelle Gatting took over with four hours to go, in P9. With a car now more difficult to drive, the Dane was able to gain a few positions and, during the pit stop cycles, she was up to sixth place, battling with Iron Lynx's sister car.
With two hours to go, Alessandro Pier Guidi - at the wheel of the #51 499P - made contact with the #54 AF Corse 488 GTE and spun, hitting the #56 Project 1 Porsche. The incident triggered another FCY. Rahel Frey jumped back in the Iron Dames Porsche and tried to hunt down Castellacci in the #54 Ferrari.
Gatting was back for the final hour of racing, rejoining in eighth place. Michelle gave once again proof of the team's outstanding fighting spirit and pushed to gain seventh place. She closed in on Riccardo Pera (#86 GR Racing) but could not eventually find a gap to overtake and crossed the line in P8.
The #7 Toyota Gazoo Racing won the 1000 Miles of Sebring and was joined on the podium by its sister #8 car and by Fuoco/Nielsen/Molina's Ferrari 499P. In LMP2, the #48 Hertz Team Jota took a dramatic last lap victory, followed by the #22 United Autosport and the #63 Prema Racing - with Iron Dames' youngster Doriane Pin securing a podium at debut in LMP2 machinery. The GTE Am class victory went to the #33 Corvette Racing, followed by the #77 Proton Competition and the #57 Kessel Racing.
While luck was definitely not on the Iron Dames and Lilou Wadoux's side, their pace shown in practice and qualifying is highly promising for the rest of the season. At their first outing in the Porsche 911 RSR, Bovy, Gatting and Frey immediately clicked with the new car and always looked at ease. Their first win in FIA WEC slipped away for the tiniest mistake - but it will be a matter of time.
From a masterful Bovy in qualifying, a perfect pit strategy, and three consistent drivers, only separated by less than a second in a new car, there are plenty of positives to take away.
The FIA WEC will be back in Portimao in mid April, for 6 hours of racing at Circuit do Algarve - venue of Iron Dames' first win in ELMS in 2022.