WEC: Iron Dames close to podium finish at 6H of Fuji
With a highly positive fourth place finish at the FIA WEC 6 Hours of Fuji, Iron Dames extended by 6 points their gap to third place in the LMGTE championship standings, in a good step towards securing second place at the Bahrain season finale.
Iron Dames collected a positive fourth place finish at Fuji Speedway, completing the penultimate round of the 2023 FIA World Endurance Championship just out of the podium after a tightly-contested 6 Hours of Fuji that saw Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey leading the LMGTE class for consistent part of the race. The pink #85 Porsche 911 RSR GTE battled for the top three until the very final hours and eventually crossed the line in a positive fourth place that gain the all-female team important points for the championship: Frey, Gatting and Bovy keep in fact second place in the GTE standings with one round to go. Two months after the 6 Hours of Monza, FIA WEC returned to the track with the Japanese round at Fuji Speedway. The weekend was off to a challenging start as a typhoon hit the circuit on Friday and rain disrupted the team's preparation for the 6 hour race on Sunday. The rain continued on Saturday morning as well but, on a drying track, cars headed out for qualifying. It was the usual Sarah Bovy against Ben Keating battle for pole position in the GTE class: the bronze-rated drivers ventured out on slicks and improved consistently throughout the session, as times dropped. After two pole positions earlier this year - at Sebring and last time out in Monza - Bovy's 1:38.373 was 35 thousandths of a second short of pole in Japan, as the top spot went this time to Ben Keating's Corvette. The 4.563km Japanese track brought good memories to the Iron Dames, who last year celebrated a pole position and a second place finish - but the Italian team knew that the race would pose more challenges to the Porsche machinery. The race went underway on Sunday morning in sunny conditions and with Sarah Bovy as the selected driver for the opening stint. A chaotic first lap saw the #83 Richard Mille Ferrari driven by Luis Perez Companc misjudging the braking at turn 1 and going deep, just missing the Iron Dames Porsche and ultimately spinning off track into the gravel. While Bovy could avoid the impact, she dropped to third place just before the safety car intervention. D'Station Racing had in fact opted to start the gold-rated driver Tomonobu Fuji, who took the class lead after the hectic first lap. Momentarily down in third place, Sarah Bovy resumed her battle with Ben Keating when the green flag waved again and the two traded positions on lap 3: Sarah passed the pole sitting Corvette, who reclaimed the position on the main straight. Sarah fought back and made a move stick at the Dunlop Chicane on lap 9, taking advantage from a small mistake by the American driver.
Bovy kept a second gap over Keating over the next 30 minutes, but the battle was again on later on in the first hour: the Iron Dames' Porsche 911 RSR, though, was back ahead as the race approached the one hour mark. Bovy pitted on lap 34 for the first time and remained at the wheel. Once back on track, she chased the D'Station Racing Aston Martin, now with bronze driver Satoshi Hoshino after a strong first stint from Fuji. A quick stop by Iron Dames - who did not take new tyres - had in fact significantly reduced the gap to the leading #777 Aston. When tyre deg became a bigger factor for the #85 pink Porsche, Francesco Castellacci found a way past Bovy for second in GTE and Ben Keating managed to snatch third. Bovy opted to pit for the second stop close to the 2 hour mark from fourth position, handing over to Michelle Gatting. Keating went longer than anyone else in GTE, as the American team saved fuel for the next 20 minutes - followed by Riccardo Pera's GR Racing Porsche and Michelle Gatting's Iron Dames Porsche. Gatting - who cleared the #777 D'Station Aston of Hoshino, set the fastest lap for the team and closed in on Pera and, once the Italian pitted for his second stop, Gatting moved up to second, almost two seconds per lap faster than the leading Corvette. Keating was handed a 30 second stop and go penalty for causing a contact with the #54 AF Corse Ferrari; Gatting therefore found herself in the lead with 3 hours and 30 minutes to go. Michelle extended her lead with an extraordinary stint: the Danish ace pitted at the 3 hour mark after a single stint and Rahel Frey took over. Chased by Nicolas Varrone, Rahel kept the GTE lead but saw the Iron Dames' advantage cut short. Frey stopped for the fourth pit stop - but the Corvette's impressive fuel saving in the previous stint meant that Nicolas Varrone could gain back the 30 seconds lost in the penalty and settled back into P2 once the fourth pit cycle was completed. Nevertheless, Rahel had a solid rhythm and kept the gap stable. Frey held on to the GTE lead until lap 147, when Nico Varrone forced his way past the Iron Dames' Porsche with 1 hour and 42 minutes to go. Julien Andlauer was also ready to put pressure on Frey's sister car and eventually got by, demoting Rahel to third. The #77 Proton Porsche, though, received a drive through for abusing track limits. Frey set the team's new personal best on lap 157, with a 1:39.392 that was half a second faster than Gatting's previous benchmark. Despite finding some speed, Rahel had to defend hard from Kessel Racing's Ritomo Miyata, who claimed third after an exciting two-lap long battle with the Swiss racer.
As the final round of pit stops approached, Rahel Frey went a bit longer and then pitted on lap 172 with one hour and two minutes to go: Michelle Gatting took over from fifth - before she moved back up to P4 when the off-sequence GR Racing Porsche finally pitted. She soon improved the car's fastest lap - for the first time under the 1:39 minute mark, barely two tenths off the fastest lap of the race. Davide Rigon took over the lead after the Corvette's final stop; Ritomo Miyata moved up to second, with Catsburg and Gatting behind. Her pace was competitive throughout the final stages and she remained at a few seconds' distance from the top three, running basically on the same times as platinum-rated Nicky Catsburg. The race had its first Full Course Yellow with 17 minutes to go, caused by a debris; after a tightly contested 6H of Fuji, Davide Rigon crossed the finish line as the leading GTE car in the #54 AF Corse Ferrari, preceding an impressive Kessel Racing Ferrari and the Corvette Racing, that fought back after a 30 second stop and go penalty. The Kessel crew was later handed a penalty that demoted them to third, as the championship leading Keating-Varrone-Catsburg were promoted to second. With a very solid race, Iron Dames completed the penultimate round of the 2023 WEC season with a positive 4th place. "We can be happy today with P4 and with everything we have done together", commented Sarah Bovy. "Of course, the podium was very close, and we were hoping for it at some point." "At the end we showed that the pink car was fighting at the front of the race, all race, like through all of the WEC season", the Belgian driver continued, in almost a summary of the entire season. "For sure we will once more try to chase for that first victory in Bahrain which is a track that we like a lot. We will leave Fuji with a taste for a bit of redemption." The fourth place in fact represents a result that could prove decisive in the hunt for the Vice-Champion title at the end of the season. "We knew from last year that the Fuji race wouldn't be the strongest one for the Porsche", Michelle Gatting explained. "Finishing P4 is a solid performance, and it means important points for the championship. We look forward to going to Bahrain and to end our season on a high." The 12 points conquered at Fuji are an important step, as the all-female trio extended their gap to the #77 Dempsey Proton team by 6 points - which brings the margin up to 11 points. "We can be quite happy with P4 in the end and with good points for the championship as we made the gap to P3 bigger", echoed Rahel Frey. "For sure we are still hungry for a win. We will try one more time in Bahrain." The season finale in early November is expected to be yet another thriller: securing second in the FIA WEC LMGTE championship would represent Iron Dames' highest finishing position in the team's history, after third places in WEC as well as ELMS.