until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

WEC/Le Mans

Iron Dames: From 'no respect' to a history-making franchise

by Alice Holloway
8 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

It may be true that in 2024, motorsport still remains a generally male-dominated world, one still with no females on the current grid in Formula 1, Formula E or IndyCar.

There will be none in the headline Hypercar class of the World Endurance Championship either when its 2024 season begins in Qatar this weekend. But that’s emphatically not the case in the GT3 class that’s now Hypercar’s main support act after the axing of the LMP2 category.

The predominant force in shifting that gender imbalance is the Iron Dames team, which is making major strides with nurturing young females who can make a mark on the international motorsport scene.

Michelle Gatting, Rahel Frey and Sarah Bovy on he Eight hours of Bahrain podium

It’s the brainchild of ex-GT driver Deborah Mayer and was launched in 2018 with the ambition to bring more women into motorsport, shining a light on talents that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. Initial drivers included Manuela Gostner, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey, who were all in the line-up for Iron Dames’ debut in the 2018 Gulf 12 Hours.

From that point on the die was cast as far as the ultra-experienced Frey was concerned. As she told The Race, when she started competing in 2004, there was “basically nothing” for female drivers, “and it was hard work to find a way or to know who to approach”.

“It was a really long way for a female to have to push, and in the end that I got this far makes me even prouder,” added Frey.

Iron Dames driver Rahel Frey putting on a helmet

Iron Dames’ second season was already a breakout one, as Gostner, Gatting and Frey proved their worth in a full season LMGTE entry in the European Le Mans Series that began with a hard-earned second place at Paul Ricard.

The debriefs during that season included a strong trait among the Iron Dames: honesty. 

There were no excuses in the camp for mistakes or the inevitable wrong directions taken on strategy or set-up. The team was open to learning from mistakes - and keen to defy sceptical expectations.

Michelle Gatting, Sarah Bovy and Rahel Frey signing autographs

“Now, women are proving that even on the highest level of endurance racing they can compete on the same level as guys,” Gatting tells The Race.

“It was a tough beginning though because people expected nothing from us. There was the sense that we were just another line-up that’s going to try and achieve something but were not really to be taken that seriously.”

When respect in the paddock was earned through solid performances, esteem started to come.

“I didn’t feel respected in the paddock at first,” says Gatting bluntly.

Fans watch Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting's Porsche at the Le Mans 24 Hours, 2023

“Often I felt like I was walking around knowing the faces of the drivers but people were never saying hello to us really. They were not expecting to see us there the year after, let’s say.” 

Instead, the team didn't just stick around - but gained steam with another ELMS campaign and a first shot at the Le Mans 24 Hours with what became a familiar Gatting, Frey and Sarah Bovy line-up.

The experienced Frey was convinced Iron Dames’ plans and approach were different. This wasn’t just a token marketing gesture. This was about succeeding consistently and fighting for championships.

“Our business, our sport has got more open-minded about female participation,” she said.

“There is definitely more support for women and that has to be good for the future.

“Twenty years ago, we did not have the role models.

“There were no females here except Michelle Mouton in rallying but not really anyone in single-seaters or sportscars - and teams were not open or keen to take females apart from marketing opportunities.

“Time has changed and we have to move with the change. I’m very happy for the next generation as it stands but we have to keep pushing and proving with results.”

Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting's Ferrari in WEC at Monza, 2021

For Iron Dames’ debut WEC season in 2021 (above) it trialled different driver combinations, with only Frey competing in all six rounds. It showed how the programme was already attracting both established female drivers and those who were looking to get their foot on the racing ladder; exactly the blend Iron Dames had been striving for. 

Bovy was one of those who got her chance to prove herself, coming into the team with only a handful of professional races to her name, including two W Series rounds in 2019. 

“I was already 13-years-old [when I discovered go-karting], I didn’t grow up in motorsport at all,” Bovy explained.

“But when [my father] saw that I was not too bad at it and that I liked it, he thought that it would be fun to share that passion with his daughter.”

Sarah Bovy celebrates raising clenched fists, Bahrain WEC, 2023

Bovy’s father, Quirin Bovy, was a racing driver before she was born, from 1977 to 1991, competing in Formula 3, touring cars and a couple of World Sportscar Prototype Championship rounds in 1989 and 1990.

He had a perspective on how difficult it was going to be for Bovy to achieve her dreams, having seen very few women able to compete alongside him. 

But Bovy inherited her father’s deep determination - and also, crucially, a decent amount of talent.

“When I started, my dad was very happy and supportive, but it was difficult because motorsport from the early stages in go-karts is very expensive,” Bovy said.

Sarah Bovy with peace signs raised, Le Mans 24 Hours, 2023

“I’m not coming from a family that has a lot of money, so it was very difficult from the beginning.

“But when they saw that my passion and my determination was there we worked quite hard to find solutions and get me into a car as early as possible.

“From there I’ve been able to make a career but it’s been hard-earned with lots of challenges.”

Iron Dames was a consistent points-scorer but not a podium finisher in its first WEC season in 2021, but by 2022 the programme was settling in. At Monza, Bovy scooped the team’s first LMGTE Am pole position and then a maiden podium with a fighting second place. That was followed up with further poles and podiums at Fuji and Bahrain (below).

Iron Dames team on the podium, Bahrain WEC, 2022

The respect then turned into acclaim. Frey, Gatting and Bovy were challenging for wins and challenging some set opinions of all-female squads in motorsport.

“When I was younger I didn’t want to be seen as a girl, just a driver,” says Gatting. 

“If you’d asked me 10 years ago I would never have said yes to driving a pink car for instance.

“Now I drive the car proudly and I wear my suit proudly because I know we have earned our position and we can drive in whatever colours we wish.” 

Sarah Bovy, Doriane Pin and Michelle Gatting's pink Lamborghini in Qatar WEC testing

While increasing success and a continuous upward trajectory in performance were coming in the WEC, the Iron Dames were starting to show up in more paddocks across the world too. 

Racing still in ELMS, the project also ventured into the Michelin Le Mans Cup, helping the Iron Lynx team to take its second teams’ championship in a row. Gatting also became the first female champion of the Ferrari Challenge Europe series in 2021, and was succeeded by Doriane Pin a year later.

Unearthing single-seater stars too

F1 Academy driver Doriane Pine stands in front of a Mercedes logo, 2024

Although the Iron Dames team was predominantly focused on racing in endurance, an important ideal of the programme was still to bring young and upcoming female drivers into series across the globe, creating an academy of young drivers. 

For that ambition to succeed Mayer and her team needed to prove to drivers of the future that they should be part of the programme to further their careers.

Cue Pin (above and below, left), who has perhaps created more excitement than any other young female talent in recent years. 

Prema drivers Doriane Pin, Mirko Bortolotti and Daniil Kvyat embrace, Portimao, 2023

Pin was soon picked up by Prema Racing to become part of its 2023 WEC campaign alongside Daniil Kvyat, Mirko Bortolotti and Andrea Caldarelli, and she compared favourably with the cream of the LMP2 field.

Those performances, which included a brilliant second place in the Sebring season opener in 2023, earned a Mercedes F1-backed seat in the F1 Academy championship - as well as a slot alongside Bovy and Gatting in Iron Dames’ Lamborghini Huracan GT3 for this season’s WEC.

“The more you get involved in as many races and series for the career of a young driver, then it’s easier,” Pin told The Race.

Prema's Doriane Pin leads a train of cars at Le Mans 24 Hours, 2023

“You have to learn so many things about everything, on track but off track as well.

“I am still dreaming about F1 and I really want to achieve that. It’s something that’s maybe possible with the project I am in now but there is lots of work still to be done and lots of learning too.”

And while Pin had been plying her trade in LMP2 cars, the Bovy-Frey-Gatting trio had their day of days in Bahrain, taking their first-ever WEC GTE Am win in the 2023 season finale in Bahrain.

Iron Dames, WEC

Talent influences talent in the Dames. Young Spanish karter Natalia Granada is also a name to keep an eye out for in the future as she too has joined the programme.

The successes of the team has bred more interest and investment, making it something that is sustainable and lucrative for female drivers to make their way in a variety of disciplines.

Gatting has sage advice for youngsters wishing to follow in hers and especially Pin’s footsteps, saying that “new Dames will have to put in hard work".

Iron Dames drivers Rahel Frey and Sarah Bovy swap seats, Portimao, 2023

"It’s not going to be because there is a project like this that we’re just going to lift them to wherever they want to go. They need to work for it themselves and work hard.”

“This is not the end,” added Gatting. “It’s just the beginning."

Michele Gatting, Sarah Bovy and Doriane Pin will be competing as the Iron Dames GT3 squad in this weekend's WEC opener in Qatar. Rahel Frey will be part of the team's ELMS line-up.

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