The Iron Dames line up in front of their race cars on the race track.

Sports

Iron Dames: The all-female team racing to bring change to motor sports

The Iron Dames is one of just three all-female teams in the world. Far from a marketing gimmick, they’ve already qualified for big-name races and hope to lead the way for future female pilots. 

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The Iron Dames 2021 lineup. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Iron Dames

A black and pink Ferrari coils and loops around the Mugello Circuit, just outside Florence, and guns across the finish line at 170 miles per hour. The roar of its engine echoes throughout the Tuscan countryside. 

This sleek ride isn’t your typical commercial sports car, it’s a Ferrari 488 GTE — a hyper-tuned machine built for endurance racing, with a cockpit made of carbon fiber and rebar steel.  

Steering behind a wheel full of buttons is 27-year-old Michelle Gatting, an ambitious pilot from Denmark. 

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Gatting started riding go-karts at the age of 7. Today, she is the youngest member of the Iron Dames, an all-female professional racing team that competes in Grand Touring endurance racing, or GT.  

“An Iron Dame is a determined, strong-willed woman who has strong goals in her life. ...and who is really passionate about what she’s doing.”

Michelle Gatting, 27, Iron Dame pilot

“An Iron Dame is a determined, strong-willed woman who has strong goals in her life,” Gatting said. “And who is really passionate about what she’s doing.”

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Close up of an Iron Dames race car.

Close up of an Iron Dames race car. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Iron Dames 

The Iron Dames is one of just three all-female teams in the world that competes head-to-head with men. 

The International Federation of the Automobile (FIA), the global governing body for motor racing, has praised them as a “sign of progress” in this male-dominated sport. Far from a marketing gimmick, the Iron Dames have already qualified for big-name races, and are hoping to change the perception of women in the sport. 

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“We fight, we want to win, we want to go for the podiums. ... And when you do that, and you get [to] those podiums, people they don't question anymore why you're there."

Michelle Gatting, 27, Iron Dame pilot

“We fight, we want to win, we want to go for the podiums,” said Gatting, referring to where winners stand to receive first, second or third place. “And when you do that, and you get [to] those podiums, people they don't question anymore why you're there,” she said. 

Michelle Gatting sits behind the wheel of her race car.

Michelle Gatting sits behind the wheel of her race car. 

Credit:

Angelica Marin/The World 

GT endurance racing is like marathon running — but for sports cars.  Teams of pilots speed around twisty circuits for hours at a time, while racking up an insane amount of laps — sometimes up to 2,000 miles, depending on the race. 

In 2019, the Iron Dames became the first ever, all-female lineup to begin and finish the legendary 24-hour of Le Mans —the mother of all endurance races. Teams of pilots take turns driving one car for a full day and a full night. They pause only for seconds at a time to switch tires or pilots.

Last year they finished in the top 10 at Le Mans. This year, reaching the podium — in the top three — would be the ultimate game changer.

“That would be fantastic, a dream come true,” said Deborah Mayer, Iron Dames’ founder and leader. 

Mayer, a French financier, entrepreneur and pilot, founded the Iron Dames in 2018 to promote women in motor sports. “And to give the possibility to talented women to show all their capacities and skills in a quite competitive environment,” said Mayer.   

As a long-time Ferrari collector, Mayer caught the speed bug racing in Ferrari tournaments. Now, she is betting big to take the Iron Dames to the top. 

Motor sports is one of very few sports where the athlete’s sex doesn’t matter, said Mayer. At the end of the race, what separates a good pilot from the rest is strictly the lap time.

“It’s not a question of strength…it’s skills, it's hard work…you have to improve and work on your technique. ... You have to have the right strategy, and, above all, you have to work as a team."

Deborah Mayer, Iron Dames leader

“It’s not a question of strength…it’s skills, it's hard work…you have to improve and work on your technique,” said Mayer. “You have to have the right strategy, and, above all, you have to work as a team,” she said. 

Four women wear black and pink race tracksuits.

Iron Dames pose for a portrait at Mugello. 

Credit:

Angelica Marin/The World 

Mayer describes teamwork as “working at it, till the mayonnaise thickens.” Professional racing teams require million-dollar cars and a traveling crew of coaches, mechanics, engineers, and other staff working up to 24 hours at a time with the pilots. 

Together with Mayer and Gatting, Manuela Gostner from Italy, and Rahel Frey from Switzerland, make up the original Iron Dames team.   

This year, British pilot Katherine Legge also joined the all-female line-up. 

Legge has done it all: NASCAR, Indy 500, Formula E and GT. She doesn’t come from a dynasty of racers — or from money. She had to fight her way into the racing circuits on her own.  

“That’s why people like Deborah [Mayer] are so important, because when we get together we can do so much more,” said Legge.  

Legge said one of the biggest challenges for women drivers can be getting sponsorship due to entrenched stereotypes about women in motor sports. 

“Sponsors — a lot of them don't want to see women get hurt, don't necessarily believe that women can win."

Katherine Legge, Iron Dame pilot

“Sponsors — a lot of them don't want to see women get hurt, don't necessarily believe that women can win,” said Legge. 

Legge broke both her legs last summer during a test drive in France. In just seven months she reached race-ready fitness. Now, she says, she has unfinished business. 

“I want to go out on a high and win championships and win races, and I want to do it as part of an all-female team,” said Legge.  “Because I think that the first all-female team that does that, will put a stamp on it, and then, you know, maybe I help other girls to become the next Iron Dames,” she said. 

This year, the Iron Dames have 30 races to make their mark and push for that change. When women reach the podium, sponsors take notice, and new opportunities open up for more fierce girls in the game.

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