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Belén García Battles Adversities to Secure Sixth Place at Imola in European Le Mans Series

"There are still some positives to take away from the weekend. On my side, there was a performance improvement. But I wasn’t able to show it in the race." - Belén García secured a sixth place finish at the 4 Hours of Imola, third round of the European Le Mans Series, following a promising yet unlucky weekend that saw the team battling through a penalty as well as an unlucky safety car.

Belén Garcia, DKR Engineering LMP3 Duqueine, European Le Mans Series 2024 4 Hours of Imola
Photo credits: Sergey Savrasov

Belén García secured a sixth place finish at the 4 Hours of Imola, third round of the European Le Mans Series, following a promising yet unlucky weekend at Autodromo Enzo and Dino Ferrari.

Having again shown speed for a podium finish throughout the weekend, Belén and her teammate Alexander Mattschull and Wyatt Brichacek were denied by unlucky circumstances, including a contact in the opening hours, a slow pit stop and an yet another contact from a LMP2 that eventually triggered the safety car, trapping Belén's #4 Duqueine LMP3 machine one lap down.

Nevertheless, the DKR Engineering trio scored important points for the championship, their first pole position and a class fastest lap, thus retaining fourth in the LMP3 standings as the season reached its mid-way point.

On her rookie season in the highly competitive European Le Mans Series, Belén García has proven to belong at the top end of the LMP3 field, as she continues to climb the ranks of international sports car racing. The Catalan racer had a strong start of the season on her home track at Barcelona, but the team couldn't quite capitalize on their pace and collected a fifth place finish.

Belén, however, wouldn't have to wait long before her first podium: on one of her favourite circuit at Le Castellet, she became the first female driver to climb the ELMS podium in the LMP3 class with a second place finish just four seconds behind the leaders that showed their potential.

"Fighting consistently for podiums is among our goals this season, and we finished runner-up in just our second race”, explained Belén before the Imola weekend. “We got our podium, but we’re not taking anything for granted", she continued. "Our gamble with the strategy and team spirit led us to get it on merit. It might not have been how I would have wished with my limited driving time in France, but the result has boosted the team's morale."

Belén Garcia, DKR Engineering LMP3 Duqueine, European Le Mans Series 2024 4 Hours of Imola
Photo credits: FocusPackMedia - Tim Hearn

"We are not about to rest on our laurels; we know we can do even better and fight for more. We have been working hard with the team. When the competition is so stiff and close, it all comes down to details and marginal gains", the Catalan driver stated. "For instance, we know we still have some work to do on driver changes, given the height differences within our line-up. It’s been a recurring topic since the first race, but we can improve it and find a solution if we keep pushing individually in our roles and together as a team.”

Coming into the third round at the iconic Imola circuit, Belén's aim was clearly to keep up momentum, also relying on her previous experience of the racetrack in her 2021 part-time FRECA campaign.

"I like Imola for its track, its challenges and its atmosphere”, she said. “It’s quite aggressive with its kerbs and all kinds of stuff that leaves little room for error. I felt very confident there for my first FRECA race weekend back in 2021 and I remember it being a positive experience. I want this same feeling this week to take another step forward and keep improving."

And indeed it turned out to be a highly promising start of the weekend for the DKR Engineering crew, who enjoyed wildly positive practice sessions - making up for some troubled starts in the previous weekends.

On Thursday, in fact, the team was third fastest in testing, and returned to the top four in the official practice on Friday. Alexander Mattschull took over for the Bronze-dedicated practice and showed good potential - and the #4 Duqueine continued to run in the top-6 also on Saturday morning in the final practice.

“The weekend got off to a decent start”, Belén explained. “We put in more laps and were better organised. What happened in the first two rounds wasn’t ideal, so it was nice to have a straightforward beginning."

"I felt better in the car, and I found the pace. It is still not where I want to be, but I keep getting closer each time. And I was more confident everywhere. It just felt good!"

It would be Wyatt Brichacek to take over driving duties for qualifying - and the American delivered: he initially placed the car in P2 with a time of 1:38.677, then he set the fastest times in all sectors, achieving a provisional pole position - only to have it nullified due to track limits.

Undeterred, Brichacek continued to push hard, clocking an impressive 1:38.019 that secured him the top spot. The American driver wasn't finished yet; he found an additional three-tenths of a second, widening the gap to the second-placed WTM by Rinaldi Duqueine. Despite Oscar Tunjo also setting a 1:38.0 lap, in fact, Brichacek's exceptional performance kept him firmly in the lead, gaining the team's first pole position of the season.

"Our pace on short stints was tremendous, and Wyatt did one hell of a job", Belén said. “It was the perfect result to avoid troubles at the start. We didn't expect such a strong one-lap pace from our car on this track, so it was a wonderful surprise.”

Belén Garcia, DKR Engineering LMP3 Duqueine, European Le Mans Series 2024 4 Hours of Imola
Photo credits: Sergey Savrasov

On Sunday morning, two teams featuring female drivers therefore started from class pole positions: Belén García's DKR Engineering Duqueine M30 - D08 and the #85 Iron Dames Porsche in the LMGT3 class. García's bronze-rated teammate Alexander Mattschull was the elected driver to take the start for the first stint.

Despite a clean start, Mattschull lost the lead to Torsten Kratz of WTM by Rinaldi, the only other Duqueine on the grid. As Mattschull navigated traffic and defended against Matthew Bell's Eurointernational Ligier, the top four cars began to pull away from the rest of the field.

A few minutes into the race, a full course yellow was deployed when the #24 Nielsen Racing LMP2 ended up stranded in the gravel at Acque Minerali. Mattschull had a strong restart and attempted to close in on Kratz, with the #5 RLR M Sport Ligier climbing to third place just behind him. Despite Daniel Ali's quick pace enabling him to overtake Mattschull for second place, the German driver maintained a competitive rhythm against the cars behind him.

Daniel Ali took the lead, followed by Kratz and Mattschull as the race entered its second hour. Mattschull pitted from third, but a delay during the pit stop, due to the driver stopping a bit too far away from the fuel rig, cost the team around 20 seconds. After the round of pit stops for the entire LMP3 field, Mattschull returned to the track in third place, now behind the #11 EuroInternational Ligier.

However, a collision between Mattschull and Johnny Laursen in the #50 Formula Racing Ferrari led to a drive-through penalty for DKR Engineering. Mattschull served the penalty on lap 44, dropping to fourth place, over 50 seconds behind the leader. He continued to maintain a steady pace but soon had to defend against the recovering WTM by Rinaldi Duqueine: Kratz forced his way past Mattschull after two contacts into Rivazza 2 on lap 57.

DKR Engineering made their second scheduled pit stop on lap 65, two hours into the race, with Belén García taking over from fourth in class and with older tyres used in qualifying.

As she started to get in her rhythm, an overly-rushed move by the #37 COOL Racing LMP2 of Paul Loup Chatin ended in contact into turn 4: the Frenchman went for a move while García had already committed to the apex instead of waiting for the following straight and clipped the #4 prototype driven by the Spaniard, with both ending in the gravel.

"I was ahead of the Cool car in turns 2 and 3 before I got to the left-hand turn 4”, she recalled. “I knew he was there, and the faster cars don't usually lap slower cars as there is no room to overtake there, but rather after the corner."

"I had already committed to the apex when I saw him, without knowing where he came from. He was on the kerb, and he ran into me. He hit my front wheel with his rear. He spun and went straight to the wall while I was sent into the gravel. It happened so fast, and I still don’t understand why he tried to overtake me there.”

The COOL Racing machine made heavy contact with the barriers, while García could luckily rejoin unscathed. However, the incident triggered the first full safety car of the race.

During the Safety Car procedure, García found herself trapped a lap behind the class leader but wasn't eligible for the pass-around before the restart. The race resumed with 1 hour and 29 minutes remaining.

Belén Garcia, DKR Engineering LMP3 Duqueine, European Le Mans Series 2024 4 Hours of Imola
Photo credits: Sergey Savrasov

García, holding fifth in class, kept up the pace and set the car's best lap with a time of 1:41.704. Consistently lapping in the 1:42 range, Belén battled for fifth with Julien Gael and she remained close behind the RLR M Sport Ligier.

She further improved her personal best, lapping for the first time under the 1:41 barrier, and cycled back up to third. By lap 96, she was the fastest driver in the LMP3 class, continuing to improve her benchmark. García ultimately completed her stint on lap 100, handing over to Wyatt Brichacek, who rejoined the race in seventh place in class with 45 minutes remaining.

On new tyres, Brichacek climbed back to sixth when the #31 Racing Spirit of Leman Ligier made its final pit stop. The American was on a mission and set the fastest lap overall in LMP3 during the final five minutes of the race. Despite his efforts, though, the gap of almost a lap to the cars ahead left him little room for improvement in the final stint of the race and the #4 DKR Engineering prototype crossed the finish line sixth in class.

“The race didn’t go much in our favour”, Belén summed up. “The start wasn't too bad, but maybe we should have done things differently after Alex stopped too far from the refuelling rig on the first pit stop. We lost about 20 seconds, but then the contact didn't help, and the drive-through dropped us out of contention as we lost a lot of time during the second hour."

"The beginning of my stint wasn’t great either, especially as we lost a lap with the safety car. Afterwards, it seemed like the other cars had much more grip. I suspect there were some different strategies", she explained. "Lap after lap, I still got more confident and faster by the end of my stint."

"We started to recover, then Wyatt pushed hard, but we were already too far behind to hope for a better result."

However, the third round of the ELMS season once again showed how García, Brichacek and Mattschull can contend for podium finishes and even victories on a clean weekend.

Belén herself is getting more confident in the car after each session and her solid performance in the second half of her stint is certainly a positive sign as the season progresses.

"There are still some positives to take away from the weekend", she concluded. "On my side, there was a performance improvement. But I wasn’t able to show it in the race. We will have to analyse the race and keep working to move forward and build on our strengths after the summer break.”

With a sixth place, a pole position and a fastest lap in Imola, García and her teammates now sit fourth in the LMP3 class championship standings, just 15 points off the leaders.

The European Le Mans Series will now enter a summer break before resuming its on-track activities at Spa Francorchamps, Belgium, on 22-25 August.

Belén Garcia, DKR Engineering LMP3 Duqueine, European Le Mans Series 2024 4 Hours of Imola
Photo credits: ELMS x Focus Pack Media



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