Belén García completes ALMS campaign showing potential to fight for the LMP3 podium
With a podium within reach, Belén García completed her maiden campaign in LMP3 in Asian Le Mans Series with a seventh place as best result - nevertheless showing great speed and potential to battle with the series front-runners.
Two weeks to adapt to a new car, a whole different form of racing and new circuits is certainly a very short amount of time – but Belén García, at her first full season in endurance racing, managed to showcase her potential and to prove that she has what it takes to rise to the top in her new sports car adventure.
Just out of single seaters after a 2 year stint in W Series, a forward-thinking García decided to soon focus her efforts on the booming-world of prototypes. After two one-off appearances in the Le Mans Cup and Ultimate Cup - where she also took her first win in LMP3 machinery – Belén tackled the new challenge of the Asian Le Mans Series, a two-week and four-race championship entirely set in the Middle East.
In the packed field of 47 entries and 14 LMP3 cars, García had a very positive first weekend in Dubai, where she drove the #9 Graff Racing Ligier to two eighth place finishes in the two 4-hour races. Sharing the car with bronze-rated Eric Trouillet and Sebastién Page, García had strong runs despite losing out on the chance to step on the podium on Sunday, when a technical issue in the second half of the race dropped the #9 Ligier to tenth place.
With a very solid recovery drive, García completed almost two hours behind the wheel and gained two more spots to finish eighth again, repeating Saturday's result when an unlucky Full Course Yellow timing in the first stages of the race.
A few days later, though, it was time to reset and hit the track again – this time at Yas Marina Circuit, one of the most iconic racing venues in the region.
"In regards to Yas Marina, I was there in 2019 participating in the Formula Renault Rookie Test, but the changes made to its layout mean that any previous reference is literally useless." – Belén explained before the weekend. "Therefore, just like this weekend in Dubai, it will be time to start from scratch”.
García and her teammates were off to a great start in practice, as they set the second fastest time on Friday's first session and then continued the trend in qualifying, where Trouillet improved the starting positions of the #9 crew with a sixth and a seventh place ahead of the final races of the ALMS season. After practice and qualifying, García was the ninth fastest driver in LMP3, out of 43 drivers.
Rookie LMP2 driver Ahmad Al Harthy, one of the protagonists of last year's GTE-Am class in WEC, claimed overall pole position in the #98 99 Racing LMP2 Oreca, ahead of the #3 DKR Engineering of Salih Yoluc and the #34 Nielsen Racing driven by Rodrigo Sales.
In LMP3, the WTM by Rilandi Racing #11 piloted by Torsten Kratz lined up on pole position.
In one of the most chaotic race starts to date, Sales spun at Turn 1, Yoluc took the overall lead, and a series of contacts took out of the race several GT3 contenders on the first lap, requiring the Safety Car intervention after multiple accidents.
Eric Trouillet had taken the start in the #9 Graff Racing Ligier and kept sixth place, in a remarkably clean start for the LMP3 field.
At the restart, Kratz held the lead in class, preceding the #5 DKR Engineering and the #73 Inter Europol, as Trouillet moved up the order and climbed to fifth. Meanwhile, the #2 CD Sport and the #8 360 Racing had made contact and the Full Course Yellow was deployed for the fluid left on track by the damaged CD Sport LMP3 car.
While some teams opted to pit during the caution within the first 30 minutes of racing, the race-leading Rinaldi, #17 Cool Racing and #9 Graff of Trouillet stayed out, moving into a podium position. At the one hour mark, though, a big crash by the #60 Formula Racing Ferrari on the main straight brought out the red flag, having caused significant damage to the external guard rail. Luckily Johnny Laursen was unhurt, unlike his totaled Ferrari 488 GT3.
Track repairs meant that the race went back to green with 2 hours and 20 minutes to go – which extended the driving time of some of the bronze drivers, still behind the wheel after the start. Among them, Eric Trouillet had his first pit stop under green mid-way through the race and handed over to Belén García, who rejoined in tenth place on lap 36.
After only 4 laps, though, a new Full Course Yellow neutralized the action when the #55 Rinaldi Racing LMP3 spun at Turn 9 having lost a wheel nut. A change of strategy meant that Sebastién Page would take over the #9 Ligier. De Sadeleer (MV2S Racing) and Chila (Cool Racing), who still had to pit, had the chance to do it under caution and moved ahead of the LMP3 class.
Initially up to seventh after the round of pit stops, Page dropped behind the sister car of Lloveras and settled in ninth place in class.
With one hour to go, the #29 MV5S Racing pulled away with Fabien Lavergne behind the wheel, followed by Matthew Bell (Nielsen #4) and Kai Askey (#4 Intereuropol).
Having completed his driving time, Sebastién Page pitted from ninth and Belén García got back behind the wheel for the final stint of the day. She would have the task to recover as much as possible after the ill-timed FCY.
After the round of pit stops, De Sadeleer and Bell were back in the MV2S Racing and Nielsen Racing's machines – this time in reversed order, as the #4 car grabbed the lead. García moved into eighth place and quickly caught up with Valdemar Eriksen in the #1 CD Racing Ligier. Belén overtook the Danish driver for P7 with 20 minutes to go.
Having completed a little over one hour of driving time, Belén García still managed to bring home seventh place - a seasonal best – and the fastest lap for her crew by over one second.
Bell/Wells took victory in the #4 Nielsen Racing LMP3, ahead of De Sadeleer/Gutak/Lavergne (#29 MV2S Racing) crew that also took the lead in the championship standings.
In LMP2, a superlative charge by Malthe Jakobsen handed the victory to the #37 Cool Racing.
Graff Racing's strategy changed for the second and final race of the season; Sebastién Page would start race 2, from seventh on the grid.
At lights out, the pole-sitting #11 Rinaldi Racing Duqueine of Kratz was immediately out of the race and the top spot went to Viacheslav Gutak (MV2S Racing #29), followed by ony Wells (Nielsen Racing #4) e Adrien Chila (COOL Racing #17). Page lost two positions, but had good enough pace to remain in the top ten for his whole stint.
Sebastian Alvarez (#18 360 Racing) had a very solid first hour of the race and climbed the order in LMP3 – first passing the #17 Cool Racing of Chila, and then the second-placed Nielsen Racing after a few more laps of battles. Alvarez closed the gap and eventually took the lead of the race after 30 minutes. Behind him, the #4 Nielsen and the #17 Cool Racing swapped places for second.
One hour in, Sebastién Page completed his stint and handed over to Belén García – who took over the #9 Graff Racing Ligier and, in only five laps, recovered to seventh place, passing two cars. The sister car, with Xavier Lloveras behind the wheel and fighting for the championship, also charged through the field and the Spanish driver moved into first place ahead of the main rival, the #29 MV2S Racing.
García was on a mission and, among the fastest cars in class, caught the #55 Rinaldi Racing Duqueine. As she attacked at turn 9, García unfortunately went deep and lost the car, which then spun and reversed into the #55 prototype. The race of the #9 Graff Racing ended in an unfortunate accident – but Belén García had once again shown speed to catch the class leaders.
“It was a real shame", Belén commented. "I was going very well, with a good pace, a lot of fighting and overtaking cars to potentially finish on the podium."
"I had the inside line against the #55, but he closed me when I was going to pass him and I lost control. It's a shame that the race and the season ended like this, but when you fight to the maximum, things like this can happen”, García said.
In the second half of the race, the #8 Graff Racing and the #17 Cool Racing – on different strategies – traded places at the top of the LMP3 category during the pit stop cycles. With a long penultimate stint, the #8 Ligier was back ahead, now followed by the championship-leading MV2S Racing crew.
The decisive pass arrived in the very last minutes of the race, when Siebert brought the #17 Cool Racing up to second place – and, by demoting the #29 MV2S Racing to third, handed the LMP3 title to French team Graff Racing, as Rossello/Lloveras/Heriau secured the championship in dramatic fashion.
Belén García completed her first campaign in sportscar racing with two eight places, a seventh place finish and a DNF, in a two-week learning opportunity that will nevertheless be of crucial importance for her next commitments in prototypes.
While a podium finish was often within reach and the end results do not represent her performance, García can certainly feel satisfied by her progression.
“I think we had the potential to achieve some good results and be at least close to the podium, despite the level was very high this year and it was very difficult."
"In the last race we had the opportunity to achieve it, but unfortunately we were out of the race in the second stint”, she continued. “The positive is that I fought my best, I was competitive and I come away feeling strong and that I could have done very well, although the results are a bit misleading".
In the four races, the RACC-supported driver clearly established herself as the fastest driver of the team, suggesting that there's still a lot to come.
"I want to continue in endurance championships like this and with this type of cars. I have enjoyed it a lot and now we will look for a way to continue on the path."
"I am very happy to have raced the ALMS and the opportunity that both Graff Racing and my teammates have given me by having me. It has been a great learning experience for me and I come out stronger”.