Belén García's podium chances hampered by Safety Car at Road to Le Mans
"Just being here, getting to know the circuit and racing on it, even if it wasn't in the main race, has been incredible." - Belén García, at her first full season of endurance racing, fought in the top three of a very eventful Road To Le Mans, with her eyes set on the main event in the future.
Belén García turned her dream into reality last weekend, when she raced for the first time in her career at the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe. García is in fact contesting her first full season in endurance racing and, as part of the Michelin Le Mans Cup, she took part in the two 55-minute "Road to Le Mans" races in support of the Centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
After a one-off round in 2022 - the season finale at Portimao, where she impressed for her speed despite a challenging weekend marked by red flags that limited her track time - Belén continued her learning process at the wheel of LMP3 machinery with a 4 hour race at Le Castellet in Ultimate Cup. García took a remarkable victory, and decided that her future in motor racing would be in the booming world of endurance.
In the Asian Le Mans Series - which is contested over two weekends in the Emirates, with four 4-hour races over the course of a few days - García had the time to continue learning the Ligier LMP3 car, showed great improvements and podium-worthy pace, despite a few unlucky situations prevented her from climbing the rostrum.
Nevertheless, a full-campaign in the 2023 Le Mans Cup was the most natural progression and the Catalan joined British team 360 Racing, again at the wheel of the Ligier JS P320.
She would partner with bronze-rated Mark Richards.
At her home track of Montmelo, García launched her campaign with promising speed which eventually went unrewarded: Belén set the fifth fastest lap of the race and showed front-running pace throughout the competition, but several ill-timed safety cars and a radio malfunction resulted in the #25 360 Racing machine losing one lap during the hectic stages of the pit stop.
Coming up next, though, was the highlight of the season: the Le Mans round. A place that has a special meaning for many racing drivers. It is not, after all, a track like any other, and for Belén García it represents a point in her career which feels like closing in on a dream: “I am facing one of the most incredible moments of my career."
"Fortunately, until now I have been lucky enough to have very nice and fun experiences in the world of single-seaters alongside F1 with W Series. However, when I think of Le Mans my memories take me back to 2018, when I worked as a timekeeper at the 24 Hours", she recalled.
"I ended up blown away, in love with the atmosphere of an event that is out of the ordinary. I had always imagined being here, and although I still haven't competed in the main event, I do feel that I am getting closer. I have the feeling that we are achieving objectives that bring me closer to the place where I had always dreamed of”.
The aim was clear: resume from where she had left off two months ago, and capitalize on her pace.
“These two months have seemed eternal to me, because the lack of racing has been combined with a time of many exams and assignments at the university", Belén explained. "In fact, this week I will miss three more exams that I will have to make up when possible. But I am very excited to make my debut on a mythical circuit and in a historic week that I don't want to miss out on."
And the whole field of the Michelin Le Mans Cup - composed of 58 entries of which 38 LMP3 cars - was feeling the grandiosity of the event, with drivers of the likes of Valentino Rossi opting to prepare his first Le Mans 24H by taking part in this year's Road to Le Mans event.
The 13,626 metres-long track is in fact a challenge in itself, that Belén needed to learn from scratch.
“We all know it from simulators, but reality is a different thing, and the challenge will be to discover its secrets as soon as possible" - she explained. "We arrived here with the idea of improving the good momentum of Barcelona, where I felt really comfortable. We have to refine some things at procedural level within the team, but I really want to keep working. We want to fight to be at the front”.
Building up the speed before the races, though, proved to be again challenging, with an avalanche of yellow flags, neutralizations, and slow zones in practice. On Wednesday, García could only complete one single lap in green flag conditions. Under these circumstances, the Catalan driver could only set the 30th time in qualifying, which would set the grid for the first race on Thursday afternoon.
“Qualifying in 30th place was tough and we are obviously not happy", she stated. "I lacked having been able to get the most out of the free practice session, but later, by analyzing the data from the qualifying session, we were able to obtain information that came in very handy to apply in the race.”
Mark Richards was behind the wheel for the first stint of the first 55 minute race; the British driver was able to avoid some accidents and made it through unscathed in the extremely chaotic first part of the race. Richards climbed the order and gained ten positions before handing over the #25 Ligier to Belén García midway through the race.
In her stint, García finally had the chance to run some laps and soon gained confidence with the track. She had some great battles and moved up three more places, crossing the finish line in P17 after a charging race for the 360 Racing crew. In a very eventful race - ended with the top 20 within 30 seconds - García and Richards had built the foundation for a very promising second race on Friday morning.
In race 2, drivers would switch order: from fifth on the grid thanks to a really good qualifying by Richards, Belén García took the start of the race. The Spaniard had a brilliant start and, while she avoided a potentially messy situation at the first corner and initially dropped to sixth, she was among the fastest drivers on track and was soon up into the top three after the two chicanes on the Hunaudières straight.
After the first lap, Torsten Kratz (WTM by Rinaldi Racing) led Adrien Chila (Cool Racing) and Belén García. On the following lap, Belén found a way past the Cool Racing Ligier and moved up into second place. From there, she continued to battle for the podium positions - but an untimely safety car put an end to her hopes.
When several LMP3 were caught out and crashed in a slow zone, the race was neutralized, erasing all the margin that the top three had gained in the first part of the race.
Drivers pitted under safety car for the mandatory driver change and Mark Richards took over the #25 Ligier.
The bronze-rated driver, though, struggled to keep other silver drivers behind and dropped to seventh initially, then further down the order.
"[With the safety car] we lost all the advantage that we had generated and it has been difficult to maintain the positions”, García explained.
Richards took the chequered flag in P13 - once again a result that doesn't reflect their true potential, but that nevertheless completed a positive weekend, where García fought for the very top positions in race 2.
“It has been something very special for me, because it is a historic circuit and a historic event that is just now celebrating its centenary", Belén commented. "Just being here, getting to know the circuit and racing on it, even if it wasn't in the main race, has been incredible. I had always dreamt of this, and it has come true, so it has been amazing.”
The next round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup will take place on one of her lucky charms: Circuit Paul Ricard, as Belén aims to keep her tradition alive of climbing the podium at the French venue. Now with another big goal in mind: entering the main event at Le Mans in the near future.