“This weekend helped us to see that we have the potential to go further throughout the championship. It's time to continue working hard for the next races” – Belén García's fifth fastest lap in the race and front-running pace went unrewarded after an unfortunate race marred by several safety car disruptions and a radio issue in the opening round of the Le Mans Cup at her home track.
Belén García's rookie season in sportscar racing got underway at her home track of Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona: the Catalan driver is in fact tackling her first full season in the Michelin Le Mans Cup – the main ELMS stepping stone and crucial step for the development in prototypes.
García made her first ever start in LMP3 at last year's season finale in Portimao, where despite a lengthy red flag she managed to climb several positions, and then showed what she's capable of during last February's Asian Le Mans Series, in a four-event calendar over two weekends at Dubai and Abu Dhabi where the former W Series driver familiarized with the Ligier JS P320 LMP3 prototype and displayed podium-worthy pace at every round.
García therefore entered the 2023 Le Mans Cup season with high hopes and joined 360 Racing team for a full campaign, sharing the wheel of the same equipment she drove in the Asian series with British bronze-rated driver Mark Richards.
Belén got back in the rhythm in a pre-season test held on Tuesday at Montmelo, where she drove 48 laps, setting the fourth fastest time, merely six tenths off United Autosport's Scott Andrews.
“The test went very well, I was able to do a lot of laps with the car because my teammate couldn't attend, and the truth is that it helped me a lot to get the feeling. I finished with very positive feelings and I also set competitive times in the morning and in the afternoon, despite the fact that with so much traffic on the track it was difficult to complete clean laps”, explained Belén García.
"Until we start official practice and see the level of all the drivers, we won't have anything guaranteed. Even so, it is always important to have a good feeling and, above all, to start on a circuit that you know perfectly well” – she continued.
The Barcelona-based driver is committed to a long-term future in the booming world of endurance racing and this season will be a learning process, but she will start from a solid base of knowledge of most of the tracks featured on the Michelin Le Mans Cup 2023 calendar, unlike her Asian campaign.
As per series' rules, the bronze-rated driver is required to contest the qualifying session and Richards got behind the wheel for the 15 minute session on Saturday: he would set the 15th fastest time, with the #39 Graff Racing Ligier securing pole position ahead of the #16 Team Virage and the #68 M Racing.
Later on in the day, the start of the 2 hour race proved to be an incident-filled contest since the get go. A multiple-car accident at turn 1 took out of contention five cars - including two Ligiers from Polish team InterEuropol.
Richards - in the #25 360 Racing LMP3 prototype for the opening part of the race - emerged from the meleé and held on to positions just outside the top ten. A radio communication issue, though, complicated things for the British outfit, especially during the strategy-heavy first part of the race, continuously disrupted by the intervention of the Safety Car.
The race in fact saw five neutralizations; second-placed Tony Wells (#7 Nielsen Racing) suffered a tyre puncture and dropped out of contention, as well as Andres Latorre Canon (#14 InterEuropol) and Luis Sanjuan (#97 COOL Racing).
It all went wrong for Richards and García in one of these safety car interventions, when a miscommunication between the pitwall and the car resulted in a pit stop one lap too late for the #25 Ligier. Mark Richards eventually pitted one lap too late and, stuck behind the safety car, the team lost a lap.
Belén García was then behind the wheel for the second part of the race, when the chances to move up the order were already limited. Nevertheless, Belén put down great laps and had pace that would have gained her a spot within the top five.
García also survived a close call when another car pushed her off track, luckily without consequences.
With the fifth-best lap of the race and with pace to compete with the leaders, García eventually crossed the finish line in P15 – a result that certainly did not reflect the potential of the young Spaniard, who could not capitalize for factors outside of her control.
“I am happy with the pace and speed that I showed", she explained. "The final result is not what we desired and we have many things to polish and improve with the team. Despite this, this weekend helped us to see that we have the potential to move further up during the championship. It's time to continue working hard for the next races”, she continued.
After the cancellation of the Imola round, the next round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup will be the two 55-minute races at La Sarthe, as the series will support the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans in its 100th edition, on June 8th and 9th.