Belén García scores third consecutive top-5 in Le Mans Cup
Belén García completed her first full season of endurance racing with her third consecutive top five finish in Michelin Le Mans Cup - after a hectic race at Portimao in extreme weather conditions, where the Catalan and her teammate Mark Richards battled at the top of the LMP3 class.
Belén García returned to Portimao, Portugal, for the final round of the 2023 Michelin Le Mans Cup at the venue that saw the young Catalan making her first ever start in LMP3 machinery in 2022; one year after, Belén has made significant improvements in sports car racing and entered the season finale with higher expectation - aiming to run at the top of the LMP3 class. García's first full season in endurance racing has been marked by great pace and impressive recoveries, as well as plenty of unfortunate circumstances that have prevented Belén and her 360 Racing teammate from stepping on the podium. Together with co-driver Mark Richards, in fact, García has been close to the top three on a number of occasions - although the duo still managed to be one of the most consistent teams in the second half of the season, scoring two consecutive top five finishes at Aragon and Spa Francorchamps. They were the only team able to do so. Returning to Portimao represented a good chance to carry momentum - as García now aimed to capitalize on her speed on a known track. “I’m really looking forward to the last round of the year although it’s going to be a bit of an emotional one”, Belén said. “I enjoyed a lot this season, but it has gone by so fast. I’m also really excited to get back into the car, and on a good track as I like Portimão a lot.” “Last year, red and yellow flags as well as track limits were the main actors in the Portimão tests and race so I hope it’s going to be better on that point this week”, Belén added before the race. "Let’s hope for a good race even though it’s going to be a tough one as it will be the first visit in Portimão for Mark. Hopefully we have a clean Wednesday so he can really get the mileage in and I can find back my bearings on this track!” “Compared to one year ago, I also think I completely changed my driving style”, Belén continued. “Every race situation is different to single-seater racing. You need to adapt to the different scenarios a lot more. One year ago, I wasn’t used to all the procedures and long stints, like it should have been last year if it were not for a red flag. Now, let’s say it has become quite mechanical or automatic for me and I have everything under control. I’m also more used to this car, a very different one from single-seaters. And I got more feel with the tyres as I can now predict how they will behave over my stints. I learnt a lot and I feel more confident in everything I do.” "Unpredictable weather might play its part this weekend too, but I think it’s the first time in my career that I’m not really worried about it as I know I can be really fast in any conditions and I feel very fast at adapting quickly when needed as we’ve seen it in Spa," she added.
And the weather did play a part at the Algarve circuit, as rain storms heavily disrupted the weekend and ended up turning the two hour race into a truly challenging contest. 40 cars entered the season finale at Portimao, including 27 LMP3 prototypes; the #25 360 Racing Ligier ran in the top ten in the opening practice - where Belén immediately was up to pace while Richards focused on learning the track. The British bronze-rated driver tackled qualifying as per regulations and, with a great performance under the rain, Richards set the seventh fastest time in the 15 minute session, improving on his personal best several times despite a spin in the early stages. “The weekend got off to a positive start”, Belén explained. "The car felt good, especially in the wet. But most of all, we were quick in every condition. We did not want to get carried away, as anything can happen when you have such changing conditions, but it was a strong start, and Mark was pretty fast for his first time on this track, as he proved it in qualifying.” The conditions worsened for the start of the race, which got underway under the safety car due to the high amount of standing water. The green flag finally waved with 1 hour and 35 minutes to go and Mark Richards immediately gained a position in the extremely tricky conditions and with plenty of spray. A contact between Oscar Bittar and Torsten Kratz - third and fourth respectively - sent the Virage LMP3 car off the track, and Richards climbed to fourth, in some very chaotic moments which saw cars going off throughout the field. With debris scattered around the track the full course yellow was deployed: the #16 Virage Ligier led overall, ahead of the #11 CD Sport, the #48 Murphy Prototypes and the #25 360 Racing Logier of Mark Richards. It was a very short caution and things got heated again at the restart; the top three fought for the lead and, while Kratz found a way past CD Sport's Sarkissian, the #48 Duqueine then made contact with the race leading #16 Virage of Julien Gerbi. A new full course yellow followed, with Mark Richards now up into third place. There was luckily no safety car and Richards was able to resume his charge with great pace as the pit window approached. Richards opted to pit with 1 hour and 3 minute to go, handing over to Belén García from third place. "Mark truly did an amazing job on his stint”, Belén said about her teammate, who had also set the fastest lap of the race after the opening stint. “Despite his limited experience on this track and the lack of visibility in the field, he gained four positions and was regularly among the fastest drivers, setting the fastest lap. Credit to Mark for putting us in such a strong position despite the tricky conditions."
García rejoined in seventh during the pit cycle; the leading CD Sport Ligier pitted on lap 22 and Belén climbed the order, effectively fighting for net second. A team's slight mistake, though, meant that the #25 360 Racing Ligier went out on new tyres, although the tyre change had become optional in wet conditions for safety reasons. “The conditions were really tricky with so much rain and standing water", Belén recalled. "It was getting worse lap after lap, and I felt we didn’t have enough pace on the second stint to hold on to the strong position Mark put us in. Unfortunately, it came down to our mistake during the pit stop." "The team did the mandatory tyre change as the regulations stipulate, but the decision to allow us to keep our tyres was actually made before the race, earlier in the morning. It cost us dearly as we lost our momentum being the only ones to put new tyres on at a crucial time when we needed these hot, high-pressure tyres to stay in contention for the podium or even better." Josh Skelton and Kiril Smal were making up ground and found a way past Belén, who settled in fourth after the round of pit stops. García tried to bring the cold tyres up to temperature as quickly as possible in the increasingly heavy rain and, after a full course yellow, she was back in the fight with the #2 CD Sport machine. Her attack was unfortunately unfruitful and she lost momentum, having to give up track position to the 360 Racing Team's sister car of Tommy Foster. Meanwhile, the rain had picked up again and conditions were close to undrivable: cars were sliding off the track - including the race leading CD Sport Ligier of Franck Chappard, who managed to extract himself from the gravel trap. The safety car was eventually deployed with Chappard leading Skelton, Smal, Foster and García. Ultimately, the race was red flagged and declared ended due to the extreme downpour. "To be completely honest, I am so underwhelmed with this result”, Belén summed up after crossing the line in fifth place. "We lost a lot of time to get the new, cold rubber into a decent performance window at the beginning of my stint. That's why I am somewhat disappointed." "Even though I was among the top Silver drivers, I always want to be up there, battling with the best drivers. I'm always striving for silverware and will never settle for a top ten, so it wasn’t enough on our side even though eventually I guess I will be pleased with this third consecutive points finish." Although the Spaniard wasn't able to secure the coveted podium finish, Belén García's third consecutive top five finish is testament of her consistency, especially in the second part of the season after the summer break - an accomplishment that clearly shows her improvement in her rookie season in endurance racing. Only one team outscored García and Richards in the second half of the season. "All in all, it has been a promising season and I would like to thank every single person who helped me to develop as an Endurance driver within the team in 2023” - she concluded. Having finished the season in tenth place in the LMP3 standings, García's season was not over yet: the Catalan entered the ELMS Rookie Test on Monday, switching from the Ligier JS P320 to the Duqueine M30 - D08 operated by DKR Engineering. With a 1:38.912 lap in the afternoon session, Belén topped the Rookie Test timesheets in the LMP3 class, as she aims to further progress in her endurance journey.