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Belén García makes ELMS debut with top-5 at home race

Belén García made a promising start to her European Le Mans Series campaign, overcoming setbacks in her home round at Circuit de Catalunya and bouncing back from a difficult start of the weekend to claim a highly encouraging top five.


Belén Garcia, DKR Engineering Duqueine LMP3, 2024 European Le Mans Series, Barcelona
Photo credits: Twenty-One-Creation / Jules Benichou

Belén García made a promising start to her European Le Mans Series campaign, overcoming setbacks in her home round at Circuit de Catalunya and bouncing back from a rough start of the weekend to ultimately claim a highly encouraging top five in LMP3.


García had moved to endurance racing at the end of 2022, then contested her first full-time campaigns in Michelin Le Mans Cup and Asian Le Mans Series in 2023; after collecting valuable experience and improssing for her quick learning in LMP3 machinery, García moved to the European Le Mans Series - one of the world's top endurance racing championships - in a DKR Engineering entry, sharing the #4 Duqueine LMP3 car with bronze-rated Alexander Mattschull and fellow silver-rated Wyatt Brichacek.


The day after the end of her 2023 season in Le Mans Cup, in fact, García had already turned turned her attention to her ELMS debut: she got behind the wheel of a DKR Engineering’s Duqueine at the Portimão rookie tests, eventually clocking the fastest time of the day in the LMP3 class. Plans for a move to the top continental series were then finalized with the Luxembourg-based team.


"I want to compete with the best in our sport, and the European Le Mans Series is the right step towards this goal," Belén said ahead of the season opener on her home track at Barcelona. “I’m delighted to do it with DKR Engineering. I was delighted to do the rookie tests with them."


"I felt at home immediately, and they know what they were doing", continued the Catalan. "The Duqueine is a different car from the one I drove last year, but I was able to adapt and get comfortable quite fast, which is always a very good thing.”

Belén had in fact mainly driven the Ligier LMP3 car in Le Mans Cup, Asian Le Mans Series as well as a one off appearance in Ultimate Cup.

 

Last year, she was part of the only crew to score three consecutive top-five finishes in the Michelin Le Mans Cup, thanks to a particularly strong second half of the season - and the target was definitely to carry momentum after the winter break.


"The winter break has been so long – 23 weeks! - and I can’t wait for everything to begin again and start another season”, Belén added. “I love competition, and I missed it so much. Since Portimão last year, I never stopped training."


"It’s the same category but at a higher level, and it’s fantastic to have the opportunity to race in such an amazing championship."

Belén met her teammates at a test at Circuit Paul Ricard a couple of weeks before the start of the season, where preparations for the curtain raiser at Barcelona were positive. While the competition will be high, the trio were confident - and they continued the work in the official tests at Barcelona on Monday and Tuesday.


Belén Garcia, DKR Engineering Duqueine LMP3, 2024 European Le Mans Series, Barcelona
Photo credits: Synergy / Alex Berasategi

The weekend, though, was not without its challenges to overcome.

The physical differences between the drivers required the moulding of a new seat for Belén, as well as authorisation from the governing body to install a second harness so that the Spaniard could properly feel comfortable in the car. The trio still completed 195 laps, including 55 for García. On Friday, though, a flatspot limited her driving time - and the situation got tricky when the car caught fire in the practice session reserved for bronze drivers.


Tireless work from the DKR Engineering crew translated into an engine change overnight - and the team could return to the track on Saturday morning for the final practice ahead of qualifying. The team started to show promising speed, closing in on the top five despite the significant lack of running time compared to the competitors.


Wyatt Brichacek took over the #4 Duqueine for the qualifying session and soon moved up to third on his second timed run; while a little mistake prevented him from improving on the following lap, he kept fourth at the end of the session, just 0.7 of a second off class pole position. Belén García's crew would therefore line up from the second row for the opening round of the season.


"We got off to a tough start for several reasons, mainly the car catching on fire due to a faulty fuel tank seal", said Belén. “It felt like nothing was going our way at all, but there was still everything to fight for, and we all found a strong common ground in our mental approach: it’s not over until it’s over!"


"I was proud of how we bounced back as a team after so many setbacks, and we gave it our all after Wyatt’s outstanding qualifying run to maximise our performance.”


Belén Garcia, DKR Engineering Duqueine LMP3, 2024 European Le Mans Series, Barcelona
Photo credits: Synergy / Alex Berasategi

On a sunny Sunday morning at Circuit de Catalunya, the European Le Mans Series season got underway with Alexander Mattschull behind the wheel of the #4 LMP3 prototype on new tyres. In a slightly chaotic start in LMP3, the German driver was right in the mix at the first corner but survived the melee, slotting into P6 in class.


A contact for the RLR M Sport LMP3 Ligier, though, brought out the Full Course Yellow 20 minutes into the race. There was no safety car intervention and the race was soon back underway; Mattschull, who had been chasing the #12 WTM by Rinaldi Duqueine driven by Torsten Kratz, resumed his pursuit once the green flag waved again.


The action was short-lived, though, as a contact between the #10 Vector Sport LMP2 and the #47 COOL Racing Oreca brought out the virtual safety car - for the first time in ELMS.

Through the VSC and the subsequent SC procedure, Mattschull pitted for fuel like all the LMP3 field and, having also cycled into the class lead, he found himself in fifth place at the restart - although he was now under pressure from the #6 COOL Racing Ligier.


In his double stint, Mattschull managed the LMP2 traffic and ran solidly before handing over to Belén García after one hour and 45 minutes of racing.

The Catalan rejoined seventh, but was soon up to sixth, although she had to deal with some traffic and close calls. On qualifying-used tyres, García effectively had to adapt to the car at the start of her stint following the lost track time in practice.


One of the biggest challenges for the young driver was surely the traffic management as, unlike in Le Mans Cup, she had to battle for positions while at the same time always be aware of the faster LMP2 traffic approaching. Nevertheless, she settled in a competitive rhythm and, after a duel with the  #15 RLR M Sport Ligier, she grabbed fourth place.


Over her driving shift, García pushed forward, managed the traffic as well as the Michelin tyres, ultimately achieving a highly consistent stint that also saw her battling for the top three with the #88 Inter Europol Competition and the #11 Eurointernational cars.


Belén Garcia, DKR Engineering Duqueine LMP3, 2024 European Le Mans Series, Barcelona
Photo credits: Twenty-One-Creation / Jules Benichou

"As I did very few laps since the beginning of the week, six from Friday onwards, I needed to adapt and get to know the car in my stint, so the pace at the beginning wasn't up to my expectations, honestly",Belén summed up. “Afterwards, I improved and settled into a good rhythm. One of the main challenges is how hard it is to deal with the traffic. With LMP2 lapping seven to eight seconds faster than our LMP3, it is a lot of work on track! It took me a while to figure out how to manage it, but in the end, it was fine."


An off-track for the Virage LMP2 Oreca triggered a second Virtual Safety Car, but the recovery was quick and no full neutralization was required; the DKR Engineering LMP3 crew opted to then pit García, solidly in fourth, who handed over to Wyatt Brichacek for the final hour of racing.


On new tyres, Brichacek set the fastest lap of the race in the LMP3 category with a 1:38.387 lap and made it back into the top five. He survived a spin through the gravel that eventually had no consequences and held fifth. The US American was at that point one of the fastest drivers in class and pushed through in an attempt to catch the #15 RLR M Sport Ligier of Julien Gael, 15 seconds ahead.


A full course yellow in the closing stages eventually prevented him from catching the cars ahead, and he crossed the finish line in a still very promising fifth place, just nine seconds behind. It was a good end to a challenging weekend, as Belén García and her teammates fought back adversities and were at one point back in contention for a class podium.


"We would have been able to finish a bit higher in the classification were it not for a few issues here and there, but it was still a credible performance after everything we have been through this week", Belén explained.

It was her fourth successive top-five finish in LMP3 - with again plenty of positives to take home for the next rounds.


Belén Garcia, DKR Engineering Duqueine LMP3, 2024 European Le Mans Series, Barcelona
Photo credits: Synergy / Alex Berasategi

"It is good to score some points and finish not far behind the frontrunners and podium finishers for our first race together, but everyone knows I always strive for more”, she added. “The most important thing to remember from this weekend is I can take all the laps I did this time to start from a different place and it is going to be hugely helpful and useful for our next race."


"We identified and fixed some of our main issues, and we will be able to work on some things we couldn't do this weekend. It's a solid result, but I know I can do better, and we will work to maximise our potential together beginning with the next round. With all our misfortunes, hopefully, our bad luck is behind us. Let's aim for more in France!”


The second round of the European Le Mans Series is scheduled in three week's time (3-5 May), at Circuit Paul Ricard.

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