FRECA: Battling weekend for Bühler and García at Paul Ricard
Updated: May 31
The French round at Paul Ricard proved to be challenging for the two ladies of the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine: Léna Bühler had a good qualifying on Sunday, as she continues to build experience, while Belén García gained nine positions in race 2 after a chassis change.
For the first time this year, Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine contested a race event not as a part of the Formula 1 GP, as the continental F3 championship joined the GT World Challenge paddock at Circuit Paul Ricard.
One week after the Monaco round, Léna Bühler was back in the R-Ace GP Tatuus F3 targeting more improvements. The Swiss driver had a positive weekend on the streets of Monaco, despite not qualifying for the second race: with a remarkable Race 1, Bühler recovered seven positions to finish P20 - her best result of the season to date.
Having missed all pre-season tests and the first round of the championship in Imola, Léna was quickly on pace in Barcelona and showed more improvements in her first ever experience of a street circuit in Monaco. The French venue of Le Castellet wasn't uncharted territory for Bühler, who had already raced in the South of France in her 2019 Spanish F4 campaign.
Spanish 21-year old Belén García was also back in the driving seat of a F3 car this weekend, after missing the Monaco GP due to clashing commitments for the all-female championship W Series. García was initially scheduled to run two races in a partial FRECA campaign for Swiss-Spanish squad G4 Racing, but she had expressed the intention to add at least one more round to her schedule after a very unlucky weekend in her home race at Montmelo, as the young driver was ultimately taken out of the two races early on and could not fully showcase her potential.
After a 5-day collective test for W Series in the north of Wales on the Anglesey circuit, Belén García was then announced on the entry list for the Le Castellet round earlier this week.
In Saturday's qualifying, García made good improvements and was up into P29 in Q1. In the strong 35-car field, Bühler unfortunately rounded out the grid, as she couldn't improve on her final attempts, likely due to traffic.
The French weekend was utterly dominated by championship leader Gregoire Saucy, who led every single session. Ahead of the first race, the ART Grand Prix driver lined up alongside Hadrien David (R-Ace GP) and series newcomer Michael Belov. The Russian - a SMP Racing protegé - made a stunning debut in Formula Regional, even though he could count on a full season in the Formula Renault Eurocup and a partial campaign in FIA F3 in 2020.
There was drama right at the start for home hero Isack Hadjar: the Monaco race 1 winner's car went silent on the grid and the 16-year old talent was forced to a pitlane start.
Saucy had a good start and held the top position throughout the first corners - but a Safety Car quickly interrupted the race when MP Motorsport teammates Mari Boya and Lorenzo Fluxa collided on the run down the chicane.
Belén García meanwhile had made up a few positions and could resume from 26th, with Bühler also recovering to P31.
The stricken cars were recovered and the race could go back to green with 16 minutes left on the clock: at the restart Saucy was again unchallenged, while Aron and Rosso almost had a coming together and the Prema driver had to cut across the run-off.
Hadjar tried to recover from the back of the field and passed García for 27th as a big group of cars continued to swap positions. Caught in this train of cars, Belén was forced off track by Gohler and the front wing of the #72 G4 Racing Tatuus shattered on a yellow sausage kerb.
On lap 8, García pitted for a new front wing and rejoined P33.
The race of the Swiss team went from bad to worse when teammates Axel Gnos and Alessandro Famularo took each other out, causing another Safety Car with three minutes to go. The race ended behind the neutralization, with Gregoire Saucy taking home his fourth victory of the season, ahead of David and Belov - the latter finishing on the podium in his first race in the series.
In a surprising turn of events, though, Saucy was later disqualified for a technical non-conformity, which handed Hadrien David his first win this season - and promoted Gabriele Mini to the third step of the podium. Monaco winner Zane Maloney was fourth, ahead of Patrik Pasma. Quinn, Haverkort, Ten Brinke, Alatalo and FDA driver Beganovic rounded out the top-10.
Léna Bühler was P29 across the finish line, one position ahead of Belén García.
“I have mixed feelings overall." - commented García after the first race of the weekend.
"It was not a bad qualifying, even if I'm still missing out a bit, I can push it a bit more and had a good improvement since yesterday. I had to adapt again after testing in the W Series with a different tyre manufacturer."
"In the race, I had a very good feeling, I felt like I was able to fight with the group I was in, but had a couple of incidents that made me lose my front wing, so I had to stop to change it."
"Unfortunately, after the race we’ve found that the chassis was damaged, so for safety reasons, we will change it as the team has one spare. I’m ready to fight back tomorrow”.
The change of chassis meant starting from scratch and adapting the setup to a whole new car - but a process that ensured that García was back on the grid on Sunday.
After his disqualification, Saucy was back on top of the timesheets in Q2, and led David, Mini and Hadjar on the grid of Race 2.
Again, a dramatic turn of events saw Hadrien David having to take the start from the pitlane, leaving a clear run to Turn 1 to Italian F4 reigning champion Gabriele Mini from the second row. Minì was briefly in the lead at the first corner, but Saucy responded back at the direction change of Turn 2 and the Swiss racer would never look back.
Belov had another great start and moved up two positions, before further moving into second place when Minì's ART GP car slowed down on the main straight, allowing past most of the field. A good getaway for the two ladies of the grid saw both Belén García and Léna Bühler gaining positions: they would slot into 28th and 29th after the first stages.
Alex Quinn was tagged by Paul Aron at Signes and the Brit spun at high speed but could rejoin.
In the final 15 minutes, Alatalo came under pressure from Hadjar for third place: after several attempts, it was the Finn to hold on to his first podium of the season. Maloney also closed the gap to fifth-placed Rosso, but struggled to pass.
Nicola Marinangeli spun and required the intervention of the Safety Car with three minutes to go. The race was actually resumed for a final lap and Saucy was once again untouchable. He claimed the win, ahead of guest driver Michael Belov - who couldn't score points - William Alatalo and Isack Hadjar.
Léna Bühler had a good first part of the race and lapped competitively. She finished as she started, in a 30th place that doesn't reflect the progress that the Swiss racer has achieved in such a limited time in the car.
After a troubled Q2, Belén García had an impressive second race: she gained nine positions to finish 25th. "Finally get to fight after the last three frustrating races, it feels good to be back fighting in the pack and developing at a very good pace.", she said.
"From P34 to P25. I can only thank the team for their effort overnight to change the chassis and be able to race today."
The next round of the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine will be contested on June 19-20, on the renewed Zandvoort Circuit, Netherlands, again as support of the GT World Challenge Europe series.
While Léna Bühler will continue her learning process in her first F3 campaign, Belén García will return to W Series for the inaugural round on the same weekend (at Red Bull Ring, Austria).