FRECA: Garcia shows pace improvements despite challenging races, Buhler makes series debut
In her home race, Belen Garcia had a challenging round at Barcelona due to early contacts, but the Spaniard showed promising pace improvements. Having missed all pre-season testing for an injury, Swiss Lena Buhler was quickly up to speed in her Formula Regional by Alpine debut.
One more round, one more F1 circuit, one more packed grid – and one more female entry.
Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine returned to the track at Circuit de Catalunya for its second double header of the season, again un the supporting bill of Formula 1.
Making her debut in the series at the Imola season opener was 21-year old Belén García: the Spaniard only had competed in one single-seater season prior to her move to F3 cars, which is set to lay the foundations for her upcoming W Series debut.
Away from the racetrack except for a handful of testing days throughout 2020 and 2021, the pandemic had put Belén's career on hold. A part-time deal with Swiss-Spanish outfit G4 Racing in the rebranded Formula Regional gave the Catalan racer the perfect opportunity for a comeback ahead of the sophomore all-female F3 championship.
In Imola, García focused on getting back into the rhythm and wheel to wheel racing, shaking off the rust and making significant improvements after the first race. She was P23 and P22 in her first outing, showing consistent improvements session after session.
"This weekend's race is the last one before the W Series season begins and the truth is that I really want to race at home, as it is always very special," said Belén before the race meeting.
“I want to apply everything I learned in Imola and in the collective tests and finish polishing certain aspects to arrive as prepared as possible for the W Series." - she added. "I have the motivation to the maximum. This weekend I hope to make a leap in terms of driving and performance, because we have been able to analyze the experience of the first race".
Racing in front of the Spanish Grand Prix will also be her second experience of F1 -something that she will find again in the W Series.
"Being in the F1 environment is incredible. The simple fact of meeting all the drivers, my idols, and following them so closely is something brutal. In Imola, when I finished my race, I was watching the F1 race from a grandstand in the last corner and, at the same time, on my mobile”, she said, full of enthusiasm.
Combining the fields of the former Formula Regional and Formula Renault Eurocup, the new series featured a massive 32-car grid in Imola, with more more drivers joining the pack at Barcelona. One of the new entries was Swiss 23-year old Léna Bühler.
Just like García, Bühler comes from a single F4 season – both from the Spanish championship – and decided to step up to the continental F3 series following encouraging results and a strong karting career.
Bühler's debut at the Spanish round was far from easy: announced as part of the R-Ace GP squad for a full season campaign, Léna had a serious accident in the very first pre-season testing session in Imola, 6 weeks ago. Diagnosed with a hand fracture, Bühler missed the whole collective testing meetings (Imola, Barcelona, Le Castellet), and was forced to sit out the first round in Italy as well after medical advice.
In a 34-car field – in what is looking like one the highest level F3 in the world this year – Bühler had a mountain to climb.
Not the easiest of recoveries after two months without driving due to my broken hand.
Lap after lap we're progressing, I feel better and better in the car." - she wrote.
In Friday's free practice session, Léna rounded out the classify, with García showing remarkable improvements and eyeing to break into the top-20. The Spaniard was often in the first half of the classify and was happy with the step forward. "Quite happy about the improvement since the last time in the car" – she commented prior to her home race.
In the two 15-minute qualifying sessions, though, García hard a tougher time in finding her pace, as it is often the case in such crowded grids. She qualified P28 for both races.
Bühler was P32 after each sessions, as she significantly reduced the gaps to the front and was within the two-second margin. A notable result considering the lack of track time in such a competitive field.
The first race of the weekend was contested on Saturday prior to the F1 qualifying and saw a delay in its scheduled starting time by 10 minutes due to track repairs.
ART GP locked out the front row with double pole-sitter Gregoire Saucy lining up alongside Italian F4 reigning champion Gabriele Minì. Behind them, it was an impressive Mari Boya (Van Amersfoort Racing) and Alex Quinn (Arden).
The start was looking remarkably clean from the whole field until Turn 7, when chaos broke loose: Havekort went into the back of Nicola Marinangeli, sending the latter in the gravel with significant damage. Among the incoming cars was Belén García, who tried to avoid the accident but slipped on the dirt brought onto the track by the crashing cars and spun. Luckily, her G4 Racing Tatuus was not collected and she could rejoin the race – albeit from the back of the pack.
Just ahead of the accident, Bortoleto hit Vidales and sent the Prema driver into the barriers at Turn 9 (Campsa). Both retired, and the Safety Car was called into action.
The green flag waved back with only 13 minutes left, leaving Saucy ahead of Minì, Quinn, Boya, Alatalo and Beganovic. Léna Bühler had successfully avoided the first lap madness and advanced into 28th position, with García back in 30th. The latter, though, soon came under the stewart's scrutiny for being out of position at the Safety Car line 1.
Saucy opened a gap in front and quickly cleared Minì; Ten Brinke (ART GP) passed Maloney (R-Ace GP) and moved closer to the top five, as the driver from Barbados went into the gravel in the attempt to defend his position. Maloney lost momentum and was swallowed by a train of cars that relegated him outside of the top-10. Colapinto and Pasma – both race winners in F.Renault and F.Regional respectively – tried to make their way through the order.
One of the biggest battle that emerged was between Ferrari Driver Academy member Dino Beganovic and French F4 champion Isack Hadjar. The Frenchman, already among the protagonists of an impressive Asian F3 campaign in the winter, defended well from Beganovic and the two swapped places before settling in seventh.
Alessandro Famularo – also making his debut for G4 Racing – came to a halt at Turn 2.
In the action-filled final stages, Hadjar caught up with Alatalo, also followed closely by Beganovic and Colapinto. When the latter went off, the Safety Car unfortunately had to freeze the action once again, denying the race of a green flag finale.
Saucy took his second victory of the season, ahead of teammate Minì – the Italian claiming his first podium in the series – and Aron. The Estonian was closing in on Minì, but he could not find a way past before the race neutralization. Quinn and Boya rounded out the top five.
Léna Bühler battled with the recovering Bortoleto, passed Alexandre Bardinon and was 25th across the finish line.
Belén García suffered from a tyre flat-spot after the opening lap incident and couldn't fully show her potential. She finished P27, having also received a 25 second penalty for the Safety Car infringement.
“We made a significant step forward since Imola, but in the quali, I didn’t get what I was expecting. With 34 cars on track, it was really difficult to have a clean lap." – summed up Belén after Race 1. "Lap 1 was a bit messy. There was a big contact in front of me and I hit some grass brought on track so the car just spun. I jumped on the kerb and finished last. The car was a bit compromised, with a big flat spot in the left front and I couldn’t recover any places”.
Championship leader Gregoire Saucy was back on top at the start of Sunday's race – this time sharing the front row with Arden's Alex Quinn.
Just like for the previous race, Belén and Léna started from P28 and P32 respectively.
When the lights went out it was Quinn to have the better start but, with a late braking, Saucy defended the lead and switched back at the direction change at Turn 2.
This time, it was an even shorter run for García: the young Spanish lady was hit by Ferati at the second corner and, even though she miraculously saved the car from a spin, she dropped all the way at the back of the pack.
There was more wheel-banging at Turn 5: Hadrien David – who had completed an incedible recovery from the back of the grid to 12th on Saturday – attacked Colapinto. The Argentinan moved under braking and forced David on the inside kerb; the two made contact and were collected by Vidales. With also Ferati stopped at Turn 2, the first Safety Car of the race had to be deployed.
In a similar situation from the first race, Saucy led Quinn and Aron at the restart, while the two female racers were back in the race in P28 and P29 with 20 minutes left on the clock.
It was again Isack Hadjar to make the most out of the remaining minutes: the Frenchman put on a show and moved into fourth place with a pass on the grass on the main straight on Minì, before catching up with Aron. The R-Ace GP driver completed his charge after several a great battle with the Estonian and advanced to third – ultimately claiming his first podium in the series.
Belén García went wide and into the gravel at the last corner as she clipped the sausage kerb. She rejoined the track and finished in 29th place.
“The start of race 2 was positive, and I was in a good position, but I was hit from behind by another driver. Pretty disappointed about it because I couldn’t do much to overtake after that contact. It still was a globally good weekend in terms of improvement. There’s a big step up compared to Imola, and I feel ready for the W Series”.
“When you start from behind, it costs a lot more afterwards. In spite of everything, I am happy because I have improved my pace in the race and I have reduced the gap with those in front. I am optimistic about what I have learned and how this preseason has gone for me, although at home I would have liked to get a better result."
"I can't hide that, although it was not originally planned, I would like to contest one more race in Formula Regional and get that result I missed” - confessed Belen.
Swiss driver Gregoire Saucy took his third back-to-back victory and extended his championship lead. Alex Quinn was second, 2.5 seconds adrift in a more lonely race. The Brit preceded Isack Hadjar, Paul Aron, Gabriele Minì and Thomas Ten Brinke.
Léna Bühler completed her Formula Regional debut weekend in 27th position. She had passed Nico Gohler and finished both races in the mix. Most importantly, she built on a clean weekend and laid the foundations for the next rounds, adding some vital mileage under her belt.
"Back from Barcelona, two months without driving, we knew that it was not going to be easy with the lack of driving." - wrote the Swiss driver. "At the end of the weekend I regained a good feeling with the car more confident. We will work hard for Monaco and advance against the front."
With Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine heading to the the legendary streets of Monaco for its most prestigious round of the season, the drivers get ready for one of the biggest races in their careers so far.
Belén García, though, will switch her focus on the French GP at Paul Ricard, where she will make her long awaited W Series debut on 26-27 June.