In a mixed weekend at Zandvoort – mid-point of the 2021 Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine season – Léna Bühler gained 7 positions in Race 1 and was among the biggest movers. A Q2 incident then translated in a tougher Race 2 on very old tyres.
The inaugural season of the re-branded Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine in its first appearance since the merge between Formula Regional and Formula Renault Eurocup has already reached its mid-way point of the 2021 campaign.
The series is arguably one of the most competitive Formula 3 championships worldwide, featuring over 30 entries from the top junior teams and many racers contracted by F1 young driver programs.
Among the field, two female drivers have entered the opening rounds of the 2021 season so far: full-season entry Léna Bühler and Belen Garcia. The latter was announced as a part time entry at G4 Racing, as the Spaniard targeted some extended mileage in preparation for her imminent debut in the all-female W Series championship.
Just like Garcia, Bühler switched to F3 after one single season in the Spanish F4 championship, where she performed well and battled for the top-five in the final rounds of the season.
On the first day of pre-season testing, though, the Swiss driver injured her hand in a crash that took her out of contention for the first race weekend in Imola.
Having missed all testing and the first round, Léna made her debut in Barcelona, where she scored a P25 and a P27 in a clean weekend amidst a 34-car field. In the streets of Monaco - her first visit to the famous circuit - she had her strongest performance to date, as she gained seven positions to finish P20.
The third round on the French venue of Circuit Paul Ricard proved to be more challenging for the young driver, who described it as "one of the toughest race weekends I have experienced."
Belen Garcia, who had already missed the Monaco round due to clashing commitments with W Series, wasn't back behind the wheel of the Tatuus F3 car last weekend due to a damaged chassis after the Paul Ricard round.
"I won’t be in Zandvoort this weekend in FRECA due to the damage my chassis got in the last round at Paul Ricard." - she wrote. "It won’t be ready on time so I will have to miss it.
Full focus now on W Series first race next week in Austria", Belen added.
Coming into the Zandvoort race meeting, Bühler was P31 in both the practice sessions, and confirmed her position after the first qualifying on Saturday morning.
Q1 - just like the previous sessions on Friday - was influenced by a series of red flags and the action was halted with 3 minutes left on the clock for the accident of Andrea Rosso, who had made contact with the barriers just before the final corner.
Championship leader Gregoire Saucy had just secured provisional pole - and could seal yet another front row start ahead of Gabriele Minì, Hadrien David and Mari Boya.
Rosso's damaged chassis would ultimately prevent him from starting the first race on Saturday. Jasin Ferati also sat out the races, as he announced to have split with Monolite Racing after the free practice sessions.
The ART front row lock-out translated into a 1-2 into the first corner of the race, with Saucy helding off Minì for the lead and David putting pressure on the reigning Italian F4 champion early on. Prema Powerteam's Paul Aron passed Boya and followed the top three after the first lap.
Léna Bühler also had a great start and gained three positions on the first few corners.
SMP Racing-sponsored Mikhael Belov - who entered his first FRECA round as a driver eligible for points - battled with FDA driver Dino Beganovic for eighth place; the Swede claimed the position on the second lap after a better exit from the final corner.
Tommy Smith, who had enjoyed a positive qualifying, was the first driver to be caught out by the tricky nature of the revamped Zandvoort circuit and was off and into the barriers at Turn 8. Despite the JD Motorsport's Tatuus being stranded against the TecPro barriers of the banked run-off, the race remained green.
Bühler continued her progression and moved up into 25th place when Delli Guanti pulled in with technical issues.
Ahead, Gregoire Saucy continued to extend his lead and never looked under threat from his rival, until a Safety Car bunched up the pack with 8 minutes to go: Finnish driver Patrik Pasma had made contact with the barrier at Turn 4.
The race resumed with 3 minutes left and Saucy managed masterfully the restart. Minì was under pressure from David, while Colapinto was charging through and passed Boya for fifth - in what effectively became a short sprint race to the flag.
The final lap was all about Franco Colapinto trying to gain one more place at the expense of Aron, but the nature of the track ultimately didn't provide the Argentinian with a passing opportunity.
Saucy crossed the finish line and claimed his fifth win of the season for ART GP, ahead of teammate Gabriele Minì - who edged David for the runner up spot.
Both Beganovic and Belov scored points in P8 and P9 respectively, as Quinn rounded out the top ten.
Léna Bühler had closed in on Eduardo Barrichello in the final laps and finished P24 - gaining seven positions, which tied Bühler and teammate Zane Maloney as the two biggest movers of the first race.
Unfortunately, Sunday at Zandvoort proved to be a more challenging day for Léna.
A spin in the gravel in the second qualifying session cost her the chance to start higher up the order, as her car was stuck in the gravel at Turn 1 with no time set. She was classified P32.
Pole position went again to championship dominator Saucy, who preceded once again teammate Minì. Franco Colapinto (MP Motorsport) was third, with Mikhael Belov (G4 Racing) having another strong session in fourth. Pizzi and Goethe started from the third row, in what was one of their best qualifying sessions of the season to date.
The race was over before it started for one of the protagonists, as Mikhael Belov made his way back to the pits during the formation lap and retired.
Pointing at each other on the front row, the two ART GP cars of Saucy and Minì fired into the first corner with the Swiss ace maintaining the lead - but it was MP Motorsport's Franco Colapinto to get the better getaway: the orange-blue car in Gulf colours of the Argentinian attacked Minì and grabbed second place in the early stages of the first lap. This inevitably gave Saucy the opportunity to pull away once again.
Quinn had stalled on the grid and was avoided by all the incoming cars, including Léna Bühler. She would slot into 30th place, with few chances to move up the leaderboard.
The exciting battle for second also bunched up the cars behind the podium positions: among them were Arden's William Alatalo and Van Amersfoort Racing's Francesco Pizzi, as the Finn was able to pull a move on the Italian for fourth place.
Pietro Delli Guanti completed his nightmare weekend with a 10-second time penalty for having pushed off track the Prema car of Dino Beganovic, who had gained over 10 places before taking a trip to the gravel at the exit of Turn 1.
After the first hectic laps, the race was rather uneventful, but certainly not pressure-free for most of the drivers, as they tackled a very tricky racetrack that requires great focus but offers few passing opportunities.
The best move was arguably Vidales' passing Rosso for 18th place.
Ahead, Colapinto had great pace and could slowly reduce the gap to Saucy; for the first time the leading duo were separated by less than 2 seconds but, without the intervention of the Safety Car, Colapinto could never challenge Saucy for the win.
On the final laps, Aron collided with Haverkort and went wide into the gravel after Turn 1, but both could continue with no damages.
After 21 laps around the new home of the Dutch GP, Gregoire Saucy secured his sixth victory - the third in a row - with another lights-to-flag dominant performance.
Franco Colapinto was second, 1 second adrift, and èreceded Gabriele Minì 7 seconds further down the road, still securing the final step of the podium.
With his fifth place, Pizzi scored his first points of the season.
Léna Bühler's race was ultimately compromised by the incident in qualifying; having started P32, she finished in 30th position, with no real chance to catch up due to a very old set of tyres.
"I had some issues in quali 2 - under braking I locked up the rear tyres, had a bit of a snap and spun, so I didn't do a lap. In race 2, I should normally be using tyres from the second qualifying, but those were completely dead. So I had to use the tyres from race 1, with over 40 laps on them - against 10 for the other guys - and it was a bit difficult to have a good pace."
Formula Regional European Championship will head to Spa Francorchamps, Belgium, for the sixth round of the 2021 season on 24-25 July, as Léna Bühler will try to bounce back from a mixed weekend. It will be the Swiss driver's first visit to the iconic racetrack.