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GT Cup Open: Laura van den Hengel and Alba Vazquez secure first ever top-five

Laura van den Hengel and Alba Vazquez secured their first top five in the AM class of GT Cup Open Europe Championship, as Mertel Motorsport's all female duo continue to make progress in their first full season of GT racing and are progressively closing in on a class podium.

Laura van den Hengel, Alba Vazquez, Mertel Motorsport, 2024 GT Cup Open Europe Championship, Spa Francorchamps
Photo credits: GT Sport

Laura van den Hengel and Alba Vazquez secured their first top five in the AM class of GT Cup Open Europe Championship: it was the best run of the season to date for the Mertel Motorsport's all female duo, who continue to make progress in their first full season of GT racing and are progressively closing in on a class podium.

Van den Hengel and Vazquez, who share the #83 Ferrari 488 Challenge operated by the German team, often showed potential to reach the class podium and the top ten overall, but couldn't quite capitalize on their speed at Portimao and Hockenheim, where they recorded a personal best of seventh in class in race 2 of the Portuguese round.

Two weeks later, they again battled in the top three in class, but a few unfortunate circumstances saw them coming home with two eighth place finishes.

Nevertheless, each round represented a significant step forward for the drivers, as they tackle a learning-oriented season aiming to learn the platform, the car and the circuits.

Laura van den Hengel made her debut in GT racing - moving from karting straight to the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup machine - at the end of the 2023 season and contested two rounds in GT Cup Open Europe. Alba Vazquez made her race car debut in 2022, in the Spanish Touring Car Championship CET - scoring six podiums over 5 race meetings - and continued in touring cars in national competitions in 2023. Their partnership at Mertel Motorsport therefore represents their full time debut in GT competitions, in a new car and on race tracks they would travel to for the first time.

At one of the most iconic yet challenging circuits in Europe, all the odds were stacked against them at Spa Francorchamps, which played host to the third round of the 2024 season: the extremely changeable weather in fact severely limited the track time in the practice sessions - a crucial time for both Laura and Alba.

"On Friday, for example, there was one full test session with only aquaplaning", Laura explained after the weekend. "And then we had the dry test, so it was two extremely different conditions. So basically we only had one session of 30 minutes, and it's something not beneficial for me not knowing the track. It was pretty hard."

The two drivers of the #83 Ferrari used the sessions to get up to speed and they progressively got closer and closer to the rest of the field, building confidence progressively.

Coming into the first qualifying of the weekend, it would be Alba Vazquez to take over driving duties in the session that set the grid for the first race of the weekend on Saturday.

A lengthy delay due to track repair at Raidillon in the previous session in GT Open saw the GT Cup Open Europe Q1 getting underway while the rain had eased, although conditions remained tricky. Vazquez had a good start into the session and was up to third in class after her first timed run. Times dropped significantly and she improved to a 2:29.127 which put her eighth, before making up almost a full second to move up to P7. In the final minutes she couldn't quite improve and ended P9 - in a session with tighter gaps and not too far from a potential top-5 among the AM entries.

Photo credits: GT Sport

The track remained dry also for the first race of the weekend, held in the afternoon. Alba Vazquez would be taking the start for the first stint from ninth in the AM class, 18th overall. Luca Ludwig had a brilliant start and preceded Niccolò Schirò at turn 1, after second-placed Federico Al Rifai lost out also to Alex Reimann's EST1 Racing Porsche. Vazquez kept it clean at the always tricky La Source hairpin and held ninth in class, ahead of Glauco Sollieri and Stefano Bozzoni.

Alba overtook Johannes Zelger on the first lap and then attacked - and passed - Florin Tincescu's Porsche right at the start of the second lap - in a great charge by the Spanish racer who had moved up to seventh in AM. Tincescu fought back and Alba settled in P8, although with Zelger slowly closing in. The Tsunami RT Porsche made a move stick for eighth by lap 5, as the Mertel Ferrari started to struggle a bit more for pace.

Fernando Navarrete meanwhile led the AM class from Philippe Wils, with a spectacular battle also including ProAm entries Lars Zaenen and Nicolas Saelens. A stunning six car battle lit up the field for the AM top three; a contact for Zaenen took out second-placed Philippe Wils, who went through the gravel but could eventually extricate himself and rejoin at the back of the pack.

Vazquez thus gained one position in class as the pit window approached; she pitted on lap 9, having found a few tenths again in the final stages of her stint and completed a steady run before handing over to Laura van den Hengel from eighth in class, P17 overall.

After the pit stop cycle, van den Hengel found herself tenth in class, and tried to chase Philippe Wils Speed Lover's Porsche as well as Mertel teammate Chen. Laura was three seconds per lap faster than the #82 Ferrari ahead and she closed a 5-second gap on lap 14 -having also set the car's new fastest lap. She got ahead of Alvaro Lobera for ninth, and then Chen one lap later for eighth.


Up to 16th overall, van den Hengel took the chequered flag in eighth place in class at the end of an exciting first race - which also saw a late battle for the win between Velasco, Longin, Innocenti and Reimann.

Despite the good charge, though, van den Hengel was not quite satisfied about the result.

"Saturday was not really great", she told us. "I took over and the gap to get to the guys in front of me was quite big, so there was not a lot to do. And then I had a contact which was also not really amazing. I had to quickly focus on Sunday because it was my qualifying."

Photo credits: GT Sport

On Sunday morning it would in fact be Laura's turn to qualifying. Under now clear skies for the second day of racing in the Ardennes, van den Hengel's first timed lap put her eighth in the AM class, then she improved by almost three seconds - but her time was deleted for track limits at turn 4. Times continued to drop and Laura shaved off over two seconds again, setting her personal best from the weekend in 2:27.914, retaining eighth in yet another session of positive development.

Still, time was left on the table, according to the Dutch driver, who explained how traffic in her first laps prevented her from using the peak of the tyre.

"I know it sounds like an excuse, but I didn't find the free lap in qualify", she recalled. "The engineer told me I would only have three laps - and in the first five or six laps there was only traffic."

"I made some room so I could do the push lap in the sixth or seventh lap, but I already had extreme oversteering - I was drifting out of the corners. I know there was more in it, but it's still experience to find the right gap on track. It's not an excuse, I have to be smarter in it."

Van den Hengel aimed for yet another of her trademark starts, this time from P16 overall and seventh in class. She had a good getaway and then committed to the inside line at La Source - which proved to be the right call, as she could avoid a multiple car contact on the exit. Up to P12 overall and sixth in class, van den Hengel was right in the clutches of the #82 Mertel Ferrari of Chen - and, although she had to battle with a few ProAm cars over the first lap, she could retain P6, running on par with Rossocorsa's Lorenzo Innocenti in the opening stages.

When the ProAm cars moved further up the order, van den Hengel hunted down Philippe Wils's Porsche. The Speed Lover driver overtook Johannes Zelger for fourth in class - and Laura followed them closely: she set the fastest top speed of anyone on lap 5 and significantly closed in on Zelger - before going for a move on lap 6, out-braking her opponent into Les Combes. Zelger, though, cut the chicane and kept the position.

He was then instructed to give the position back by race control - and Laura could move up to fifth on lap 7, as she settled in her pace, around six seconds behind the #7 Speed Lover Porsche with 30 minutes to go.

Once in clear air, she soon set her fastest lap in 2:29.415 - before the safety car was deployed for the accident of Nathan Brauns at Raidillon - which handed fourth place to the Dutchwoman. The pit window was postponed, extending the first stint during the recovery operations.

The race in fact resumed with 20 minutes to go and Laura stayed out for an extra lap as half the field took the way of the pits for the mandatory pit stop. The Mertel driver was in fact starting to put pressure on second-placed Philippe Wils, and she pitted on lap 12 from eighth overall, third in class after a brilliant first stint.

Photo credits: GT Sport

Alba Vazquez took over the white and turquoise Ferrari 488 Challenge and rejoined seventh in class after a slightly longer pit stop.

The final 10 minutes of the race were just as action-packed: a spin for Speakerwas dropped him to P13 overall - just ahead of Vazquez - and she picked up the position on lap later, climbing to sixth.

Leandro Martins' RACA Motorsport Porsche also had an off in the gravel, and Alba seized the opportunity to grab the top five on lap 15. With 3 minutes to go, Vazquez needed to close in on Wils, as the #7 Porsche had received a 5 second penalty. In classic Spa development, though, rain started to fall and the focus now switched on making it across the line; Alba Vazquez was cautious enough and took the chequered flag in fifth place in class, with a remarkably solid run that allowed the Mertel Motorsport all-female crew to claim their best result to date.

"If you realize how hard Spa is, I was not setting any goals because I know it would be tricky, it would be hard", the always grounded van den Hengel said. "But if you consider that, it was a positive outcome", she added, happy about the result.

"I think I was battling for P3. We made some adjustments on Sunday and on pace, we were really competitive for a podium. So that was okay."

Despite a challenging start of the race meeting, with rain hampering the progression early on, Laura and Alba were able to turn the weekend around and collected a result that is further proof of the big steps forward made in such a short time frame. While there's certainly more to come - the positive trend is evident, and the second half of the season holds plenty of promise, as the drivers will head to more familiar circuits.

"I see some really good progression", van den Hengel added. "There is a lot more to do, but I expect that we will be higher up - maybe more in the top ten [overall]."

"I'm not yet at the level I want to be, but I have one goal and that's the podium."

After three rounds in a month, the GT Cup Open Europe championship will now return to the track on 19-21 July at Circuit Paul Ricard, in the South of France, for its fourth round.



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