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Laura van den Hengel and Alba Vazquez show potential in GT Cup Open Europe opener

Mertel Motorsport's all-female duo of Laura van den Hengel and Alba Vazquez completed their first race weekend as teammates in the GT Cup Europe championship, where they collected a pair of top-ten finishes in the AM class at the season opener in Portimao - showing potential to fight in the top-10 overall.


Laura van den Hengel, Alba Vazquez, Mertel Motorsport Ferrari 488 Challenge EVO, Portimao 2024 GT Cup Open Europe
Photo credits: Fotospeedy / GT Cup Open Europe

Laura van den Hengel and Alba Vazquez completed their first race weekend as teammates in the GT Cup Europe championship, where they collected a pair of top-ten finishes in the AM class at the season opener in Portimao, Portugal.


The all-female Mertel Motorsport's due had a rollercoaster of a weekend at the Algarve roller coaster-track, bouncing back from a technical issue in practice to then survive a wet first qualifying and showed promising pace in both Saturday and Sunday, where van den Hengel was the protagonist of a stellar charge in the first half of race 1 - and Vazquez responded with a superb improvement on Sunday, where she ran on very competitive pace gaining three places over her stint.


Despite a few bumps throughout the weekend, Laura and Alba made leaps forward from the practice sessions and ultimately enjoyed a solid start to their first full-season campaign in GT racing. Van den Hengel, in fact, was in only her third ever weekend in race cars, after contesting two rounds in 2022 - at Paul Ricard and Monza - having made the impressive step up from karting to the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. The Dutchwoman turned heads with her speed and was, albeit with close to no testing, she had remarkable runs in the AM class.


While Alba Vazquez has a few more races under her belt - mainly in Spanish national touring cars - the GT Cup Open season opener in Portugal was her GT racing debut, a significant step forward in machinery. From the Honda Civic Type R and the Clio V from the Spanish Endurance Championship, to the Ferrari 488 Challenge Evo in her first international campaign, it will be a big learning curve for Vazquez as well, but the Mertel Motorsport duo already gave proof of a big potential over the first weekend.


Pre-season testing was off to a great start for the drivers of the #83 white and turquoise Ferrari: they got up to speed with the new car and, by the end of the test days at Barcelona, they had already climbed the field with very promising lap times.


At the first round of the championship, though, van den Hengel and Vazquez also had to learn a very difficult track like Portimao from scratch.

"The first test [on Thursday] was really promising, and the speed was really good", Laura told us. "And I wasn't even on the limit - I was just testing out the track, as I had never been there. And the speed was already so good that I thought, okay, this will be fine."


On Friday, though, they would have to face a new set of challenges. The wet weather made it tricky for the two drivers to continue their learning process of both the new car and track. A gearbox issue further hampered their chances, having limited their track time in a crucial part of the weekend, ahead of qualifying.


"On the second practice we had a gearbox issue", van den Hengel recalled. "We had to switch to a new gearbox, so we weren't able to practice, and on Friday there were mixed conditions constantly - so it was all about finding out how to drive in the rain, how to drive even on dry again. It was like a roller coaster, but not a really good one" - she joked.


"I tried to reset on Saturday - it was my turn to qualify and start the race", she continued. "It was raining hard, the conditions were much worse and a lot of guys put their fastest lap in on the first four laps, while the track was drier."

With some traffic ahead, van den Hengel couldn't quite find the speed straight away when the track was at its best, before heavy rain hit again. In the midst of the hectic action, Laura also had to deal with the complexities of learning the new car, as she had to adjust the settings for the quickly-changing conditions.


" I finally figured out how to handle the electronics in the rain because it's completely the opposite of karting as well as the Porsche", she explained." So for me it was like a learning phase." In the second half of the session, Laura briefly moved up to P3 in class and in the overall top ten - having also lost a lap time to track limits - but eventually finished in P14 overall, P6 in AM.


"For sure I can do a lot better - but it's experience, so I'm totally fine with it", she continued. She was the second fastest Ferrari in class, in a session dominated by the Porsche 992 GT3 in both ProAm and Am categories.


Laura van den Hengel, Alba Vazquez, Mertel Motorsport Ferrari 488 Challenge EVO, Portimao 2024 GT Cup Open Europe
Photo credits: Fotospeedy / GT Cup Open Europe

Van den Hengel took the start on a now fully dry Autodromo do Algarve, aiming to move up the field having shown potential for a first top-five in class.

The lights went out for the first race of the season and GT rookie Federico Al Rifai was surprised by Luca Ludwig who went from fifth to first at turn 1. Van den Hengel had a brilliant start and made her way up to P5 at turn 1, then picked up fourth place in the AM class and managed to break into the top ten overall over the first lap before the safety car was deployed for the stricken Ferrari of Mark Speakerwas, beached in the gravel at turn one after a spin. Florin Tincescu had also gone off in the #21 Porsche following contact with the #82 Mertel Ferrari.


Van den Hengel was the best-placed Ferrari in class at the restart on lap 5: she defended around the outside of turn 1 on the ProAm car of Innocenti, and then avoided a pile up at turn 5 when Cabezas plowed into the back of fellow ProAm competitors Longin and Reimann. Laura took the outside line and safely made it through the accident, climbing to third place in class as the second safety car was back out.


Ludwig accelerated away on lap 8 and retained the overall lead, ahead of Rifai and Martins, who led the AM class. Having run as high as second in class, a spin unfortunately caught van den Hengel out just as the pit window approached. One lap later, she pitted to hand over to Alba Vazquez, who rejoined P9 in class.


Vazquez settled in her rhythm and progressively improved her times, although the gap to the car ahead was at that point too hard to close.

AM class leader Dieter Svepes took the overall first place from Velasco after the pit stops - with also Rossocorsa's Andrea Belicchi in the mix. Velasco and Belicchi made contact on the final lap and the former went around; over one second and a half up the road, Dieter Svepes was unchallenged and took victory in both the AM and overall classifications.


After 23 laps, Alba Vazquez crossed the finish line to take ninth place in class and therefore the Mertel Motorsport's all female crew collected their first class top-10 of the season.


"I wanted to brake later and I just made a mistake myself", Laura admitted. "It's experience. The position was good, the race was really good, everything was okay. We showed a lot of potential", she told us, hoping to carry momentum on Sunday.


Laura van den Hengel, Alba Vazquez, Mertel Motorsport Ferrari 488 Challenge EVO, Portimao 2024 GT Cup Open Europe
Photo credits: Fotospeedy / GT Cup Open Europe

Alba Vazquez got behind the wheel for Q2 on Sunday morning, again in a dry session. On the first run, she set a promising eighth fastest time among the AM entries - but a red flag for a big accident by Leon Chen in the #82 Ferrari disrupted the action and Alba's progression as she was finding her rhythm. The session resumed with 4 minutes to go, and the track improved in the very closing stages: Vazquez set a 1:50.725 and further moved up on her final run, clocking her first lap under the 1:50min which put her P10 in class ahead of race 2 in the afternoon.


Mertel Motorsport's Ivan Velasco lined up in overall pole position for race two, alongside Fabio Babini in the Tsunami RT Porsche. Alba Vazquez would be sharing the ninth row of the grid with Dario Baruchelli (Tsunami RT Porsche). Vazquez was smart into turn one and kept position in class - before gaining one before the end of the first lap, as she moved up to ninth in class and 17th overall.

The Spaniard improved her sectors throughout the following laps, while at the same time she defended from Mertel Motorsport's teammate Stefano Bozzoni. Alba got ahead of Baruchelli and grabbed eighth in class by lap 4, and continued to set personal best laps once she got in the rhythm.


Nicolas Vandierendonck hit trouble - and Vazquez gained seventh in class, in a very solid first part of the race. While Baruchelli fought back on lap 7, both moved up one place and the white and turquoise Ferrari held on to P7 - although EST1 Racing's Indrek Jaaska was closing in; Alba defended with determination.

The safety car was deployed on lap 11, when the #81 Ferrari driven by Alvaro Lobera came to a halt. The pit window was postponed and the green flag waved again on lap 14: from seventh in class, Vazquez held on and pitted one lap later, handing over to her teammate Laura van den Hengel following a very good stint that showed big improvements from the Spaniard.


A slightly slower stop cost them a position in class after the round of pit stops, but van den Hengel started to chase the cars in front. Laura set the car's fastest lap in 1:49.912 on lap 20, and moved back up to seventh once Saturday's AM class race winner Leandro Martins went off and dropped down the order.


Laura van den Hengel, Alba Vazquez, Mertel Motorsport Ferrari 488 Challenge EVO, Portimao 2024 GT Cup Open Europe
Photo credits: Fotospeedy / GT Cup Open Europe

Approximately ten seconds behind the closest class rival, Laura couldn't quite close the gaps during the second half of her stint and settled in her position. After 26 laps of intense racing, Laurent Vandervelde took victory in AM, ahead of Johannes Zelger (Q1-trackraing) and Florin Tincescu (Tsunami RT).


With a slightly shorter driving time due to the postponed pit window, Laura van den Hengel still did everything she could to catch back Ghezzi's Tsunami Porsche, and climbed back to seventh place to secure her best class result in the series to date, completing an overall solid weekend.


"First race of the season completed, very happy but with little taste," wrote Vazquez. "First laps with the Ferrari in Portimao, a very very difficult circuit. Thanks to my team Mertel Motorsport and Ferrari for the incredible job done since Thursday and Friday."


While they couldn't quite capitalize on their pace and convert it into the results they deserved, Laura van den Hengel and Alba Vazquez proved they have what it takes to fight in the top-10 overall and in the AM top-5 straight from their first race with a new car.

  

"I think I didn't show the potential I did show in Barcelona. I am hard on myself because I know I can do better," van den Hengel - who had been feeling unwell on Sunday - told us after the weekend.

"But now it's all about mentally reset and just trying to use the next week to regroup. I just want to have a fresh start in Hockenheim."


The GT Cup Open Europe series will in fact return to the track in less than two weeks' time, with the second round scheduled at Hockenheimring on 11-12 May.

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