Laura van den Hengel charges through the field in epic Monza stints
Racecar rookie Laura van den Hengel continued to impress with a stellar weekend in Monza, where she charged through the field in both wet and dry conditions, in only her second ever race weekend in GT racing.
Laura van den Hengel's journey from karting to GT3 continued with her second ever weekend in sportscar racing: tackling the iconic Temple of Speed, the Dutchwoman impressed with epic drives in both races, claiming two eighth place class finishes in GT Cup Open Europe's Monza round that put van den Hengel's name among the most promising bronze drivers.
After a highly competitive karting career, van den Hengel move to race cars was always postponed by lack of funding that hampered her progression in the sport. 2023 was finally the season that would see the fast racer putting together a program - and it would be a quantum leap: from karting to the Porsche 992 GT3 Cup car. An unusual move that did not unsettle van den Hengel.
In her first race meeting, Laura impressed with big improvements at Circuit Paul Ricard, in the South of France, where she claimed her first top ten in class thanks to a really solid drive in race 2. The performance was particularly promising and Laura was looking forward to carrying momentum at Monza, which played host to the fourth and penultimate round of the GT Cup Open Europe season.
Sharing the #14 Ghinzani Motorsport's Porsche in the Am class with Italian Maurizio Fondi, van den Hengel found challenging conditions at the start of the weekend, as rain disrupted the practice sessions on Friday and, with limited track time, the race car rookie had to maximise time to learn the track as well as the machinery.
"It was tricky conditions - it was damp and for me it was the first time in the rain ever in a car", Laura recalled. "I looked at the references and tried to learn how to drive in the rain - and to be honest it wasn't that great. The pace was not what I expected it to be, because in karting I was really good in the rain."
The duo rounded out the day in a class P8, with a best lap of 2:00.060 recorded in the second practice in mixed conditions.
On Saturday morning, Maurizio Fondi was the driver elected to get behind the wheel for the first qualifying session - which was contested in dry conditions for the first time in the weekend. The home racer clocked a 1:57.864 that put the #14 Porsche in P20 overall, 12th in the AM class.
Around one hour before the scheduled start of the race in the early afternoon, though, the sky turned black and rain-heavy clouds eventually poured showers onto the Monza park. While the start of the race was slightly moved forward, it was an inevitable safety car start, as conditions had even worsened as cars made it onto the grid.
Race time clocked down as the 23 cars tried to fight for visibility, waiting to be released. The green flag did come with 40 minutes to go, but a collision on the main straight just before the first chicane saw Evgenii Leonov's #16 Volcano Motorsport's Porsche and the #55 Q1-trackracing Porsche driven by Mello out after a crash that immediately brought out another safety car.
Maurizio Fondi successfully avoided the accident - which had scattered debris all across the track - and gained a position in class. With another lengthy neutralization, the pit window was postponed and, when the green flag waved again with 26 minutes to go, Fondi held position before pitting on lap 8 from P18 overall and eleventh in class.
Van den Hengel took over in still extremely challenging conditions - and with over 10 seconds to recover from the car ahead.
After the pit cycle, though, van den Hengel was the protagonist of a sterling sting which saw the Ghinzani Motorsport driver gaining four to five seconds per lap to Roberto Bosio. By lap 13, Laura had caught the #70 Porsche and completed a clean pass for tenth in class. Federico Lamperti was up next - over five seconds up the road. But the quick Dutchwoman was on a mission and cleared the Italian one lap later.
A safety car with 6 minutes to go - for the #73 Porsche of Axel Vanstraaten beached at Parabolica - unfortunately halted Laura's charging drive through the field, as she was catching Samuele Bosio at the pace of over 2 seconds per lap.
The race ended behind the safety car and van den Hengel crossed the finish line in P8 in class, 13th overall, having gained five positions from the start.
"Maurizio [Fondi] started the race and I took over mid way through and drove back from 20th to 13th", said Laura. "I had a really good race pace. Of course the best times are set at the end of the race, and for me that was right at the moment of the final safety car lap. But still I was one of the fastest AMs, and that was really good. I did some passes as well, it was actually a really fun race!"
On Sunday morning, drivers found the track in completely different conditions: a sunny Monza welcomed the second qualifying session at 09:00 local time. It was van den Hengel's time to qualify the #14 machine - which she would drive for the very first time of the weekend in dry conditions.
"I had to qualify on Sunday - and for me it was like practice, because I didn't know the references around Monza in the dry", she explained. "Because of my lack of experience the qualifying went not so well. I was slow to be honest, but after the session I watched a lot of data, onboards, trying to find references and make sure I was ready for the race."
Laura's 1:55.196 put her in P18 overall and tenth in class - which would require another charging performance from the up-and-coming racer.
The pack of 23 cars accelerated away on the iconic Monza straight, with Andrea Belicchi taking the overall lead with a spectacular getaway from third on the grid. Van den Hengel also had a strong start, as she gained two positions in class and overall after the tricky first chicane.
Laura started to hunt down Bosio - and then moved ahead of AM championship leader Laurent Vandervelde, as he came to a halt on the straight.
This incident led to a safety car interruption with 44 minutes to go; seventh in class at the restart, van den Hengel was faster than the cars ahead and started to log impressive lap times - consistently topping her personal best of the weekend.
With Bosio and Lamperti battling for position ahead of her, Laura snatched sixth place on lap 6 - then soon pulled away.
Once in clean air, van den Hengel's pace was truly impressive and she set a 1:53.181 on lap 10, followed by a fastest overall sector 1. While she was about to crush her previous reference, she took the way of the pit lane to hand over to Maurizio Fondi with 26 minutes to go - completing a superb stint that brought the #14 Porsche from P10 to P6 in class.
Fondi dropped to P17 overall on his outlap, settling in P9 in class once the round of pit stops were completed. A big shunt at the first chicane brought out a second neutralization when the #19 Mertel Motorsport Ferrari of Bozzoni collided with the #44 991 Porsche of Zanini and the former slid across the grass, crashing heavily into the #47 EST1 Racing Porsche driven by Alex Reimann. Fondi picked up eighth in class from the retirement of the #19 Ferrari and had a solid restart defending well from Bosio. Unfortunately his efforts came undone with 5 minutes to go, as he was collected by the out of control Porsche of Stefano Borghi, which inflicted damage to the right-hand side of the #14 Ghinzani Motorsport Porsche. Nevertheless, Fondi could continue without losing positions among the AM entries. His bad luck, though, was far from over: at the following restart, a puncture for the #17 Ferrari wreaked havoc, as he slowed down from second overall as the field was about to accelerate. From the bunched-up field, Fondi was hit at Parabolica, eventually ending his race with front-left damage. The race was red flagged and not resumed, which meant that Laura van den Hengel and Maurizio Fondi were classified P8 in the AM class, echoing their Saturday's result. My stint went very well", Laura commented after the race. "I drove from P10 to sixth in class, and I had a purple sector - so overall the pace was really good. My fastest lap was in my box-in lap, but still the race pace was really good. With the lack of experience in car racing as well as at the track, I showed decent speed and some powerful overtakings - and this is something that I'm really proud of." While the learning curve is steep, Laura's weekend in Monza was yet another proof of her potential, as she gets more familiar with the car and with the tracks. "I finally get the car better", she explained. "The Porsche is very tricky to drive, but now I feel so confident under braking and in corner speed; I made a lot of progression only by trusting the car, which was what I was lacking at Paul Ricard, as it was my first race. I finally got to know the car better, that was the main thing for me." Certainly an uncommon route, Laura's journey in GT racing is already proving to be very inspiring and she now looks ahead to even more improvements - even though she always stays grounded. "I liked Monza, especially with all the fans around. That reminded me of what a privilege and how special it is to race", she added. "Having made it to this, it's quite an exceptional story for me. Here in Monza, with all the fans, I got more conscious of how special this is - and how special my journey is, starting from zero."