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Laura van den Hengel makes remarkable race car debut with Top-10 in class

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

From karting to GT3: Dutch talent Laura van den Hengel is certainly not intimidated by big challenges and made her race car debut in GT Cup Open Europe with a remarkable weekend at Circuit Paul Ricard, claiming a top ten in class after a hugely promising performance.

Photo credits: Elise Wiebes | KLCK Film Agency

The third round of the 2023 GT Cup Open Europe championship – stepping stone to the International GT Open – saw the first appearance of a talented female racer, making her very first steps in the world of car racing. Laura van den Hengel has in fact tackled her first weekend at the wheel of a race car – and has done so by taking a huge leap: from karting straight to GT3 machinery.

Van den Hengel's story is one of determination and perseverance, as the Dutchwoman was forced to take a hiatus from racing due to budget – before returning with an even bigger challenge and ambitions, jumping right at the deep end - and yet delivering.

"After karting I did no racing at all for two years, because of budget", Laura said. "It took me over a year to get some budget for car racing, which is more interesting for sponsors.

So this was my debut in car racing: I stepped into a GT3 – which is not quite the norm. It's a really difficult car, so it's not usual", she continued.

With only a handful of test days under her belt in the Porsche 992 GT3 Cup car run by experienced team Ghinzani Motorsport, van den Hengel joined the Italian team for her debut, teaming up with Maurizio Fondi – a driver with a few races under his belt in GT4 European Series, Italian GT as well as GT Open – in a AM entry.

Fondi and Van den Hengel used the practice sessions at Circuit Paul Ricard to learn the car and the circuit, progressively building up speed session after session. With a best lap of 2:15.763 in FP2, the duo had improved by almost 5 full seconds from their previous session, which highlighted the big potential as they approached the first qualifying at the French track.

Fondi was the designated driver for Saturday's qualifying – and the Italian driver was able to extract one further second from their previous reference, recording a 2:14.513 lap that put the #14 Ghinzani Motorsport's Porsche 992 GT3 Cup in P13 in the AM class. The continuous improvement was an encouraging sign for the following 50 minute race, which saw Maurizio Fondi taking the start for the first stint.

Photo credits: Elise Wiebes | KLCK Film Agency

An accident at the start that took out the two GDL Racing Porsches of Samuele Bosio and Mario Cordoni and also involved the Volcano Motorsport's Porsche of Evgenii Leonov soon brought out the safety car; Fondi had avoided the chaos on the main straight and moved up to P16 overall and P11 in the AM class just before the neutralization. Fernando Navarrete (Mertel Motorsport Ferrari 488 Challenge Evo) had retained the lead in both the overall and AM classifications, ahead of teammates Jorge Cabezas and Luca Ludwig, both in the ProAm class.

The race went back underway with 36 minutes to go and it was a much cleaner restart, with Fondi keeping position in class – even after the recovery of Leonov in the #16 Porsche.

Fondi pitted at the end of lap 6 as soon as the pit window opened and handed over to Laura van den Hengel – ready to finally make her racing debut.

Laura rejoined in 12th place in class and, with a good outlap, started to close in on the #007 Aston Martin of Fazal-Karim. The Dutchwoman cleared the Aston Martin and started to chase the #70 GDL Racing Porsche for the AM position. She caught Bosio at the pace of almost 5 seconds per lap faster, got by and continued to run solid laps. Unfortunately, a spin on lap 14 meant she fell down to P12 in class once again, but the was quickly back underway, chasing again Bosio; she overtook once again the Street Art Racing Aston Martin, as well as the #44 Porsche of Eugenio Pisani, who had spun in another incident.

While van den Hengel had another moment at the final corner on lap 17, she was luckily avoided by a few cars behind and resumed losing no positions in class. She took the chequered flag 12th in the AM category, completing her first ever race in GT racing. The Dutch driver set a personal best of 2:12.252, which was by far the best time of their crew and faster than several cars ahead, all while she familiarised with the car lap after lap.

"We had limited budget and limited testing days and we dived straight into this weekend", Laura explained. "Not sure what I expected from it, but it actually went really well."

"I made a lot of progress during the weekend and my speed was really okay. I made some mistakes and some track limits, but my times were better than a lot of the racers that already did some seasons."

Photo credits: Elise Wiebes | KLCK Film Agency

On Sunday morning, it was Laura's time to qualify.

While a couple of spins and of track limits in the day before played a part in taking a more cautious approach in the 20 minute session, Van den Hengel was soon up to speed and clocked a 2:12.683 – two full seconds faster than her teammate – that was good enough for eighth in class on the starting grid of Sunday afternoon's race 2.

When the lights went out, the full 21 car field survived the first lap – as Andrea Belicchi (Rossocorsa Ferrari) retained the top spot from Ivan Velasco and Fabio Babini. Laura van den Hengel had a good start and kept eighth in class, always at a close distance to the cars ahead - the #19 and #81 Mertel Motorsport Ferraris, respectively seventh in ProAm and AM.

The Dutch driver was immediately on a good pace and gained a position overall when Evgenii Leonov hit trouble on lap 3 and pitted with a puncture. Laura was faster than the two Ferraris and progressively closed in on Bozzoni and Liquorish – also setting her fastest lap of the weekend in 2:12.158 on lap 6.

Pit stops started half-way through the race; van den Hangel stayed out and extended her stint by a few laps, then pitted on lap 11 when she handed over to Maurizio Fondi having run as high as sixth. Once behind the wheel of the #14 Porsche, the Italian driver kept eighth in class and 14th overall, also lapping faster than his Saturday's stint.

With a strong run by van den Hengel, the Ghinzani Motorsport duo had amassed an over 30 second margin from the cars behind; the #77 EST1 Racing Porsche of Jori Ala-Jyrä and the #16 Volcano Motorsport Porsche of Leonov, though, started to close in in the final stages of the race at the pace of almost three seconds per lap. Fondi gained one more place overall when the ProAm entry of Luca Ludwig came to a halt, but was then caught by Leonov and Ala-Jyrä on the very final lap of the race, eventually crossing the line in P9 in AM.

Laura van den Hengel thus rounded out her first weekend in car racing with an impressive top ten in class, showing monumental improvements throughout the weekend and a very solid second race with no mistakes and steady lap times – which is certainly looking highly promising for the remainder of her racing programme.

"I'd say that this shows good potential for the coming races and maybe the coming seasons", she commented.

"It was unfortunate because I had some track limits and a couple of spins [on Saturday] – it's all new to me – so I just took it easy in my qualify, but when I had to start the second race it was really good – I was better than the two Ferraris."

"For me it was all about gaining experience. I need to gain the control of the car before I can really show what I got, so I just didn't want to take high risks."

"The most important thing was to show some potential. The team trusted me and I did better than the expectations", a satisfied Laura stated. "At Paul Ricard I lacked a bit of track time, but I'll be more confident in Monza."

After the very positive outing, van den Hengel is in fact scheduled to return to Monza for the next round of the GT Cup Open Europe championship, supporting International GT Open at the Temple of Speed on 23-24 September.

Photo credits: Gianluca Sciarra / Fotospeedy



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