Le Mans Cup: Back-to-back top-5 finishes for Belén García
"That's the performance we aimed for, and we'll give it our all to put everything together in the season’s final race.” - Belén García continued her impressive run of form in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with a second consecutive top five finish, showing great ability at Spa-Francorchamps.
Belén García continued her impressive run of form in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with a second top-5 finish in as many races, this time coming at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit. In a weekend heavily disrupted by red flags and safety car periods, García and teammate Mark Richards did a superb job to negotiate the challenging circumstances to record an excellent fifth place result. Progression was the key to success for the 360 Racing duo who consistently improved during the weekend, with Belén showing particularly strong pace despite limited experience at the circuit.
Reflecting on the race, Belén commented “It was all about surviving the carnage, but it was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed racing here in all the different conditions. Watching the first part of the race, I quickly understood there wouldn't be many opportunities to overtake during my stint. But I felt racey, so I just wanted to try my best and make my way through the field as fast as possible”.
Belén and Mark arrived at Spa-Francorchamps following their best result of the season at Aragon, an excellent fifth place finish. However, with much cooler conditions and truncated test sessions, the team would be presented with different challenges.
The mental aspect of García’s driving would also be tested following a tough experience at Spa-Francorchamps in 2021 competing in W Series. Belén explained that “I did my usual preparation, mainly focusing on training and sim work, but this round has more significance for me as I had a huge crash there in 2021. I felt like I needed to work on my mental approach, so I’ve trained slightly differently for this one. I’ve always used the psychology aspect of the sport as I think it's tremendously useful to be in a good mindset and headspace”.
After the weekend began with best result of 19th in LMP3 across the two collective tests on Thursday, Friday saw two free practice sessions to further hone in on a setup. Session one on Friday saw the 360 Racing duo set the 22nd fastest time, however with the session disrupted by a pair of red flags, times were less representative.
Teammate Mark Richards then participated in the bronze driver collective test and ended the session 14th in LMP3, less than two seconds away from the quickest time. Friday concluded with a second free practice session, this time held in wet conditions. Belén acclimatised well and set the 11th fastest time in LMP3, concluding her track time prior to the race.
Belén’s strength in wet conditions came as no surprise, with her only experience of Spa-Francorchamps coming in the wet. Prior to the event, she commented "I’ve already been once to Spa, but I don’t really have much experience there. We didn’t run a lot there when I was competing in the W Series, and all the running happened in the wet."
"I feel more comfortable in the wet now, so I’m prepared for anything, and everyone knows the weather can change quickly at this track. It seems like it will be a weekend in the dark, so we might have to improvise and work on being flexible but it is something we all have to deal with. I am also confident after testing in all sorts of mixed conditions in Portimão, where I felt ultra-fast, so we’ll see how it goes and I'm truly looking forward to enjoying any conditions we’ll have!"
Commenting further on the disrupted running on Friday, Belén said "On Friday, I had a good feeling when we ran with the slicks on a damp track. Our lap times weren’t too representative because of the red flag and traffic that prevented me from pushing and a minor off from Mark. The track was completely wet in the final test session, and we felt quite confident early on, with some purple times in the last sector. There was still some work to do, but we knew where to improve, and we definitely did on Saturday.”
Qualifying on Saturday was held in dry conditions with Mark aiming to carry forward his impressive single-lap pace from Aragon. It was a heavily disrupted session with a pair of red flags leading to the drivers being afforded few flying laps. Richards improved on his final lap to set the 11th fastest time in LMP3 and put 360 Racing in a good position ahead of the race.
Mark took the start from the sixth row of the grid and superbly negotiated a chaotic opening corner, in which he navigated multiple spinning cars, to end the opening lap in eighth. Following a lengthy safety car period, Richards encountered a small issue on the restart which saw him drop four positions, before moving back inside the top-10 as a second safety car was quickly deployed. Just a couple of laps were possible under green flag conditions during Mark’s stint, with the pit window opening during the second safety car period with Belen taking over the 360 Racing machine on lap 12.
Belén credited Mark with a smart approach in light of the stoppages, commenting that "Mark did an excellent job avoiding all the guys on the opening lap, and he wanted to put in a strong restart. But he saw that he overtook before the line, so he had to brake. We lost four positions, but that impulse kept us alive, so credit to him.”
Due to the timing of the safety car, different strategies were at play which led to Belén moving into ninth position as racing resumed. Managing the restart extremely well, García held position while navigating GT3 traffic before a third safety car slowed the pace once again. On lap 20, Belén took her second restart of the race and although dropping one position to Daniel Keilwitz, she was able clear the remainder of the GT3 cars without issue and could set her sights on moving forward.
Just one further racing lap was completed before an incident car for the Nielsen Racing machine of Josh Skelton led to another race neutralisation. Despite the race lacking rhythm, Belén maintained her focus and restarted ninth with just over twenty-minutes of the race remaining. Defending well from Brent Verheyen, García ran her best sectors of the day as the race was once again interrupted on lap 27, this time by a period of full course yellow.
Racing resumed with just eight minutes remaining, with the 360 Racing driver now up to eighth position following a penalty for Team Thor. After an incident for the DKR Engineering car of James Winslow, Belén was into seventh and holding her own against more experienced drivers while continuing to make lap time improvements. Applying pressure to Keilwitz in the closing stages, García took the checkered flag just half a second behind her rival while setting her quickest time on the final lap of the race.
A seventh place finish at the checkered flag became fifth following post-race penalties for teams ahead, securing back-to-back top-5 results for an increasingly impressive Belén.
Belén was proud of her performance as she fought hard in the limited green flag running she was afforded, taking advantage of situations which were presented to her while displaying front-running pace.
García commented that "I felt strong right from my first laps, and I just wished there was more time under green flag conditions to gain more positions, but I did my best. There were so many things happening at the same time. I didn’t have the feeling I gained that many positions."
"It was a question of survival, and we did. I am thrilled I fought like I did because I like aggressive racing. It's such a good feeling, and I most certainly believe our performance during these short sprints highlights how much we keep improving when we don’t have to rely on the incidents of other competitors. That's the performance we aimed for, and we'll give it our all to put everything together in the season’s final race.”
Belén showed great ability at Spa-Francorchamps to come away with an excellent finish despite her very limited dry running at the circuit. Driving maturely while consistently moving forward, García competed extremely well and maintained the upturn in form shown by herself and Richards during the second half of the season.
The 360 Racing duo will be realistically aiming to challenge for a podium position as the Michelin Le Mans Cup season reaches its conclusion at Portimao on the weekend of 21st/22nd October.