Le Mans Cup: Belén García claims first top-5 of the season at Aragon
"We have finally shown where we can be" - Having battled extreme heat, Belén García battled for the podium in Michelin Le Mans Cup and secured her first top five in the championship as well as her first points this season after brilliant battles at Motorland Aragon.
Belén García claimed her best result to date in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with a remarkable fifth place finish at Motorland Aragon, fourth round of the championship which marks her first full season in endurance racing. The young Catalan driver, alongside her teammate Mark Richards, battled in contention for a podium throughout the two-hour contest, eventually securing a top five that represents a big step forward for the #25 360 Racing crew.
In the previous rounds, García had often shown great speed but misfortunes had prevented her from scoring points at her home race in Barcelona as well as the Le Mans double header and Circuit Paul Ricard. While her pace often went unrewarded for issues outside of her control such as safety car timing - Belén had clearly proven to belong to the top end of the LMP3 class at Le Castellet, where she gained 11 positions to equal their best finish of the season.
After the summer break, the Le Mans Cup returned to the track in support of ELMS' first ever visit to Motorland Aragon, in García's second home race of the season. Taking a break from her university exams just for a couple of days - Belén is in fact studying telematics engineering in Barcelona - the former W Series driver was looking forward to getting back behind the wheel for the fourth round of the season, this time capitalizing on her speed.
“The challenge is the same as in the rest of the season, to show the rhythm that we always have in free practice, but that later, in qualifying or the race, ends up not materializing for different circumstances", García said. "I trust that the fact of racing at home will be a lucky charm to achieve a good result”.
Absent from the previous round at Le Castellet, Mark Richards rejoined Belén García at 360 Racing for his first visit to the Spanish 5.3km track.
“It is a very technical circuit, but in which I do not have much experience, so every lap in free practice will serve to speed up my track adaptation" - Belén added. "Between studies and exams I have dedicated all the time I could to training on the simulator. My latest references here are from my time in Spanish F4 and a GT meeting, although many years have passed”.
Certainly, one of the biggest challenges of the track was the extreme heat, with temperatures close to 40°C throughout the weekend. In these conditions, hydration and good physical fitness played an essential role in order to keep focus in the tricky multiclass format, on a 40-car grid.
García's weekend started with Wednesday's collective testing, which resulted to be extremely useful to both bronze-rated Richards to learn the track, as well as Belén, who had not much previous experience either.
Their work soon focused on the car setup - which proved tricky to adapt to both drivers.
“We dedicated the day of testing to find a car setup that worked, and on Thursday it proved to be fruitful in the first practice session", García explained, after she was sixth fastest with a 1:54.439 best lap. "However, this contrasted with Mark's difficulties in adapting to these settings, which forced us to rethink everything."
After making some changes in the following sessions, it would be Belén now to struggle more at the wheel, as the team worked on finding a compromise. "Here is one of the particularities that we often forget about endurance racing!" - she stated.
In addition to the extreme heat, García had to battle yet another enemy - a digestive issue, that made for an extra challenging round, an already physically demanding one.
As per series regulations, bronze-rated Mark Richards contested the qualifying session - and proved that the set up arrangement worked well: the Briton set the third fastest time, clocking in 1:54.655 in what was by far the team's best qualifying effort of the season to date.
While the race was scheduled for 17:40, temperatures remained close to 40°C.
Richards was in charge of the first stint of the race - and he immediately moved up to second place, following overall pole sitter Caygill (United Autosport) and having passed Murphy Prototype's Torsten Kratz who was then involved in a multiple car tangle on the first lap.
The Safety Car was deployed and cars were back up to speed with 1h and 38 minutes to go. Caygill had a good restart and opened a small gap to Richards, who defended well from Bittar and Chila. A new full course yellow was deployed soon after, when the #68 M Racing LMP3 car came to a halt in the first sector. The green flag was back in the air a few minutes later and Mark Richards - who had slightly extended his gap - was under pressure from Adrien Chila, now third.
The action though was short-lived, as a contact between the #28 MV25 Racing Ligier was hit by the #77 Team Thor Ligier and ended its race in the gravel - triggering another safety car.
Positions at the top remained unchanged when the race resumed with 70 minutes to go; Richards kept Chila at bay and ran competitively until the pit window opened. The Briton stayed out one lap longer - which eventually cost the #25 machine two places.
Belén García took over the #25 Ligier on lap 20, behind both Chila and Gerbi who had been battling for third place. The race leading #22 United Autosport had a longer stop and lost the lead, and Belén García found herself in third place after the pit window closed, behind Cedric Oltramare and Gillian Henrion.
García was under pressure from Matthew Bell's #4 Nielsen Racing and the two had a fantastic battle while trying to navigate GT3 traffic with 35 minutes to go. At the same time, Gillian Henrion took the lead of the race from Oltramare, when another safety car was deployed for the #23 United Autosport Ligier coming to a stop on track.
Bell immediately fired into the lead at the restart with a spectacular reaction - as Belén García defended from Kiril Smal and, at the same time, tried to find a way past Oltramare. Colin Noble was making his way through the field and passed both Smal and García - then hunted down Oltramare and grabbed third.
In the closing minutes, Belén García ran consistently, remained close with the leading pack and ultimately crossed the finish line in fifth place with a safe margin to Kiril Smal's CD Sport Ligier. It was Belén's best result to date, the first top five, as well as first point-scoring round - which gained her 10 points.
“It has been the hardest of my life", Belén described her race. "Between the stomach problems and the extremely high heat in the air and in the cockpit, I had to give it my all, suffering in each corner, in each lap. I was especially worried about not incurring in track limits, a very common circumstance in Motorland and that could have ended up costing us the result”.
But the Spaniard remained calm and brought the car home in a remarkable fifth place, just 9 tenths behind P4: “I am very happy with the result, because the road to achieving it has not been exactly easy."
"Of course I would have loved to have been on the podium, a realistic result if I had felt a bit better", she continued. "I am happy with the pace shown and the feelings of the entire weekend. We have managed to be at the top, and the most positive thing is that we have room for improvement. We come from many races in which things have not gone our way, and this time we have finally shown where we can be”.
While Belén García will now focus again on her university exams, she will be back in the hunt for her first podium in endurance racing at Spa Francorchamps, penultimate round of the 2023 Michelin Le Mans Cup season, on September 23.