Shortened yet positive debut for Belén García in endurance racing
A lack of track time and a shortened race made for a challenging endurance debut for Belén García, who had to learn the track and adapt to the LMP3 Ligier-Nissan in one of the most eventful Le Mans Cup rounds. In spite of the difficulties, the Catalan gained a few positions and set the team's fastest lap of the weekend.
The cancellation of the final two rounds of the all-female championship W Series did not end Belén García's racing plans for 2021, as the Catalan racer announced her sportscar debut for the final round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup in Portimao, Portugal, where she raced for the first time in LMP3 machinery.
The Michelin Le Mans Cup – ELMS' main feeder series – features 1 hour and 50 minute races with a multiclass format that includes the LMP3 and GT3 classes. García shared the wheel of the #37 Ligier JS P320 operated by French team CD Sport with Chinese driver Huilin Han, with the aim of collecting experience in sportscar racing and evaluating her opportunities for the future.
García, at her second season in W Series and only third in race cars, was fifth in the drivers' standings after a very solid season that also saw the Spaniard claiming her first podium.
The cancellation of the last two rounds at Circuit of the Americas and Mexico City was announced as W Series' efforts will now focus on securing the necessary funding for a return of the series.
“It's sad and hard, but we knew something like this could happen" – Belén García commented. "The organization has been transparent with us at all times, and their decision has prioritized finding a long-term solution, a future they are optimistic about."
"As a driver we spend our lives looking for financing to continue with our sports careers, so I understand them perfectly", she continued. "Instead of complaining, we should be grateful for what they have given us in recent seasons, and I encourage them to keep fighting."
Nevertheless, García was happy about her progression from her rookie season: “I have felt stronger and faster from the first moment, so I am very happy and satisfied", she added. "Although with some ups and downs, I think I've been close to adding another podium to the one achieved at Paul Ricard. But above all, I liked the improvement compared to the 2021 season”.
With now her short term racing plans to sort out again, García took the opportunity to explore the world of endurance racing which, she said, always fascinated her and that could offer great opportunities for a future in the sport.
"Endurance races have always caught my attention and, since the formula season has come to an abrupt end, I think it was the right time to gain experience with the future in mind" – she explained. "I am very excited for this challenge.”
In the week leading up to her debut at Portimao, García moved her first steps in the Nissan-powered Ligier JSP20 in a test day at Magny-Cours.
“The car is spectacular" – she commented afterwards. "Although with a lap time very similar to that of a Formula Regional, it is heavier and offers greater downforce, as well as having a much more powerful engine."
"I will need to adapt to it and also to some features that are totally new to me, such as the driver change.”
With a cautious approach, in fact, Belén García's goal for the first race weekend remained to log laps, learn as much as possible and gain experience.
The final round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup, though, proved to be a rather difficult one for all the 39 entries, following a massive accident in the opening minutes that halted the race for over one hour. The #11 WTM Racing LMP3 of Kratz/Weiss had scored overall pole position, followed by the #10 Racing Spirit of Leman (Matschull/Dillmann) and the #76 Reiter Engineering driven by Freddie Hunt and Mads Siljehaug. At her first ever race in the series, Belén García was scheduled to finish the race in the second stint, as Huilin Han – also a LMP3 rookie – took the start in the #37 CD Sport LMP3. As per the series' regulations, in fact, qualifying is contested by the bronze-rated drivers and Han set a 1:41.754 that put the Ligier-Nissan in P24 on the grid. Furthermore, a series of yellow and red flags had significantly limited Belén's driving time in practice, so the young Catalan was basically left with the task of learning the track and adapting to the car in her race stint. “The amount of traffic caused many yellow and red flags", Belén recalled. "With so little opportunity to run, I had to take advantage of every possible second on track to learn and progress in my adaptation to the car and the category." In what was quite a messy start, Torsten Kratz managed to keep the lead in the #11 Duqueine, with Hunt moving up to second; further down the order it was chaos at Turn 1, but Huilin Han could navigate through the field and advanced to P18, avoiding contacts. The safety car was soon deployed when the #6 ANS Motorsport Ligier of Brossard went off in the gravel, aided by the #9 AT Racing Ligier – who would later receive a drive through for incident responsibility. At the restart with 1:38m to go, Kratz hesitated and Hunt – who was already up to speed – was hard on the brakes in the attempt to not overtake the leader before the restart. This caused utter chaos behind and the innocent Jerome De Sadeleer (#29 MV2S Forestier Racing) nearly plowed into Hunt's car, before hitting head on the inside guard rail. With debris scattered all over the main straight, he was incredibly avoided by all the accelerating LMP3 cars, as the red flag was immediately waved. A conscious De Sadeleer was extricated by the remains of his Ligier and assessed at the circuit medical centre, before being airlifted to the local hospital with back pain. He was later checked and released. The race would restart behind the safety car after over an hour of stoppage for barrier repairs. The running time, though, was shortened to 32 minutes, due to the ELMS program. Most of the cars dived into pit lane at the green flag for the driver change: in the hectic stages of the pit stops, a few teams lost a lap to the leader.
Belén García got behind the wheel for the final 20 minutes of racing and rejoined in P19.
After the round of stops, Weiss held the lead in the #11 WTM Racing Duqueine, followed by Siljehaug (#76 Reiter Engineering Ligier), with Tom Dillmann in third and Malthe Jacobsen in fourth.
The action was non-stop through the field; the #8 Mercedes of Gunnar Jeannette was leading the GT3 class just after the driver change, but was hit and spun by the #99 Bullitt Racing Aston Martin – who then received a drive through. After misjudging a braking point, then, Jeannette would hit the #44 Honda of Birch, bringing out another FCY.
At the following restart, Mads Siljehaug and Tom Dillmann took over the overall lead from the WTM Racing of Weiss, who dropped down several positions. Colin Noble completed some great passes and moved into second from fourth in one corner.
Siljehaug eventually managed to open a gap on the final lap and took victory in one of the craziest races of the season, scoring half points for the shortened running time. Nielsen Racing (Wells/Noble) were second, with Racing Spirit of Leman third. Cool Racing and Team Thor rounded out the top five.
Despite the limited track time in her LMP3 debut, Belén García was 17th across the finish line, having recovered a few positions in the final two minutes of the race and having set the fastest lap of her weekend.
While her stint was shortened by the circumstances, García could still get her first taste of endurance racing in the competitive environment of ELMS.
“The idea was to compete for about 60 minutes, and I had to settle for 20, so I had very few laps, but they were a lot of fun" – García commented after her debut.
"After the green flag I started to pick up the pace, even overtaking two cars on the way. Then a neutralization brought out a Full Course Yellow that kept us for three laps at 80 km/h. At the start, two rivals managed to overtake me, although the following contact between the two allowed me to recover positions and bring home the 17th final place”.
Nevertheless, García had the chance to show a glimpse of her potential in the closing stages, as – in her only clean lap of the weekend – she set a 1:39.649 which was the fastest lap of the team throughout the event.
“I am very happy with the race, because on Sunday I was able to feel an improvement compared to all the other sessions" – Belén said. "A multitude of difficulties had prevented me from driving during the weekend, but I return from Portimao satisfied because the improvement is there. I look forward to driving a car like this again!”