The rust is off: Belen Garcia makes F3 race debut in FRECA
Updated: Apr 19
Over one year after her last formula race, Belen Garcia shaked off the rust in the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine season opener in Imola and made steady progress in her F3 racing debut.
In its only two seasons, Formula Regional European Championship has witnessed the rise of impressive talent that has been making progress up the ranks of the most important feeder series: from Frederick Vesti in his inaugural dominant campaign, to the exciting battle between Arthur Leclerc and Gianluca Petecof in 2020.
Likewise, Formula Renault Eurocup has a long history of talent scouting and has crowned drivers of the likes of Oscar Piastri and Victor Martins in the last two years – effectively spent as a de-facto F3 regional series.
When it comes to female drivers, the two series – now merged in the brand-new Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine – have also hosted some of the most promising female talent, attracted by the appealing amount of FIA super licence points on offer: Sophia Floersch and Jamie Chadwick competed full-time in the ACI-promoted championship, while Vicky Piria scored points in the Renault series in a one-off appearance, with also young British talent Abbi Pulling making her F3 racing debut in the 2020 Imola round.
The new championship couldn't have resulted in anything less than a monumentally competitive series: the 32-car grid of the season opener represents arguably the most competitive F3 worldwide, with a mix of experienced drivers, elite rookies and F4 champions. And, again, a top female racer: 21-year old Belén García was a late addition to the series entry list when she announced her part-time campaign with G4 Racing, but finally returned to formula racing after over a year since her last F4 race in November 2019.
In her first season in formula cars, Belén had claimed the Female Trophy in the Spanish F4 championship in 2019, where she battled closely with compatriot Nerea Martí and Irina Sidorkova. All of them would later qualify for the second W Series season – an achievement that will bring Belén to race in eight F1 weekends in the all-female F3 series later this year.
Targeting more track time in the Tatuus F3 car after the forced hiatus in 2020, García had the opportunity to join the Spanish team alongside Axel Gnos in selected rounds of the new F.Regional, which kicked off its new era at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola in support of the Formula 1 Grand Prix.
“I have waited for this moment for a long time. I have worked very hard to get to the maximum this start of the season and I really want to start racing” – commented Belén before the race weekend.
“We will see where I am. We approach the races as a preparation, since the important thing is to draw good conclusions for the W Series and that we can polish the problems that arise before the start of the competition”, she added.
Having tested at both her home track Barcelona and at the French venue of Paul Ricard, Belen had to quickly adapt to the new car.
"The tyres were probably the hardest thing for me. In the W Series we still do not know whether or not we will go with Pirelli, but in any case, it's about more demanding tyres that will require a more exhaustive warm-up. In this sense, I think this learning experience will be very useful to me" – she concluded.
Among the crowded field, former F4 Spain racer Léna Bühler should have also made her F3 racing debut, but a testing accident 4 weeks prior to the first round of the season prevented the young lady from Switzerland to climb in her R-Ace GP Tatuus. While her hand fracture is indeed healing, she will have to wait until Barcelona to join the grid.
Belén García qualified in P30 in both the Saturday sessions, having finished P29 in the two practice sessions on Friday. As the Catalan driver extended her mileage, gaps steadily reduced. While an-accident filled and red-flag disrupted first qualifying session had left García disappointed, she bounced back with a good performance in Q2, where she was able to polish over 1 second.
The lights went off for the first time in Imola, kicking off the 2021 season and a new era for the series. Spaniard David Vidales had taken pole position from his Prema Powerteam teammate Paul Aron – as the Formula Renault Eurocup veterans seemed to have the upper hand in qualifying. Both Franco Colapinto and Thomas ten Brinke were unable to make the start: the Argentinian having opted for his ELMS commitments in Barcelona, while the latter was stopped by a positive Covid test.
Vidales immediately covered the outside line from Aron, but soon had to defend from the #21 Arden of Alex Quinn, who had a blistering start and moved up into second place at the first corner. Behind them, Dino Beganovic went off into Tamburello and dropped several places in the hectic action, but was able to rejoin the tarmac.
Towards the back, Fluxa almost stalled on the grid and forced several drivers at the tail-end of the pack to take evasive action.
After one lap, Vidales led Quinn, David, Aron and Saucy. It wasn't long until the first Safety Car intervention, though: Nicola Marinangeli, Brad Benavides and Zane Maloney came to a halt – all in separate incidents. Marinangeli spun and beached his Arden into the gravel trap of Turn 1 on the second lap, while Maloney – after a good qualifying – was out for technical issues. Benavides' DR Formula had to be recovered after the American driver had a big moment at Acque Minerali, spinning and hitting a kerb at speed that damaged his car.
At the restart, Belén García was in 27th position, but drivers barely had the time to plan their next moves that the Safety Car had to be deployed again following the crash of Australian Tommy Smith, who had spun into the barriers right after the Tosa corner.
Gabriele Mini – 2020 Italian F4 champion with Prema and now making his switch to ART Grand Prix – had just managed to gain a couple of positions after a slightly underwhelming qualifying.
The green flag was waved back with 12 minutes left on the clock and David Vidales had the perfect restart, promptly opening a small safe gap to Alex Quinn as the Brit made a mistake into Rivazza and had to defend from Hadrien David.
Beganovic (Prema Powerteam) was also on the move and passed Bortoleto (FA Racing) and Boya (Van Amersfoort Racing) for eighth after his troubled first lap.
More battles emerged around the top-10: 2020 Spanish F4 champion Kas Havekort (MP Motorsport) made a mistake into Tamburello on lap 13 as he was defending from Andrea Rosso (FA Racing): the 17-year old Dutch driver went hard into the barriers after receiving a little nudge from Patrik Pasma, triggering the third race neutralization of the day.
With time running out, the Mercedes AMG was back in the pits just for the drivers to cross the finish line, as Vidales claimed the first victory of the season ahead of Quinn and David.
Paul Aron was fourth and preceded Gregoire Saucy, William Alatalo and Isack Hadjar – who was the first classified rookie. Beganovic, Bortoleto and Boya rounded out the points, ultimately denying Mini of a top-10 in his home race.
Belén García had a good second part of the race, where she found pace and passed FA Racing's Alexandre Bardinon to finish P23 in her first F3 race of her career.
"The race was tricky, to say the least. It was like my first race in formulas all over again" – told us Belén after Race 1. "I didn't want to accept it, but I was a bit nervous so I messed up in the start and had to recover a bit."
"I didn't really have a very strong pace in the beginning, but after the second Safety Car I said 'what the hell, let's go for it!' and I started to remember things from my season in formulas - because it has been a long time." – she explained.
"In the end it was not that bad; I even managed to overtake and follow other cars, not losing time. Now I know where I have to push: tomorrow will be a new day and I am now starting from a different step. I am quite happy in the end, because I remembered things and I remember how races went, so I'm quite happy about that."
"I'm still not happy about where I am – I am looking for more, but I'm learning a lot and that's what is important I think".
The cars went back on the grid of one of the world's most famous racetracks on Sunday morning for the second – and final – race of the weekend. Unlike the 2020 season, in fact, FRECA will now feature double headers instead of triple headers.
Gregoire Saucy and Hadrien David shared the front row, with Paul Aron and Zane Maloney in third and fourth place respectively. Belén García was P30 and, after her positive second half of the first race, targeted to further move up the rankings.
When the lights went off, Saucy had a great start and led Aron and Maloney into the first corner, while David was slow off the line and was swallowed by the group of charging cars behind. The R-Ace GP driver found himself eighth in the early stages, but then managed to recover.
After a terrible start to his season on Saturday, Maloney was back to top form and tried to snatch second into Tamburello, but had to slot behind Prema Powerteam's Paul Aron. The 17-year old driver from Barbados was then wide at the Villeneuve chicane and came under pressure from race 1 winner Vidales – who was off at Tosa and lost many positions in the attempt to advance to third.
Quinn and Hadjar had an exciting battle for 5th at Rivazza on the first lap – the Brit hanging on to the top five.
Just like in the first race, the action was interrupted with a Safety Car when Monolite's Jasin Ferati spun out in the gravel at Villeneuve. At the neutralization, Belén García was P29, having passed Ferati before the Swiss driver's spin.
With 24 minutes left on the clock, Saucy again held on to first place at the restart, leading Aron and Maloney into Tamburello. But the action throughout the field was non-stop: Bortoleto cut across the gravel at the first corner and rejoined just ahead of a train of battling cars. Kas Havekort managed to make the move for P13 soon after, just like Seppanen and Goethe.
Beganovic went wheel to wheel with Quinn for fifth place: the two made contact at Piratella, requiring the second intervention of the Safety Car. The Swede had to pit for a new front wing, while it was game over for yesterday's second place finisher.
It was also bad news for both Saucy and Aron, who had opened a small gap from the rest of the field. Under the SC, Delli Guanti's Tatuus came to a halt before the Variante Alta.
The race resumed with 9 minutes of racing remaining and drivers surely didn't hold back: positions were unchanged in the top-three, but cars were all over the place all the way down the order. Belén García continued her progress and made it up to P22: the young Spaniard found herself battling in the mix from the beginning and passed several cars, always avoiding mistakes.
Rubens Barrichello's son Eduardo (JD Motorsport) – making his F3 debut – was also involved in more than one wheel-to-wheel battle, but ended up receiving a 25-second penalty for being out of position at the Safety Car restart.
In the final stages, Alexandre Bardinon made contact with Nico Gohler – the latter having to retire his KIC Motorsport car with front-right suspension damage.
García came under pressure from the recovering Beganovic, but also closed on Smith ahead.
With three minutes to go, Beganovic made the move stick, but Belén remained in the mix and could move up to P21 at one point, before finishing P23 on the final lap.
After 17 intense laps, Gregoire Saucy claimed his first victory in the series, ahead of Paul Aron and Zane Maloney. David was fourth and Alatalo fifth, while Gabriele Mini crossed the finish line in sixth – first among the rookies. Saturday's race winner David Vidales finished P7, as Boya, Goethe and Seppanen rounded out the top ten.
After Barrichello's penalty, Belén García was P22 – completing a very positive return to single seaters and F3 debut.
“Race 2 was very positive" – she said. "Since the beginning I was fighting within the pack and I managed to gain a few positions, overtaking multiple cars. I really enjoyed myself. Getting up the speed and being back racing after so much time was so special. Now I’m looking forward to Barcelona for more action”.
The next Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine race is in fact scheduled for 8-9 May, where the series will again support Formula 1 at the Spanish GP in Barcelona.
Belén García will return behind the wheel of the #72 G4 Racing car for her home round.