Belén García drove superbly in a choppy race to claim her second consecutive top-five finish in the Michelin Le Mans Cup at Spa-Francorchamps (Belgium). Despite a stint interrupted by three safety car periods and a full-course yellow, the Spanish driver maximised the potential of the #25 360 Racing Team Ligier JS P320. The native of L’Ametlla del Vallès put in one of the most impressive comeback drives and overtakes to gain 13 positions in just 22 minutes and finish fifth. Coupled with her strong pace, this result gives her a boost of confidence ahead of the season finale in Portimão (22 October).
Determined to accelerate the improvement underlined by her fifth place last month with Mark Richards at Motorland Aragón, Belén García left no stone unturned in her preparations before heading to Belgium. After her first experience at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in a single-seater tarnished by a huge shunt back in 2021, the Spanish driver prepared herself physically and mentally for the challenge.
On the legendary Belgian track leaving no room for mistake, there were numerous interruptions right from the outset on Wednesday. First from her crew on track, Belén García also encountered a steering problem, forcing the 360 Racing Team to make lightning-fast adjustments, but it wasn’t until the afternoon session that she was really able to find her bearings.
« Going into the weekend, I knew I had to be confident in myself and the car », says Belén. « I knew my preparation paid off from the first time I went flat through Eau Rouge and the Raidillon. Unfortunately, we had a small issue with the steering, so we had to stop so that the team could fix it. There was a full course yellow when I went back out. I only got to push on the in-lap, but Mark could do more, so it wasn’t a lost session! »
After a thorough analysis of all the data gathered on Thursday to fine-tune the set-up, the Catalan native got back in the car on a dry track on Friday. Once again, her track time was cut short by a lengthy stoppage before rain and further disruptions.
« On Friday, I had a good feeling when we ran with the slicks on a damp track », recalls Belén. « 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. »
At midday on Saturday, Mark Richards qualified the car, as required by the regulations. Immediately on the pace despite a red flag at the start of the session, the Briton was fourth fastest on his first flying lap. After another interruption, it was all to play for in a six-minute final sprint, in which Mark Richards improved twice on a track whose evolution finally meant he had to settle for a place just outside the top ten.
The race got underway a few hours later. Eleventh on the grid, Mark Richards found himself trapped on the inside of the first corner, but he avoided the incidents ahead of him to leap up to eighth place before the first safety car period. Eager to resume the battle after 25 minutes behind the safety car, the Briton was too aggressive before rectifying the situation.
« Mark did an excellent job avoiding all the guys on the opening lap, and he wanted to put in a strong restart », explains Belén. « 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. »
Although the restart was short-lived, Mark Richards made up two positions before another neutralisation lasting until the driver change window. With an hour to go, Belén García took to the track in 18th place in a still compact field where the LMP3s and GT3s were unusually mixed together.
Despite the challenges arising from this completely up-and-down field, the Spanish driver wasted no time to excel. As soon as the action resumed, Belén García picked up four places, with a series of spectacular overtakes at the entrance to Blanchimont, one of the most demanding corners in motorsport.
Belén García made one move after another with clinical efficiency before the safety car returned after just four minutes. The next restart was too brief, but it was enough to allow her to gain four more spots in six minutes and move into the top ten.
Ninth with 20 minutes to go, she did it again at her third restart to take eighth place before a full course yellow. In a race looking like a high-intensity interval training session, she didn’t rest on her laurels in the eight-minute final sprint as she overtook another of her rivals to cross the chequered flag in seventh place.
« It was quite a messy race. It was all about surviving the carnage, but it was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed racing here in all the different conditions », sums up Belén. « 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. I knew I was faster than the drivers around me when I went out. 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. »
Promoted to fifth place after the post-race penalties, Belén García and Mark Richards eventually finished less than seven seconds from second place. The Spaniard also set the ninth-fastest time in the race, further underscoring her thriving potential. The crew also continued its climb up the general classification, in which they are now equal ninth ahead of the next meeting at Portimão, where Belén García will be determined to end her season in style.
Race : 1. United Autosports #23 – 32 laps ; 2. CD Sport #2 +11.944s ; 3. MV2S Racing #28 +15.149s ; 4. Rinaldi Racing #66 +17.925s ; 5. 360 Racing #25 +18.412s…
Standings : 1. Team Virage #16 – 72 points ; 2. CD Sport #2 – 51 points ; 3. Team Thor #77 – 51 points ; 4. Nielsen Racing #4 – 45 points… 9. 360 Racing #25 20 points…