Michelin Le Mans Cup : Belen Garcia overcomes the hazards in Portimao’s dreadful conditions

The Michelin Le Mans Cup season finale ran in torrential showers and saw Belén García confirm all the extent of her talent despite a pitstop miscue by her team. The Spanish driver and teammate Mark Richards brilliantly defied the challenges of Portimão and they were in contention for a podium finish before settling for fifth place versus some of the category’s leading contenders at the end of a race cut short by the daunting conditions. The only crew in the field to score three consecutive top-five finishes, the 360 Racing Team duo demonstrated their progress by finishing virtually second in the second half of the season.

Determined to end her first full European endurance season on a high, Belén García returned to the track where she debuted in Michelin Le Mans Cup. Returning to Portimão a year after her first runs in a prototype, the Spaniard was keen to build on the momentum generated by her two post-summer break top-five finishes.

Though the competitors were welcomed by mixed weather conditions on the technical and undulating Algarve track, the Catalan took advantage of Wednesday’s first tests to find her bearings back. Immediately among the ten fastest drivers in LMP3, Bélen confirmed her solid form by gradually picking up the pace. Meanwhile, her teammate continued to learn the track before the pair fine-tuned their set-up by carefully studying the data gathered. The Briton tackled qualifying following the final practice session as the rain returned and Mark Richards was up to the task, mixing it up with the leaders. After shrugging off a spin, he lowered his best time several times to qualify seventh in the 15-minute session.

« The weekend got off to a positive start », sums up Belén. « The car felt good, especially in the wet. But most of all, we were quick in every condition. We did not want to get carried away, as anything can happen when you have such changing conditions, but it was a strong start, and Mark was pretty fast for his first time on this track, as he proved it in qualifying. »

On Sunday morning, the race started behind the safety car on a sodden track. Although some competitors were caught out during the five observation laps before the pack was released, Mark Richards was serious and diligent. The Briton gained a place at the first corner before taking the measure of the conditions. Setting the fastest lap of the race during his stint, he also took advantage of his rivals’ errors to climb into the top three.

« Mark truly did an amazing job on his stint », congratulates Belén. « Despite his limited experience on this track and the lack of visibility in the field, he gained four positions and was regularly among the fastest drivers, setting the fastest lap. Credit to Mark for putting us in such a strong position despite the tricky conditions. »

The #25 Ligier JS P320 was one of the first cars to make its mandatory pit-stop, but the team committed a slight miscalculation by changing tyres, even though this was optional for safety reasons. Belén García went out trying to bring the cold tyres up to temperature as quickly as possible in the increasingly heavy rain. Having to avoid the risk of aquaplaning, the Spaniard was surprised by the #7 of Nielsen Racing before getting into a duel with the title-contending #2 CD Sport crew.

While the RACC Mobility Club protégée pressured the title challengers after a full course yellow, Belén García couldn’t find a way through and suffered the consequences of her attack by losing out to the 360 Racing Team’s sister car driven by Tommy Foster. Meanwhile, mistakes were multiplying in the field, and another safety car period was required to evacuate competitors trapped by the increasingly heavy downpours. Ultimately, the race officials decided to stop the race with 22 minutes to go in the face of the disastrous conditions.

« To be completely honest, I am so underwhelmed with this result », sums up Belén, as demanding as ever. « The conditions were really tricky with so much rain and standing water. It was getting worse lap after lap, and I felt we didn’t have enough pace on the second stint to hold on to the strong position Mark put us in. Unfortunately, it came down to our mistake during the pit stop. The team did the mandatory tyre change as the regulations stipulate, but the decision to allow us to keep our tyres was actually made before the race, earlier in the morning. It cost us dearly as we lost our momentum being the only ones to put new tyres on at a crucial time when we needed these hot, high-pressure tyres to stay in contention for the podium or even better. We lost a lot of time to get the new, cold rubber into a decent performance window at the beginning of my stint. That’s why I am somewhat disappointed. Even though I was among the top Silver drivers, I always want to be up there, battling with the best drivers. I’m always striving for silverware and will never settle for a top ten, so it wasn’t enough on our side even though eventually I guess I will be pleased with this third consecutive points finish. All in all, it has been a promising season and I would like to thank every single person who helped me to develop as an Endurance driver within the team in 2023. »

Belén García and Mark Richards finished fifth and clocked their first fastest race lap in the Michelin Le Mans Cup. The only duo to score three consecutive top-five finishes in the massive LMP3 field, they ended their campaign in tenth place. Proof of their progress, however, was that they finished second in the points table in the latter half of the season, ahead of the freshly-crowned champions.

From tomorrow, Belén García will add a new feather to her cap and to her technical baggage by getting behind the wheel of a new prototype. After a season in the Ligier JS P320, the Spaniard will discover the Duqueine M30 – D08 with the Luxembourg-based DKR Engineering team during the Michelin Le Mans Cup rookie tests in Portimão. After what promises to be a productive day, the L’Ametlla del Vallès native will turn her attention to her future endurance challenges.

Race : 1. Nielsen Racing #7, 36 laps ; 2. CD Sport #2, +1.767s ; 3. CD Sport #2, +2.062s ; 4. 360 Racing #26, +8.670s ; 5. 360 Racing #25, +14.379s…

Standings : 1. Team Virage #16, 73 points ; 2. CD Sport #2, 69 points ; 3. Team Thor #77, 59 points ; 4. Nielsen Racing #4, 45 points… 10. 360 Racing #25 30 points…