George King literally saved his best for last as he maintained his run of podium finishes in the 2022 Ligier European Series at the world-famous Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans.
Running on the support bill of the Le Mans 24 Hours, round three of the LES gave King his first opportunity to sample the full 8.4-mile French road course — an experience he later described as 'surreal' — but also allowed him to showcase the ability that is rapidly pushing him up the sportscar racing ladder.
Although the 21-year-old Essex native felt that he was off the pace while learning the circuit through free practice — where the Ligier JS P4 prototypes were already hitting top speeds of 170mph on the Mulsanne straight — he closed the gap to his rivals with every outing, eventually qualifying the #23 Monza Garage entry seventh fastest for the first of the weekend's two races after experimenting with the car's set-up.
"Practice was something of a whirlwind," King admitted. "It was raining at the scheduled start of FP1 so I went for wet tyres, but then the session was delayed and it was dry by the time we all went out! As a result, the second session was effectively my first running on slicks in the dry so there was a lot of time spent building confidence.
"We then took a gamble in qualifying to try and gain some of the time we were losing, but it didn’t pay off and my result wasn't what I was hoping for. Lesson learned, the team swapped the set-up for my team-mate, and he put the car second on the grid for race two."
The opening race got underway shortly after 11am on Friday, with King quickly moving up to third position before an early safety car period. However, with the field closed up and the competitiveness of the various teams ensuring much overtaking on the long Le Mans layout, the #23 shuffled back and forth throughout the 11-lap encounter, eventually taking the chequered flag in fifth place.
Race two, running on Saturday morning as the curtain-raiser for the world championship 24 Hours that followed, started well with King's co-driver, Ronnie Valori, briefly vaulting into the lead before again being pushed back by faster rivals. King took over with the car sitting fourth in the order, but had gained one position before a spin undid his early work. The Briton refused to give up on his podium dream, however, and embarked on a duel with the #44 Smart Driving entry that lasted not just to the final lap, but the final corner, of the round, with the Monza Garage driver crossing the line barely a tenth of a second in front.
"What a race!" a champagne-soaked King enthused after stepping down from the famed Le Mans podium. "Race one was frustrating after I made a mistake while struggling with a car that was still not set up to be as quick as the frontrunners, but race two more than made up for that.
"When I got in the car we were lying fourth after Ronnie's stint, but knew that we had a chance after he had qualified second fastest. Running with the more experienced and pro drivers, I managed to get into P3, but then made a silly mistake at the last corner which handed back the podium position with 10 minutes left in the race. I knew that I had to try and get the position back and spent the last few laps chasing the #44 down, closing an eight-second gap between us and catching him at the last corner at the beginning the final lap. What followed was an awesome battle, swapping places for the next four-and-a-half minutes before making a move stick at the final corner to get back onto the podium.
"It felt special to put my sponsors Goldcrest Oil, Blue Ocean Yacht Supply and BCG Investments into the top three and extend my podium streak to eight events, but somewhat surreal to have stood on the proper Le Mans 24 Hours podium and to have raced around such a legendary circuit. It definitely exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to be back there again."
Round four of the Ligier European Series takes place at the Autodromo Nazionale in Monza, Italy, over the weekend of 1-2 July.