Gustavo Menezes made history at Silverstone last weekend (17-19 August), becoming the first American driver ever to win a race outright in the fiercely-disputed FIA World Endurance Championship courtesy of a scene-stealing back-to-front charge through the field.
Competing for Rebellion Racing, Menezes – the 2016 FIA WEC Champion and Le Mans winner at LMP2 level – is swiftly establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with this season in the headlining LMP1 class of sportscar racing’s premier global series. Following consecutive third-place finishes at Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans, the talented young Californian travelled to the celebrated ‘Home of British Motor Racing’ – a circuit at which he has always excelled – fired-up to maintain his rostrum run.
Menezes duly set the fastest lap time of the six Rebellion drivers in free practice – his team-mates notably including overall Le Mans winners and World Champions Neel Jani and André Lotterer – and in FP1, he even outpaced three of the factory Toyota drivers for good measure, Formula 1 hero Fernando Alonso amongst them.
The highly-rated Santa Monica native subsequently partnered Mathias Beche in qualifying to put the No.3 Rebellion-Gibson R-13 prototype fifth on the starting grid for the six-hour showdown, as he once more circulated quicker than any of his stablemates – this time, to the tune of nearly eight tenths-of-a-second.
Mere moments into the race, however, Beche found himself turned around by Stéphane Sarrazin in one of the SMP Racing cars – for which the Frenchman received a drive-through penalty – sending the Rebellion plummeting down the order to the very foot of the field.
In front of an enthusiastic crowd of more than 60,000 spectators, the Swiss ace immediately initiated what would turn into a spectacular recovery drive, and when he handed over to Menezes at the end of an action-packed opening hour, the crew were up to fifth. His 23-year-old team-mate continued to chase down the sister Rebellion in third and the SMP in fourth, consistently closing the gap as he produced a series of scintillating lap times rapid enough to rival those of the race-leading Toyotas.
All of that good work looked to be for nought, though, when an ill-timed safety car intervention shortly before mid-distance dropped the No.3 entry almost a full lap behind its two adversaries, and it required a herculean effort from Beche, Thomas Laurent and Menezes to haul the car back into podium contention.
After Laurent shook off the SMP threat, 2016 FIA WEC ‘Revelation of the Year’ Menezes returned to the cockpit for the final hour, and he had more than halved a 1m12s deficit to Jani when the latter was forced into the pits with 15 minutes remaining to fix a defective rear light, prompting a switch in positions.
The Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé went on to take the chequered flag third, but when both Toyotas were later disqualified following technical checks, Rebellion became the first privateer team to win an FIA WEC race outright since 2012 – vaulting its No.3 driving trio to within two points of the World Championship lead.
In evidence of the key role he played in the result, Menezes completed four of the nine stints himself and posted a best lap time almost half-a-second out-of-reach of anybody else – making him the fastest Rebellion driver weekend-long in another supremely impressive performance.
“I’m absolutely ecstatic,” enthused the former Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award winner. “I haven’t felt this happy for so long. It’s my first win since COTA last year, and it feels very special. Having spent a while living in the UK during the earlier stages of my career, Silverstone is something of a ‘home’ track for me and it’s a great feeling to take my first LMP1 victory there.
“Obviously it wasn’t the ideal way to do it, but ultimately, winning a race is winning a race, no matter how it comes and we will grab this result with both hands. All the boys at Rebellion have worked so hard to get the whole LMP1 project off the ground and to develop the car to the stage where it is now, and they really deserve this one-two finish. I’m immensely proud of everybody involved in the programme.
“The race certainly wasn’t without its dramas and setbacks for us, from the contact at the start to the safety car appearance midway through that threatened to derail our podium challenge altogether. That was hugely frustrating. I was in the car at the time and making inroads into the battle for third, when the leading Toyota went by to lap us literally seconds before a Full Course Yellow was thrown, which left us virtually an entire lap behind the two cars ahead. After that, I had no choice but to get my head down and push like hell, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment.
“The pace was really good in my first two stints, and the team asked if I would be fit to get back into the car for the race’s final hour. It’s always an honour to be offered the opportunity to bring it home, so I said, ‘let’s give it a shot’. In the meantime, Thomas had cleared the SMP and slashed the gap to third place from more than 1m40s to 1m12s, which remained a tremendously tall order but I knew I just had to dig as deep as I could and see what was possible. The R-13 felt incredible, which allowed me to quickly settle into a really strong rhythm and I’d got the difference down to only 26 seconds when Neel hit trouble.
“The Equivalence of Technology regulations still evidently aren’t where they need to be, but all we can do is keep performing to the best of our ability and hope the FIA and ACO address the situation. As a team, there’s no question that we’re more competitive than we’ve ever been, with all three drivers working together extremely well. Ultimately, we know we gave it absolutely everything at Silverstone, and to have fought through the field from the back of the pack to win the race is nothing short of mind-blowing…”