Gustavo Menezes proved his pace and potential on a hugely impressive LMP1 class debut in the fiercely-disputed FIA World Endurance Championship last weekend (3-5 May), lapping fastest of the non-hybrid competitors around legendary Belgian circuit Spa-Francorchamps to secure a top three finish with Rebellion Racing.
The 2016 FIA WEC LMP2 class champion and Le Mans 24 Hours winner is a hot property on the sportscar racing scene, and he was snapped up over the winter by Anglo-Swiss outfit Rebellion for its return to LMP1 level – the uppermost echelon in endurance racing’s premier global series.
Notwithstanding very limited pre-season track time, Menezes and team-mates Thomas Laurent and Mathias Beche came out-of-the-blocks in fine form to place third in opening free practice at Spa behind the wheel of the No.3 car. The talented young American was then the quickest of the Rebellion sextet in FP2 and outpaced a certain Fernando Alonso in FP3, before teaming up with Laurent to tackle qualifying.
In a session punctuated by a brace of red flag stoppages – one for a hefty accident involving Menezes’ friend Pietro Fittipaldi – the pair lapped fourth-fastest, but were promoted to third on the grid when the No.7 Toyota had its times disallowed for failing administrative checks.
Laurent returned to the cockpit of the Rebellion R13 for the start of what would be an eventful 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps the following day, held in perfect weather and in front of some 63,000 avid fans. After initially holding position, the Frenchman briefly assumed the lead when the majority of the LMP1 protagonists pitted during a lengthy safety car period at the end of the first hour to allow for barrier repairs to be carried out at Eau Rouge.
Highly-rated Santa Monica, California native Menezes was next to take to the track, keeping close company with second-placed stablemate Bruno Senna and more than matching the ex-Formula 1 driver for pace throughout his double stint. Beche then took over inside the Gibson-powered ORECA prototype and despite finding himself obliged to concede to the recovering No.7 Toyota, he reclaimed third with two hours remaining when the sister Rebellion had to make an extended pit visit to fix transponder issues.
Laurent rejoined the fray for the final blast, working hard to shake off the attentions of the chasing SMP Racing entry – whose subsequent crash necessitated another safety car period going into the last hour and eradicated the No.3 crew’s healthy advantage over their team-mates. A close battle ensued to the chequered flag, and although the No.1 Rebellion crossed the finish line ahead, the car’s post-race exclusion for an over-worn skid block promoted Menezes and co. to third overall.
Not only that, but the 23-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé – a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award – posted the race’s fastest non-hybrid lap by more than two tenths-of-a-second, leaving him fired-up for the fight looking towards the next outing on the 2018/19 FIA WEC ‘Super Season’ calendar, the iconic Le Mans 24 Hours on 16/17 June.
“It was a great weekend all-round,” Menezes enthused. “Spa is a track I know well and love going to – one of the true classics and a hugely rewarding and demanding test of driver and car alike. It was such a rush to get everything ready for the season that we’d had very little prior running, and it’s always difficult to know what to expect with a new car but ORECA do a phenomenal job and nothing major cropped up to cause us any real concern.
“The first time I drove the R13 in free practice, we were a little bit off in terms of the balance but the Rebellion guys worked their socks off and with a few tweaks and adjustments and a fresher set of tyres for FP2, the car felt a lot better and my confidence quickly returned.
“Qualifying was a difficult session with the two red flags. We knew from practice that we would likely be battling our team-mates to be best-of-the-rest behind the two Toyotas, but after Pietro’s big accident, it wasn’t worth risking everything just to gain one spot on the grid – and ultimately, of course, we ended up third anyway with what happened to the No.7 car.
“In the race, Thomas did a great job early on, and I soon established a good feeling with the R13 on full tanks when I got behind the wheel. The pace was there immediately, and to set the fastest non-hybrid lap of anybody on my LMP1 debut and be on average one of the quickest drivers on the track was immensely encouraging. I was very pleased with my performance, and then Mathias continued that good work when he got into the car.
“It was a shame for our team-mates to lose third place for something so minor, but I’ll definitely take a top three finish first time out and I think we can be very proud of what we achieved. With two outright Le Mans winners and LMP1 world champions as well as the reigning LMP2 title-holder in the No.1 Rebellion, for Thomas, Mathias and myself to show we can run at the same speed and perform at a very similar level is really important and will be a big help when it comes to developing the car.
“Now, it’s full throttle ahead for Le Mans. For us, the entire Spa weekend was essentially preparation for what is beyond doubt the biggest race on the FIA WEC calendar, and you can be assured that we will be leaving no stone unturned and giving it everything we’ve got. We need to keep our heads down and work on closing the gap to the Toyotas so we can push them as hard as possible and give them a genuine fight. That will be the primary focus over the next few weeks.”