Gustavo Menezes put on a spectacular show for the appreciative home crowd in last weekend’s 1,000 Miles of Sebring – round six of the fiercely-disputed 2018/19 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) – but mechanical woes ultimately denied the talented young American a popular podium result.
Following a four-month winter break, the inaugural WEC ‘Super Season’ revved back into life in Florida at the celebrated birthplace of US endurance racing, Sebring International Raceway – one of the nation’s most iconic and historic continuously-operating racetracks.
Its challenging and notoriously bumpy nature makes Sebring – originally a World War Two airfield – arguably the most gruelling circuit on the calendar, and Menezes headed there with a new team-mate in the No.3 Rebellion Racing entry, as Nathanaël Berthon joined the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native and fellow Frenchman Thomas Laurent behind the wheel of the powerful Rebellion-Gibson R-13 prototype.
The crew completed a positive pre-event test around the 3.74-mile, 17-turn track, twice lapping inside the top three – and fastest non-hybrid competitor – with 24-year-old Menezes proving to be the quickest of the six Rebellion drivers overall to the tune of more than a third-of-a-second.
Following a similarly productive run through free practice, the 2016 FIA WEC LMP2 Champion, Le Mans class-winner and ‘Revelation of the Year’ teamed up with Laurent to put the No.3 car third on the starting grid in the high-calibre, headlining LMP1 class – behind only the dominant hybrid Toyotas.
Together with Berthon, the trio confidently maintained that position for the majority of the eight-hour race that ran from day into night, only for a recurring mechanical issue to intervene towards the end, costing Menezes and his stablemates a certain rostrum finish.
Relegated to seventh overall and fourth amongst the LMP1 brigade, the result nonetheless consolidated the Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé’s third position in the World Championship standings with just two rounds of the campaign remaining – the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps and the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours.
“It’s always fun to compete on home soil, and even more special when you only get to do it once a year, but it’s no exaggeration to say that was one of the most physical races of my life!” reflected Menezes, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award and one of just two American drivers in the field. “Sebring is famously tough with all the bumps – which are every bit as hard on the driver as they are on the car – but the conditions made it doubly so this time.
“It was intensely hot out there – in excess of 40 degrees inside the cockpit – and I did six stints during the race, which was a lot of driving. We saw the fastest laps ever recorded in the LMP1 class around Sebring, and when you’re pulling the kind of G-forces that we do in these cars, it’s pretty exhausting.
“We had good pace and after all of our immediate competitors ran into trouble early on, we looked comfortable in third behind the Toyotas, which, let’s be honest, were again in a league of their own – they’re not on the same planet as the rest of us.
“Thomas drove extremely well and Nathanaël quickly got the hang of the car. He’s a great guy; we spent a couple of weeks together in Miami leading up to the race weekend, and the three of us have bonded really well. LMP1 cars are very different to the LMP2 cars he has been used to driving, but he did everything the team asked of him and kept it safely on the black stuff throughout.
“The Rebellion Racing boys did a great job too, but in the latter stages, we began to experience intermittent shortages of power, which eventually took us out of contention. We had a decent margin behind so were able to make a couple of pit-stops to check the car over and we thought we had fixed it, but then it returned with a vengeance in the final hour.
“The heavens opened after nightfall which injected a bit of drama, but just as the race came alive, it’s fair to say our challenge was extinguished and it was a real bummer to lose the podium so close to the end. That said, both ORECA and Rebellion are working super hard to rectify the issues and maximise the car’s potential for the final two races, with only Spa left now as a ‘warm-up’ for the big one – Le Mans – and I have complete faith that they will do just that.”