Gustavo Menezes has described his third-place finish in last weekend’s Le Mans 24 Hours as ‘like a victory’, after the talented young American led the Rebellion Racing charge in a captivating race full of unexpected twists-and-turns.
Although the 86th edition of France’s legendary round-the-clock classic marked only Menezes’ third start at La Sarthe, the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native already boasted an impressive record in the event, having sensationally triumphed on his debut there in the LMP2 category in 2016.
Now competing in the headlining LMP1 class, Menezes and team-mates Thomas Laurent and Mathias Beche initially qualified the No.3 Rebellion-Gibson R-13 prototype third in the fiercely-contested, 60-strong field – best of the non-hybrid entrants – but they were relegated to fifth due to a pit-lane infringement.
Immediately rising to fourth when the race got underway, Laurent engaged in an entertaining early battle with SMP Racing’s Stéphane Sarrazin, exchanging places on several occasions and finding a way past for good while navigating a backmarker at the Tertre Rouge Esses an hour-and-a-half in.
Swiftly stretching his legs, the Frenchman pulled out almost half-a-minute over his countryman before relinquishing the reins to Beche. When the Swiss driver returned to the pits for a routine tyre and fuel stop an hour later, however, an ill-timed safety car intervention to deal with debris meant he was held at pit-lane exit, costing the No.3 crew two minutes and dropping them to fifth.
Menezes first took to the cockpit as the sun began to set, and the 23-year-old was regularly the fastest non-hybrid driver on the track as he chased down the SMP entry ahead. That relentless pressure ultimately told as the Russian car went off shortly before 11pm local time, reinstating the Rebellion in third.
The 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship LMP2 class title-winner and ‘Revelation of the Year’ returned to the fray during the night, but just past half-distance, a small mistake damaged the rear floor of the R-13 and obliged an unscheduled pit visit for urgent repairs. Eight-and-a-half minutes later, Menezes rejoined the race, albeit down in fourth again, behind the sister car.
What ensued was a see-saw internecine scrap for supremacy between the two Rebellions for the honour of finishing as best non-hybrid after the all-conquering Toyotas, with an issue for one invariably being offset by a problem for the other, from sensor failure to pit-stop delays and disobedient doors that refused to stay shut.
The last four hours saw Menezes complete a marathon six stints behind the wheel of the 655bhp sportscar, overcoming a malfunctioning gearbox to impressively outpace former World Championship and Le Mans-winning team-mate Neel Jani in the No.1 Rebellion and safely bring the No.3 car home as leading privateer.
Not only that, but the Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé ended up on average the quickest non-hybrid driver by more than six tenths-of-a-second per lap. He also lapped barely a second-and-a-half adrift of two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso’s best effort in the significantly faster Toyota around the demanding 13.626km circuit – firmly underscoring his burgeoning sportscar racing credentials in what is widely renowned as the toughest race in the world.
“We really couldn’t have done very much more than that,” Menezes reflected. “We effectively finished first-in-class. There’s just no way we can compete with Toyota given the way the regulations are, but we fought with everything we had to reach the podium and as a comparatively small independent team up against a major factory effort, third place was honestly like a victory for us – particularly after all the drama and stress we went through along the way.
“When I climbed in for my first stint as evening was falling, we were a minute behind the SMP following our earlier delay during the safety car period – and by the time I returned to the pits again to hand over to Thomas, we were literally running nose-to-tail, so I was really pleased with that.
“The next time I took to the track was around 3am, with the No.1 Rebellion right on our case. I made a little error at the first chicane and clipped the kerb, which caused the rear plank to collapse and the loss of all rear downforce. There were sparks dragging on the ground and the back end of the car was just dancing all the way along the Mulsanne Straight at around 200mph, which was pretty terrifying. I had to hang on for dear life and drag it back to the pits, where the team did an amazing job to change the floor in only seven minutes.
“That put us two laps behind our team-mates, but we never stopped believing. There was a stage when we seemed to alternate issues with the sister car, or one or other of us would get caught out by the timing of the safety car – the momentum kept swinging this way and that – but we doggedly persevered and it goes to prove you should never give up.
“When I began my final stint with just under four hours left on the clock, we were around a minute behind the No.1 Rebellion. On the one hand, I had the team telling me not to take any risks as the main priority was to preserve the three-four finish, but as a driver, I wanted to get on the podium and I felt as a crew, we deserved that so I carried on pushing. Then, two laps later, Neel [Jani] had to pit due to his door coming open, which allowed us back into third and I could ease off a little.
“Towards the end, we encountered some upshifting difficulties and I had to stop using second gear, which you need a lot at Le Mans! Despite that, my lap times held up and the R-13 still felt very good. I could literally have driven it all day and I said to my engineer, ‘I’d really like it if I could bring this home – I’m in the zone and I know I can do it’. The team agreed, and it was a real privilege to be allowed to take the chequered flag in such a prestigious race.
“Then on the cooling-down lap afterwards, the gearbox broke completely. I don’t think it had more than another lap or two in it – we really did make it home by the skin of our teeth. What a story!”
Indeed it was, and whilst Menezes had ascended the podium at Le Mans before – for his LMP2 success two years ago – this was metaphorically-speaking a much bigger stage, and with two rostrum appearances now from three starts in such a famously gruelling race, he is fast developing an enviable reputation. The result also saw him become the first American to stand on the overall podium at La Sarthe since 2001 – quite the achievement.
“Sharing that with my two team-mates was beyond doubt one of the most special moments of my career to-date,” acknowledged the erstwhile Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award winner. “Thomas and Mathias both did an incredible job, and I couldn’t have felt prouder being up there with them looking out at our mechanics who had worked their absolute backsides off all week and the sea of fans down below. It was also the perfect way to kick-start the partnership with my new sponsor, crypto-currency Modex. The whole experience gave me goosebumps – just magical.”