Williams Harfield Sports Group

WHSG protégé heads into winter break third in FIA World Championship

Not for the first time this year, Gustavo Menezes outpaced all five of his illustrious Rebellion Racing team-mates in the FIA World Endurance Championship in Shanghai last weekend (16-18 November), describing his eye-catching Chinese performance as ‘a good way’ to head into the mid-season winter break in sportscar racing’s premier global series.

The second leg of the WEC’s 2018 visit to the Far East, the 6 Hours of Shanghai proved to be a challenging event for all concerned, and while the statistics will state that the No.3 Rebellion-Gibson R-13 prototype both started and finished fifth, that tells far from the full story of a tumultuous contest.

Heavy rain saw the early stages of the race around the technically demanding, 3.387-mile Shanghai International Circuit punctuated by a brace of red flag stoppages and multiple safety car interventions. It was during one of these interruptions that Menezes’ team-mate Thomas Laurent came unstuck on the treacherous track surface, with cooler tyres at the reduced safety car running speeds sending him spearing into the barriers – much as had happened to the American himself five weeks previously at Fuji Speedway in Japan.

The Rebellion Racing mechanics performed minor miracles to rebuild the rear of the car in less than five minutes, after which Menezes, Laurent and Mathias Beche rejoined the fray two laps down – and the fightback began. Immediately proving his prowess in the inclement conditions, the talented young Santa Monica, California native did the lion’s share of the driving and played a key role in dragging the car back up to fifth at the chequered flag in the fiercely-disputed, high-calibre headlining LMP1 class.

The quickest Rebellion driver in the race by nearly a third-of-a-second – outpacing all of his team-mates, including former World Champions and outright Le Mans 24 Hours winners Neel Jani and André Lotterer – 24-year-old Menezes even lapped faster than the dominant Toyota hybrids on occasion in a truly impressive display.

The result saw the 2016 LMP2 World Champion, Le Mans class-winner and ‘Revelation of the Year’ consolidate third position in the overall standings in the inaugural WEC ‘Super Season’, just 29 points shy of the top of the table with 98 remaining up for grabs over the remaining three races – the first of which will take place on ‘home’ turf at Sebring in Florida in mid-March.

“On the whole, it was a positive weekend,” reflected Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé and erstwhile Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award winner Menezes. “If finishing inside the top five and only conceding two points to our closest rivals in the championship constitutes a bad day, then we’ll definitely take that.

“The incident for Thomas was just really unfortunate; it’s so easy to make a mistake when the weather is like that – as I had discovered in the previous race. These cars have a lot of power to handle in those conditions, and I completely understand how it happened. It’s extremely difficult to keep the tyres at the right temperature when you’re circulating at lower speeds behind the safety car, and people were going off left, right and centre.

“That put us out of contention for a strong result, but the team did an incredible job to rebuild the rear suspension in under five minutes – it was a huge effort from all the Rebellion guys – and I had almost fully green running when I was behind the wheel.

“I have to say, the R-13 felt mega throughout – I had a lot of fun and was able to post a few ‘purple’ sector times, which was really satisfying. We were the fastest non-hybrid car on the track for most of the race. I felt very low after my mistake at Fuji, but from a personal perspective, I left Shanghai with my head held high – it was really important to bounce back quickly and that’s exactly what I did.

“Every weekend, we’re getting closer to the hybrid cars; on single-lap pace, I honestly don’t think we’re very far off now – we were barely a second adrift of pole position in Shanghai. There’s still evidently some more to do in the races – particularly in traffic – but the FIA and ACO are working in the right direction with the Equivalence of Technology regulations and from our side, we’re pushing hard to extract the absolute maximum out of our own package and refining and improving the R-13 all the time.

“It was a good way to sign off the first half of the season and head into the winter – I’m certainly ready for a break to recharge the batteries a little! With my dual commitments in WEC and the European Le Mans Series, I think I’ve spent just 15 days at home over the past three months, so it will be good to go back.

“That said, I’m already beginning to get excited for Sebring. I’ve contested the 12-hour race there before, and it’s always rewarding to compete on home soil. It’s a proper American track – bumpy, gritty, old-school and surrounded by walls that you really don’t want to hit. It will be awesome to take it on in an LMP1 car – the perfect way to kick-start the second half of the season…”