RISING AMERICAN SPORTSCAR STAR SPEEDS TO FOURTH PODIUM OF FIA WEC ‘SUPER SEASON’

RISING AMERICAN SPORTSCAR STAR SPEEDS TO FOURTH PODIUM OF FIA WEC ‘SUPER SEASON’

Gustavo Menezes tamed the elements for a superb second-place finish with Rebellion Racing at Spa-Francorchamps last weekend, as the penultimate round of the fiercely-disputed 2018/19 FIA World Endurance Championship quite literally played host to four seasons in one day.

Nestled deep in the Ardennes forest and renowned as arguably the world’s greatest drivers’ circuit, Belgian Grand Prix venue Spa is one of the oldest racetracks in existence, dating all the way back to 1922 – and it always generates drama. Regarded as the traditional dress rehearsal for next month’s legendary Le Mans 24 Hours – the pinnacle of the FIA WEC campaign and inaugural ‘Super Season’ finale – the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps is invariably one of the most challenging races on the calendar. And last weekend, the weather threw an extra curve ball into the mix.

Menezes is no stranger to success at Spa, having sped to pole position in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship in 2014 – outperforming then team-mate and current Formula 1 superstar Max Verstappen along the way – and victory in FIA WEC’s LMP2 class in 2016. The talented young American similarly reached the rostrum there on his debut in the headlining LMP1 category this time last year, and he was immediately on the pace on his return 12 months on.

The fastest of the Rebellion sextet by almost a full second in opening free practice behind the wheel of the No.3 car, Menezes replicated that form in a rain-affected qualifying session, as he and Thomas Laurent joined forces to put the leading Rebellion-Gibson R-13 prototype fourth on the grid in the high-calibre field.

In front of a sizeable trackside crowd the following day, Laurent held his ground against ex-F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne at the start to hang onto fourth place, but the advent of snow precipitated a swift switch to wet-weather tyres. That early decision proved to be a judicious one and elevated the Rebellion into third, behind only the all-conquering Toyotas and comfortably clear of the next-best non-hybrid entrant.

The first of four safety car interruptions – prompted by deteriorating visibility – closed the pack up again at around the half-hour mark, before the sun made a welcome re-appearance. When Menezes took over behind the wheel, he found himself down in fifth position, but the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native wasted little time in overhauling former FIA WEC World Champion and outright Le Mans winner Neel Jani in the sister car and chasing down SMP Racing’s Vandoorne for the final podium spot. On-track at the same time as Fernando Alonso in the race-winning Toyota, Menezes even outpaced the two-time F1 World Champion on occasion, and the tussle for third became a scrap for second when the other Toyota peeled into the pits at half-distance with hybrid sensor issues.

The 2016 FIA WEC LMP2 Champion, Le Mans class-winner and ‘Revelation of the Year’ then handed over to Nathanaël Berthon, with the Frenchman and compatriot Laurent continuing the good work as they artfully managed further safety car interventions for heavy rain and hail. Indeed, the latter caught, passed and pulled as much as 20 seconds away from the SMP Racing entry before the fourth and final neutralisation wiped out that hard-earned advantage. There were only 15 minutes left on the clock when the race re-started, with the Rebellion’s margin in the duel for the runner-up spoils reduced to less than a second, but Laurent had extended that gap to just over 6.5 seconds when the action was eventually red-flagged with 11 minutes to go as the weather closed in once again.

Coming home two laps ahead of the sister R-13 at the end of an impressively error-free run, the trio’s fourth podium finish from seven starts this season consolidated Menezes’ third position in the World Championship standings in endurance racing’s premier global series, with only the jewel in the crown now remaining – the 87th edition of the world’s most famous round-the-clock race on 15/16 June…

 

Well that was all a bit crazy!” reflected the 24-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “Even by Spa standards, it was pretty insane. We had sun, rain, hail and snow – sometimes all at once! That certainly kept everybody on their toes…

We began the weekend on the back foot a little, and it took us until the third practice session to get the Rebellion fully dialled in but in qualifying, the R-13 was perfect – right where we needed it to be. Thomas [Laurent] then made a good start in the race and braved it out through Eau Rouge for the first time, and at one point we even split the Toyotas early on after one of them had a slow pit-stop.”

Thankfully, I wasn’t out there in the worst of the weather; I got in as the track was transitioning from wet tyres to intermediates and eventually slicks, and we timed the switch just right. The No.3 car felt incredible – really well-balanced – and while the SMP was clearly very quick, I knew we had a chance to beat them and kept chipping away.”

I was 40 seconds behind at the beginning of my stint, but by putting in consistent laps and making up time through the traffic, I had more than halved that gap by the time I handed over to Nat [Berthon], who like Thomas did a great job in pretty brutal conditions – they both said they could barely see a thing at times. There were cars spinning off left, right and centre but we kept our cool and made no mistakes to bring it home in second place.”

I won’t lie, I wasn’t sorry to see the red flag towards the end – it was definitely the right call. It was a relief to welcome the car back in one piece, and after what was unquestionably one of the toughest races of my career, the podium champagne never tasted so good!

There’s just one more to go now this season – the big one – and whilst we still have some work to do on the technical side to refine the R-13 and extract a bit more speed between here and Le Mans, motivation is sky-high and we are determined to sign off the season in style!

HAWKSWORTH HITS MARKS IN FINAL MINUTES TO GIVE AIM VASSER SULLIVAN FIRST IMSA WITH LEXUS

HAWKSWORTH HITS MARKS IN FINAL MINUTES TO GIVE AIM VASSER SULLIVAN FIRST IMSA WITH LEXUS

Jack Hawksworth proved to be calm under intense pressure on Sunday afternoon at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to send AIM VASSER SULLIVAN to victory lane for the first time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Driving the No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3 in the GT Daytona (GTD) class, Hawksworth kept a hard-charging Mario Farnbacher in his rearview mirror after stealing the lead from him on a restart with 30 minutes remaining in the two-hour, 40-minute Acura Sports Car Challenge.

Farnbacher didn’t relent, though, keeping Hawksworth within striking distance of his No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 machine. On the final lap, Farnbacher was able to pull along the driver side of the Lexus, yet couldn’t complete the pass on the outside line.

The victory is Lexus’ third in IMSA GTD competition, with the first coincidentally coming one year ago at Mid-Ohio. The No. 14 was expected to be a fierce competitor on Sunday, with Hawksworth’s co-driver Richard Heistand placing the car on the pole during qualifying on Saturday.

My first race in the WeatherTech Championship I won (2014 Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Prototype Challenge class), and then I went on the biggest dry spell of all-time, so it’s nice to be back in a win,” said Hawksworth. I was a part of the team last year when they won here and I’ve had some great times in the Lexus RC F over the last three years. It’s a pleasure to work alongside Lexus and drive with these great teams. I’ve had a lot of poles and fastest laps and I’ve had a lot of fastest cars, but it just never happened. But this race, it just all came together.”

 

Hawksworth described his battle with Farnbacher as a cat-and-mouse game, seeing the Lexus and Acura having strengths at different sectors of the track. Heistand was quick to give credit to his co-driver following the race for holding off the Acura.

Jack did an unbelievable job,” said Heistand, who earned his first IMSA victory. That pass on the restart, it was just incredible. His pace at the end, people don’t realize this Lexus at the end of the stint is hard compared to the other cars with the tires. What he does at the end of the stint is remarkable. Just look at the pace of the other cars at the end of the race there. What he did was incredible. I’m thrilled.”

It was a bittersweet runner-up finish for Farnbacher and co-driver Trent Hindman, who led a class-high 85 laps after starting from the ninth position. Hindman and Farnbacher, however, now hold a seven-point lead over the other AIM VASSER SULLIVAN entry, the No. 12 of Townsend Bell and Frank Montecalvo.

The No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R of Scott Hargrove and Zach Robichon was poised for its first podium finish of the season until bad luck struck the team again. With under seven minutes remaining, and running third at the time, Hargrove’s Porsche slid off the track into the gravel and was unable to continue. The team ultimately finished 12th. Capitalizing on the Porsche’s bad luck was the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 of Bryan Sellers and Ryan Hardwick. It is the team’s first top-10 finish of the season. A television re-air of the Acura Sports Car Challenge will be shown on NBCSN on Wednesday, May 8 at 3 p.m. ET.

The next round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship takes place at the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle Park. The 100-minute Chevrolet Sports Car Classic is set for Saturday, June 1 at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN with live coverage also available via IMSA Radio on IMSA.com, RadioLeMans.com and SiriusXM Radio. Tickets are available now on DetroitGP.com.