Gustavo Menezes’ bid to make it three podium finishes from four starts in the Le Mans 24 Hours ended in heartbreak last weekend (15/16 June) in the 87th running of the race widely regarded as the toughest in the world – but the talented young American still managed to turn heads with his scintillating raw speed.
The culmination of the fiercely-disputed FIA World Endurance Championship ‘Super Season’, Le Mans is as gruelling as they come – 24 hours of blood, sweat and tears for drivers, mechanics, engineers, cars and tyres alike. A record-breaking 62 entries tackled the 2019 edition of the legendary round-the-clock classic, which was preceded by an official test day, at which Rebellion Racing posted the quickest time of the non-hybrid teams in the headlining LMP1 category.
Entering the race week sporting a vibrant new, neon ‘art car’ livery – courtesy of a tie-up with Los Angeles-based artist Tomyboy and his Rocketbyz brand – the No.3 entry piloted by Menezes, Thomas Laurent and Nathanaël Berthon overcame engine issues that significantly restricted the trio’s track time to secure fourth on the grid in a disrupted final qualifying session.
That was achieved by dint of a stellar late effort from Menezes that lifted the Rebellion-Gibson R-13 prototype above ex-McLaren Formula 1 ace Stoffel Vandoorne in the best-placed of the two SMP Racing cars. Not for the first time this season, the 24-year-old Californian was the fastest Rebellion driver over a single lap, less than a second shy of pole position around the 13.626km La Sarthe circuit and almost three seconds quicker than a certain Fernando Alonso in one of the pace-setting Toyotas.
Menezes took the start of the race, and after gaining a position away from the line, he briefly outfoxed World Champion-elect Sébastien Buemi for second before focussing on fending off another former F1 driver in the shape of Vitaly Petrov for third.
An enthralling cat-and-mouse duel ensued as the 2016 FIA WEC LMP2 Champion, Le Mans class-winner and ‘Revelation of the Year’ initially found himself unable to shake off the SMP car due to its straight-line speed advantage. A combination of superior racecraft – particularly through the traffic – and excellent pit-stops from the Rebellion crew, however, eventually allowed him to pull clear, and by the time he handed over to Berthon, he had established a margin of almost a minute.
Ground was lost when Laurent was subsequently boxed in during a pit visit, but worse was to follow. As darkness began to fall, the Frenchman made contact with the wall at the second Mulsanne chicane, requiring an unscheduled pit-stop for replacement front bodywork and relegating the No.3 car to fifth, a full lap behind its two SMP rivals.
Menezes returned to the cockpit at 11pm and immediately went on the attack, making short work of overhauling the fourth-placed SMP and – with the bit well-and-truly between his teeth – going on to reduce the deficit to Egor Orudzhev in the sister car to less than 50 seconds. That relentless pressure ultimately told as the Russian crashed just before 1:30am, reinstating the Rebellion in third.
Berthon and Laurent maintained the rhythm during their stints before Menezes got back in approaching 7am, but half-an-hour later, the crew was handed a three-minute stop-and-go penalty for a tyre rule violation. That dropped the Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé behind the surviving SMP entry once again, and as he endeavoured to regain the initiative, he found himself edged onto the kerb by a lapped GT car going through the Porsche Curves, sending the R-13 into a spin and beaching it in the gravel.
The delay cost the Rebellion two laps, and brake failure shortly before 10am necessitated another lengthy pit visit, leaving Menezes, Laurent and Berthon a frustrated and disappointed fifth at the chequered flag – albeit securing them third position in the final World Championship standings, and top non-hybrid competitor.
The statistics also showed that the highly-rated Santa Monica native set the third-fastest lap time of the 186 drivers in the race and was second-quickest in terms of average pace, a scant 0.018s adrift of Mike Conway’s benchmark in the Toyota – an impressive achievement indeed given the performance disparity between the hybrid and non-hybrid entries. And as for a return to the podium at Le Mans, well, he reasons, there’s always next year…
“That was a long 24 hours!” reflected Menezes, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “We felt quite confident going into the race after practice and qualifying, and I got an amazing start to pass the SMP and then get around the second of the Toyotas too, though I slightly caught the back of it in the process, which cost us a bit of front end downforce.
“We had a good battle with the SMP early on – it was so fast in a straight line that I could never quite break away from it, but after the Rebellion boys changed the nose on the R-13 at the first pit-stop, I was able to pull clear and handed the car over to Nathanaël in a strong position.
“He then picked up the baton, but we lost some time in one of the pit-stops – with the pit-lane being so tight at Le Mans, we got stuck between cars in the boxes either side of us. We lost further time when Thomas hit the wall, which left us almost a lap behind the SMP in third place and when I got back in at around 11pm, the team just told me, ‘qualifying mode – let’s go!’ That stint was probably the drive of my life – I put my absolute heart and soul into it and was faster than the Toyotas at times.
“Nathanaël did a great job again to settle into a consistent rhythm and strengthen our grip on third, before Thomas maintained that momentum in the morning, and we had two minutes in-hand over the SMP when I returned to the cockpit just before 7am on Sunday. The objective at that stage was simply to bring it home, and it was nice not to have to take as many risks as I had done during the night – if you push too hard for too long in a race like Le Mans, ultimately, you’re asking for trouble.
“Towards the end of my stint, I had just put the SMP a lap down when I received a radio message saying I had to pit next time round to serve a three-minute penalty due to having the wrong serial number on the tyres we had taken on at the last stop, which wasn’t even the team’s mistake. As I exited the pits again on ice cold tyres, I could only watch as the SMP flashed past to move into third. After all the effort we had put in to pull so far ahead, that was absolutely galling and the race really unravelled from there.
“We had no choice but to re-engage ‘quali mode’, and I had almost caught Vandoorne back up when I got squeezed by a GT car going through the Porsche Curves. I clipped the kerb, and that sent me into a spin. It was so sad to see the podium just slip through our fingers and the brake failure then hammered the final nail into the coffin, but honestly, I can’t praise Rebellion Racing and my two team-mates highly enough for the incredible job that everyone did. The pace we had was unreal, so we’ll just have to come back next year and try again…”