Gustavo Menezes has promised to ‘come back stronger’ in the next round of the FIA World Endurance Championship, after his bid for a fourth consecutive top three finish in sportscar racing’s premier global series came unstuck in challenging conditions at Fuji Speedway last weekend (12-14 October).
Contesting the headlining LMP1 class for the first time this year, Menezes has indisputably been one of the stars of the inaugural FIA WEC ‘Super Season’ with Rebellion Racing. Indeed, the talented young American arrived at Fuji – nestled in the foothills of Japan’s imposing Mount Fuji and steeped in motorsport history – sitting second in the drivers’ standings, just two points shy of the lead. Buoyed by his and team-mates Mathias Beche and Thomas Laurent’s breakthrough LMP1 victory two months earlier at Silverstone, Menezes had his sights firmly set on more silverware in the 6 Hours of Fuji, round four on the 2018/19 FIA WEC calendar.
In evidence of his raw pace, the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native lapped fastest of the trio in two of the three free practice sessions around the demanding 2.83-mile, 16-turn track, just 0.029s adrift of former Le Mans 24 Hours winner and World Champion Neel Jani in the sister Rebellion-Gibson R-13 prototype.
Menezes and Laurent subsequently joined forces in qualifying to put the No.3 car third on the grid in the high-calibre field, and the 2016 FIA WEC LMP2 Champion, Le Mans class-winner and ‘Revelation of the Year’ took to the wheel for the race’s opening stint. In front of 52,800 enthusiastic spectators, he immediately went on the attack, defying the gloomy conditions to make a bright start as he outfoxed Rebellion stablemate André Lotterer to pinch second place into Turn One.
Holding station inside the top three, Menezes pitted to change over to slick tyres on lap 15 as the circuit began to dry, but a prolonged safety car intervention shortly after – to clear away debris on the main straight – would unfortunately prove to be his undoing.
The difficulty in maintaining tyre temperature at reduced speeds can make running on dry weather rubber on a damp track surface a recipe for disaster – and so it would transpire, as an uncharacteristic error saw the 24-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé lose control just under an hour in and make hefty contact with Fuji’s unforgiving barriers.
Thankfully, Menezes was able to walk away unscathed, but the damage to the car meant it was game over on the spot. Already focussed on fighting back, the erstwhile Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award winner is determined to make amends when the fiercely-disputed campaign resumes at China’s Shanghai International Circuit on 16-18 November.
“I’m fine – just disappointed in myself and sorry for the team,” he candidly reflected. “Mistakes like that shouldn’t happen, but it did. We lost a lot of tyre temperature behind the safety car, and I was trying to get a little bit back when I unfortunately caught some wheelspin over the bump at the exit of Turn One. I lit up the rear wheels and from then on, I was simply a passenger.”
“Being out on slick tyres in the wet, I should have thought about it more. It’s a shame because it’s a lot of points to lose, but these things happen sometimes in racing, particularly in conditions like that. On the positive side, we’re still in a good position championship-wise, and we’ll just have to come back stronger in Shanghai.”