Gustavo Menezes has admitted that his first experience of the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours circuit gave him ‘goosebumps’, as Signatech-Alpine enjoyed a productive Test Day ahead of the biggest race on the international sportscar calendar next weekend (18/19 June).
Having graduated from the FIA Formula 3 European Championship to the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) this year, Menezes has already made his mark as he, Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi sped to victory in the fiercely-disputed LMP2 class in last month’s 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps – vaulting the talented trio to the top of the drivers’ title standings.
Prior to the traditional pre-Le Mans Test Day, however, the gifted young American had never set foot upon the 13.6km Circuit de la Sarthe in northern France. Be that as it may, he wasted little time in settling into the groove as he initially completed the ten laps required for his rookie evaluation, thereby successfully confirming his eligibility to race.
Menezes, Lapierre and Richelmi subsequently took advantage of the dry conditions as they switched their focus to detailed set-up work, trialling different tyre compounds on their Alpine A460 prototype and coming away with plenty of useful data to analyse.
Powered by a 4.5-litre V8 engine delivering more than 550bhp, the N°36 paced the morning session amongst the 23 high-calibre LMP2 protagonists. Its driving crew had just embarked upon qualifying simulations later on when the red flags flew due to a competitor’s accident, prematurely curtailing the day’s activity and scuppering all hopes of going any quicker. That meant the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native and his two team-mates wound up second on the final timesheets in the closely-fought category and a commendable 11th overall out of the 60 contenders.
Even more promisingly, seasoned sportscar pro Lapierre’s best effort was achieved with a heavy fuel load on-board and without pushing flat-out, mindful of the importance of keeping the car in one piece with the race now barely a week away. As the 84th edition of the iconic round-the-clock classic roars rapidly into view, Menezes can scarcely contain his enthusiasm.
“It was a very positive day and for my first time at the circuit, I thought it went very well,” reflected the 21-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé – a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “Having done quite a lot of simulator work beforehand, I felt like I acclimatised to it relatively smoothly; I took my time learning the layout and then progressively built up speed.
“It’s a very fast track and I had a lot of fun out there. Some people say that ultimately, it’s still just a circuit, but it isn’t just a circuit – it’s Le Mans – and names like Arnage, Indianapolis and Mulsanne give you goosebumps. The fact that some of the lap is on public roads adds another dimension to the challenge, and the Porsche Curves are incredible – approaching them at 300km/h is a real wake-up call! It’s such a cool place and somewhere that commands respect.
“In the morning, despite running on reasonably old tyres, I posted some very respectable lap times and was less than three tenths-of-a-second adrift of Nico’s benchmark, which was really encouraging. In an event like the Le Mans 24 Hours, the relationship between team-mates is paramount and in that respect, I have
absolutely no concerns. Nico, Stéphane and I have bonded like bros – we’ve become genuine mates, and we work together and play together.
“The team seemed happy with my performance and as a crew, we were quick on new rubber in the afternoon – although the red flag meant we didn’t get chance to go for a ‘flyer’, we were definitely right up there on aggregate pace in relation to our LMP2 rivals and it all came very naturally.
“With the launch of Alpine’s new road car next year, Le Mans is a major deal for us and everybody is putting a massive effort into preparing for it. It’s not called the toughest race in the world for nothing – endurances these days are more like long-distance sprints, in which easing off simply isn’t an option – and there’s undeniably a lot of expectation on our shoulders, because we want to win.
“So much can obviously happen over the course of 24 hours and there remains plenty of work to do, but I’m confident all the ingredients are in-place. We have the car, the drivers and the team to achieve our goal – so after that, it comes down to minimising mistakes and hoping Lady Luck is on our side. I can’t wait!”