Gustavo Menezes was the toast of the town in Austin last weekend, as the highly-rated young American tamed stifling temperatures during the 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas to clinch a hugely popular fourth victory of the season with Signatech-Alpine in the fiercely-disputed FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC).
Menezes returned to his homeland having reached the top step of the rostrum on three occasions already over the course of an outstanding rookie campaign in endurance racing’s premier global series – not to mention nurturing a healthy advantage in the chase for the coveted crown alongside team-mates Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi.
Situated in the heart of Texas, the spectacular and recently-built Circuit of the Americas plays host to the pinnacle of both four and two-wheeled motorsport competition, and its challenging layout has made it an instant and unanimous hit.
Despite discovering it for the first time, Menezes was immediately on the pace, as the 550bhp Alpine A460 prototype lapped fastest in-class in the second free practice session and replicated that stellar form in qualifying. In an impressive display, the talented Santa Monica, California native teamed up with Lapierre to secure Signatech-Alpine’s maiden pole position of the season amongst the ten high-calibre LMP2 protagonists, outpacing their nearest rivals to the tune of almost a full second.
The race revved into life at 5pm the following day, with Lapierre initially conceding the initiative before engaging in an absorbing duel for the top spot and blasting back to the front of the field 20 minutes in. Thereafter, the experienced Frenchman consistently edged away from his pursuers until handing over to Richelmi, who continued the good work and put in a heroic double stint under the blazing late afternoon sun.
Menezes maintained that momentum as day turned into night, endorsing his sportscar racing credentials by expertly handling the intense heat and humidity and ultimately being accorded the honour of taking the chequered flag inside the car, by which stage the N°36 crew had established a commanding one-lap lead.
The result marked the Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé’s fourth success from just six WEC starts and an early 22nd birthday present. It also stretched his, Lapierre and Richelmi’s margin at the summit of the FIA Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers standings to 41 points, with 78 remaining up for grabs in Japan, China and Bahrain over the forthcoming weeks.
“After missing out on victory by such a tiny margin the previous time in Mexico, to come back so strong in Austin and not just win but dominate was the perfect response,” enthused former Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award winner Menezes.
“I grew up racing in the States, but I hadn’t done so properly in a long time – let alone in a world championship event – so to compete on home soil in a front-running car with a great team behind me and two fantastic team-mates was particularly special. I was fully fired-up for it and focussed on doing the best job I could. It was my first time on-track at the Circuit of the Americas, and it’s very technical with lots of undulation. With a good car underneath you, it’s awesome to drive.
“We were the quickest in-class all weekend, right from the outset and to secure our first pole position of the season – by such a significant margin – was a massively important milestone. We haven’t really had the ultimate one-lap pace this year – I guess you could say that has been a small chink in our armour – so it was great to finally prove that we can get the job done in qualifying as well as over a race distance.
“We carried that form over to the following day, as Nico took the lead early on, Stéphane extended it and I increased it further again. The sky-high temperatures added an extra element to the challenge and inside the cockpit, it felt like a sauna. It was the first time this year that I really had cause to appreciate all the extra training I put in, because it required every ounce of energy that I had simply to get to the end of each stint.
“It was extremely difficult to stay hydrated enough to maintain concentration for long periods of time, and a number of drivers had to go to the circuit medical centre due to heat stroke. Very few managed to complete double stints, so major kudos to Stéphane for doing just that.
“The Signatech-Alpine guys produced a supremely polished effort in what were incredibly demanding conditions and managed the Full Course Yellow interventions flawlessly – and to finish a whole lap ahead of our closest rival was a phenomenal achievement.
“I’m tremendously grateful to the team for allowing me a third stint in the car at the end so I could take the chequered flag, which was a magical feeling – a real outpouring of emotion. For me, after winning Le Mans, this was the biggest moment of my career, but we can’t afford to rest on our laurels and we’re already looking ahead to the final three races. The time has come to really put the throttle down now, because there’s a world championship to be won!”