Gustavo Menezes...

Menezes is big in Japan as he closes in on coveted crown

Gustavo Menezes has moved another step closer to clinching the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) crown at the first time of asking, after he and Signatech-Alpine stablemates Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi claimed a sixth podium finish of the season in Japan this weekend (14-16 October).
 
The standout rookie of 2016 in sportscar racing’s premier global series, Menezes arrived at the legendary Fuji Speedway – dramatically situated beneath the gaze of Mount Fuji and scene of many a seminal moment in motorsport history – with a 41-point championship lead in the fiercely-disputed LMP2 class following an impressive four triumphs from his first six starts.
 
Behind the wheel of the N°36 entry, the talented young American and his two team-mates initially struggled for speed, placing no better than fifth-fastest amongst the 11 high-calibre protagonists in free practice as their quest for a satisfactory set-up proved frustratingly elusive.
 
Some major changes ahead of qualifying, however, transformed the performance of the 550bhp Alpine A460 prototype, enabling Menezes and Lapierre to lap second-quickest on aggregate as they produced evenly-matched efforts and missed out on a second consecutive pole position by a mere 0.2 seconds.
 
Under sunny skies and in front of more than 50,000 enthusiastic spectators the following day, Lapierre, Richelmi and Menezes took it in turns to fight up towards the sharp end in the 6 Hours of Fuji, unleashing a succession of ultra-consistent lap times and engaging in some captivating battles along the way.
 
During the course of his own double stint inside the cockpit, the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native enjoyed a spectacular wheel-to-wheel duel with Richard Bradley that brought the crowd to its collective feet. Despite being forced off the circuit and across the run-off area at one stage, Menezes refused to give up and resolutely kept his boot in as he quite literally bounced back onto the track over a rumble strip.
 
The N°36 trio’s gritty determination, tyre preservation and fuel-saving prowess – with Signatech-Alpine opting to make one fewer pit-stop than its adversaries in an effort to compensate for a slight lack of pace – were enough to earn a hard-fought third position at the chequered flag, less than half-a-minute shy of victory after six hours of fast and furious, flat-out racing.
 
Notably, the result saw them concede just three points to their closest title rivals, meaning another rostrum in the penultimate outing in Shanghai in early November – the second leg of WEC’s Asian odyssey – will suffice to finish the job and secure the prestigious FIA Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers.
 
“It was my first time in Japan and I have to say, it’s an awesome country – a really cool place,” enthused 22-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé Menezes, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “Fuji is an iconic circuit with cambered and off-camber corners and plenty of elevation changes, which was a really rewarding challenge and although it was a difficult weekend for us, we dug deep and worked our socks off and that obviously paid off in the final reckoning.
 
“We struggled to strike the right balance between aerodynamic performance and grip and traction during practice, which was reflected in our lap times and whatever tweaks or adjustments we made, nothing seemed to fully cure the problem. That left us on the back foot, but a significant alteration before qualifying thankfully unlocked a lot more speed from the car, which was a considerable turnaround and a big relief for all of us.
 
“In the race, whilst we didn’t quite have the ultimate pace to take the fight to the guys ahead, we pushed hard and were always there-or-thereabouts. The team did a flawless job as ever with the strategy and we maximised every single aspect of our potential, which kept us in the hunt.
 
“It was a heck of a battle with Richard Bradley. On one lap, we ran side-by-side into Turn One and I was edged onto the run-off, and it was only when I saw the video afterwards that I realised I had cut through the air as I rejoined the circuit! I could have tried to hang on alongside him again at the next corner, but sometimes, discretion is the better part of valour and when you’re leading the championship like we are, you’re mindful of not wanting to take too many risks.
 
“At the end of the day, you win some and you lose some and as in Mexico, we salvaged a solid result from a less-than-perfect situation – for a tough weekend, we’ll definitely take another podium finish and having dropped just three points in the championship standings! On a personal level, too, I’m learning more all the time and as a rookie, that development curve is vital.
 
“The plan now is to return to base, regroup and come back even stronger. There are only two rounds remaining and we’re getting closer, but that’s not to say we’ll be changing our approach and we’ll treat Shanghai exactly the same as we have every other race this year – which means going there to win.”

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