Gustavo Menezes came within a whisker of clinching a fourth consecutive triumph in the fiercely-disputed FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) in Mexico last weekend,
with a strong runner-up finish ensuring the talented young American will travel next to his home round sitting proudly atop the title standings.
Menezes arrived in Mexico City for the 6 Hours of Mexico – the first event of its calibre in the country for a quarter-of-a-century – riding the crest of a wave off the back of a hat-trick of LMP2 class victories with leading French outfit Signatech-Alpine. The first long-haul contest of 2016 in endurance racing’s premier global series took place in front of a packed-out crowd of enthusiastic spectators around the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez – a circuit named in honour of the famous Formula 1 brothers and located within the grounds of the venue that hosted the 1968 Summer Olympics.
After figuring comfortably inside the top six in-class throughout testing and free practice, Menezes and team-mates Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi built progressively up towards qualifying, in which the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native played a vital role as he lapped fastest of the six Alpine drivers to secure second spot on the grid amongst the 11 LMP2 protagonists and tenth overall out of the 32 contenders.
Under overcast skies, Menezes was subsequently entrusted with starting the race inside the cockpit of the potent, 550bhp Alpine A460 prototype. Mindful of not taking too many risks with endurance racing being a marathon rather than a sprint, the sportscar rookie maturely steered clear of early drama and remained well within the leading pack before handing over to Richelmi in second position.
The Monaco-born GT3 graduate gained further ground to snare the top spot in a tight three-way tussle for supremacy, and when the heavens opened just before two-thirds distance, Richelmi ceded the reins to the experienced Lapierre as the team recalibrated its strategy to adapt to the changing conditions.
The Frenchman rejoined the fray on intermediate tyres, but a drive-through penalty for a minor pit-lane infringement dropped the car down to third, from where he set about reeling in the class leaders. Lapierre had switched back to slicks when light rain returned towards the end, but a brave effort saw him close right in and it was arguably only late traffic and yellow flags that denied the N°36 crew a fourth success in as many races as the Alpine A460 flashed past the chequered flag just 1.985s adrift of the LMP2 winner and an excellent seventh outright.
It was a thoroughly polished performance by the entire team, and the runner-up spoils mean Menezes, Lapierre and Richelmi will head to the next event – the 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas on 15-17 September – holding a 33-point advantage in the chase for the FIA Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers. The 21-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé can scarcely contain his excitement.
“The atmosphere over the Mexican weekend was incredible,” acknowledged former Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award winner Menezes. “The fans there love motorsport, and the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez lends itself to a natural stadium feel.
“The track is tight, twisty and technical – unlike anywhere else we’ve been so far this season – and we struggled a little to begin with to strike a solid balance, which put us on the back foot. The altitude affected things fairly significantly – reducing both engine power and downforce by about 20 per cent, which meant the car felt quite different to usual – but everybody was in the same boat and had to deal with the same issue.
“We chipped away, and everything gradually came together which culminated in second place on the grid for the race. As the team’s fastest qualifier, I was tasked with taking the start, which was both pretty cool and a lot of responsibility at the same time! I briefly nosed ahead of the class pole-sitter heading into Turn One, but with the championship in mind and plenty to lose, I elected to back out of the move rather than risk a costly accident – especially so early on.
“I settled into a battle for second with René Rast in the G-Drive Racing entry; it was an enjoyable scrap with no shortage of wheel-to-wheel action, but I was conscious of wanting to look after the tyres so after holding him off for a while, I eventually decided to let him go. That paid off in my second stint, when I was able to establish a strong and quick rhythm to regain second place and close in on the LMP2 leader.
“We knew we were in with a great shout – particularly when Stéphane moved to the top of the timesheets – but when the rain came for the first time, we got caught out slightly and missed the pit window by a lap and then picked up the drive-through penalty. In hindsight, that probably cost us victory, but it doesn’t in any way detract from the amazing job the whole team did throughout.
“The Alpine A460 was fast and ran trouble-free again which enabled us to more than hold our own, and Nico produced a fantastic fightback at the end to so very nearly snatch the win in a nail-biting finish. Congratulations to RGR Sport by Morand – they unleashed a great performance on home turf – and second place still represented a good points haul for us around a circuit that perhaps suited some of the other cars better than ours.
“I can’t wait to get to Austin now! I’ll have a lot of friends, family, sponsors and supporters there cheering me on and I would love nothing more than to win a world championship round in front of them all. It will be pretty emotional to hear the American national anthem on the grid, and from what I’ve seen, the track looks awesome and should play more in our favour.
“We still need to work on our qualifying form, but our race pace is consistently on-point and definitely one of our strongest suits, which is essential in a championship as competitive as this. We will keep our heads down and remain fully focussed – and make no mistake, just because we are leading the standings, it doesn’t mean we are afraid to fight!”