Gustavo Menezes...

Menezes: Winning Le Mans the best day of my life!

Gustavo Menezes has described winning last weekend’s Le Mans 24 Hours as the ‘best day of his life’, as together with team-mates Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi, he delivered Signatech-Alpine its maiden LMP2 class victory in what is widely regarded as the toughest race in the world.
Having graduated from a formative career in single-seaters to sportscars this year, Menezes has made an immediate impact and alongside Lapierre and Richelmi, he arrived at Le Mans at the top of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship LMP2 class standings. Buoyed by a promising pre-event Test Day, the talented young American was instantly on front-running form again during practice and qualifying, although much of the track time was severely disrupted by torrential downpours.
The N°36 entry began the legendary round-the-clock classic from third position amongst the 23 high-calibre LMP2 protagonists and 12th overall on the 60-strong grid. Hollywood actor Brad Pitt was on-hand to flag the field away, but another heavy shower shortly before the start meant the first hour was spent circulating behind the safety car.
Once the action finally got going, Lapierre swiftly seized the class lead but as the track surface dried out, a mistimed pit-stop for intermediate tyres cost the 550bhp Alpine A460 prototype more than two minutes and dropped it down the order to 15th. That proved to be the catalyst for a stirring recovery as the Frenchman scythed his way back into the top ten courtesy of a flurry of fastest laps.
By the time Menezes took over at the wheel three hours into the race, the car sat fifth and the combination of an impressive turn-of-speed and an incisive approach to traffic saw the Santa Monica, California native vying for and repeatedly trading the top spot. He handed the reins to Richelmi two-and-a-half hours later and returned to the cockpit not long after midnight, 20 seconds shy of the lead.
With the night famously separating the men from the boys at Le Mans, Menezes belied his lack of endurance racing experience and prior track knowledge with a scintillating effort as the N°36 found itself embroiled in a captivating three-way tussle for supremacy.
It was a performance that helped to lay the foundations for the squad’s success, with the 21-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé completing an eye-catching quadruple stint on the same set of tyres and getting to within barely a quarter-of-a-second of the highly-rated Lapierre’s benchmark time around the 13.6km Circuit de la Sarthe. Not only that, but he was the fastest of the Signatech-Alpine trio through the long final sector and wound up eighth-quickest out of all 69 LMP2 drivers over the full lap.
Having pulled consistently clear of his pursuers, Menezes received a rapturous reception from the team at the end of his run and after one of their key rivals crashed at Mulsanne on Sunday morning, the Signatech-Alpine crew focussed on consolidating their advantage without taking any unnecessary risks.
The car ultimately flashed past the chequered flag first in-class and an outstanding fifth overall – the second-best finish in Alpine’s Le Mans history – and in addition to toasting the greatest triumph of his career to-date, the former Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award winner and his two team-mates significantly extended their championship lead in endurance racing’s premier global series. It has, all told, been quite a start to Menezes’ burgeoning sportscar transition.
“Sunday was without question the best day of my life!” he reflected. “It was always one of my ambitions to compete here, and it’s a dream come true to win. Nobody ever has a flawless race at Le Mans, but we ran as close to flawlessly as possible – everything just gelled perfectly, from the team to the drivers to the car.
“We prepared meticulously and right from the Test Day, it was evident that Nico, Stéphane and I were working well together and had strong average pace, so we knew we would be in with a good shout – although of course, to then go out there and actually get the job done is a different challenge altogether and there was a certain degree of pressure and expectation upon our shoulders.
“Once the early-race safety car disappeared, we got our heads down, kept cool and cracked on. As drivers, we remained error-free, the Alpine A460 felt awesome and ran like clockwork and every pit-stop was faultless. It takes a real team effort to win the Le Mans 24 Hours and that’s exactly what we had – everybody gave their absolute maximum.
“We encountered very few issues and only really went into the garage properly once, which was a precautionary measure under safety car conditions; we had seen a few cars suffer what looked like brake failures, so we wanted to check everything was ok and we had enough margin over our nearest competitors to do so.
“On the driving side, I just focussed on settling into a consistent rhythm, maintaining the tempo, saving the fuel and tyres as best I could and generally looking after the car – and to be honest, the speed came very naturally and I was able to lap really quickly even when battling through traffic. The initial plan was to put me in for a total of six hours but I ended up doing more than eight and when I wasn’t on-track, I didn’t sleep much as I was keen to make the most of the whole experience.
“Having had very little night-time running during practice due to all the red flags, that aspect of the race was something of a step into the unknown for me, but it didn’t take long to get into the groove. Whilst some parts of the circuit are floodlit, others – like Indianapolis, Mulsanne, Arnage and the Porsche Curves – are pitch-black, and even if you are physically in shape, keeping your concentration in the face of fatigue really pushes your mental boundaries because all it takes is one slip and you could find yourself out on the spot.
“With all that in mind, to win the most difficult race in the world proved that I deserve to be here, and to do so as a rookie is simply incredible. Standing up on the balcony afterwards, I felt a mixture of excitement, joy and relief and it brought tears to my eyes – there were so many people crammed into the pit-lane that we literally couldn’t see where the crowd ended. I think I still need to let it all sink in.
“Signatech had achieved podiums at Le Mans before but never a victory, so this shows that the commitment everybody has invested into this project is really reaping rewards and we have no intention of throttling back now. As for Alpine, it was obviously a massive moment as a manufacturer with a proud and successful history at Le Mans and an exciting new road car coming next year. There could be no better way to really put the brand on the map than by winning this race, so I think it’s safe to say that Alpine is back!”

Leave a Reply