Gustavo Menezes is ‘ready to go’ as his debut in the fiercely-disputed FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) races rapidly into view, following a positive pre-season testing programme with Signatech-Alpine that culminated in the fastest lap time at the official ‘Prologue’.
The talented young American has switched from single-seaters to sportscars this year off the back of a brace of impressive campaigns in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship that yielded no fewer than 28 top ten finishes comprising two podiums. He has joined forces with front-running LMP2 class outfit Signatech-Alpine, and will pilot the squad’s N°36 Alpine A460 prototype alongside French all-rounder Nicolas Lapierre – a multiple WEC race-winner – and GT graduate Stéphane Richelmi.
In preparation for the 2016 season, the trio enjoyed a three-day test at Motorland Aragón in Spain followed by a two-day outing at Paul Ricard in southern France, where they were accompanied by 28 rivals – including nine from the LMP2 category – for 17 hours of morning, afternoon and night-time running at eye-watering speeds of up to 280km/h that called for maximum commitment.
Powered by a 4.5-litre V8 engine delivering more than 550bhp, the Alpine A460 sports a striking blue-and-orange livery, and by lapping consistently towards the top of the leaderboard – pacing the class field in two of the five sessions and featuring as high as sixth outright – Menezes, Lapierre and Richelmi ably underlined the old adage that if a car looks quick, it will be quick. The N°36 entry concluded proceedings fastest in LMP2 and an excellent eighth overall.
Visibly gaining in confidence throughout, the 21-year-old Californian was effusive in his praise for the balance, responsive nature, aerodynamic efficiency and palpable potential of his new mount, as he and his team-mates worked through a series of set-up changes, race simulations and long-run performance.
Having swiftly settled in, Menezes reported that he, Lapierre and Richelmi are bonding well. He is now eager to take to the track for the curtain-raising 6 Hours of Silverstone around the legendary British Grand Prix venue on 17 April, where he will be looking to cement his sportscar transition and further enhance his credentials by hitting the ground running in endurance racing’s premier global series.
“I’m feeling really comfortable in the Alpine A460,” affirmed the highly-rated Santa Monica native, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “It was initially a little strange having a roof over my head, and at Motorland Aragón it took a few laps to get to grips with being in a closed cockpit car that was bigger and heavier than what I’d been used to for the past few years, but as a racing driver you need to be versatile enough to adapt and everything felt much more natural at Paul Ricard.
“The Prologue went exceptionally well and as a team, I think we made an impression and really prompted everybody to sit up and take notice. We were able to get through plenty of work and I learnt a lot about the car, the new chassis and the characteristics of the tyres that Dunlop has produced for 2016. We gathered some useful information and encountered no major reliability issues, which made for a very encouraging couple of days.
“Signatech-Alpine is such a professional team, and having Nico as a team-mate is a massive bonus; not only does he come with a wealth of experience, but I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever worked with somebody as fast as he is in the same car as me – and that includes Max Verstappen in F3.
“Nico just steps into the car and is ‘on it’ straight out-of-the-blocks, and after returning to the pits, he pulls up his data and shows me what he is doing to help me understand and improve. He’s been a bit like a driver coach – very humble and open and an all-round great guy – and that will assist Stéphane and myself to develop as rapidly as possible. We’re both LMP2 rookies, so it’s up to us to prove we are fit for the challenge, but Nico and the Signatech engineers have all been so supportive – it’s a real team effort, and we’ve established an excellent relationship both on and off the track.
“We always believed we had a very strong driver line-up, but we still needed to confirm it and I think that’s what we did at Paul Ricard – every time we bolted new tyres onto the car, we immediately leapt to the top of the timing charts. There were 30 drivers out there in LMP2, and in pretty much every session, Nico, Stéphane and I were all inside the top five and within half-a-second of each other. Being able to lap at such a similar pace is very important, particularly with the aggregate qualifying format that WEC employs.
“This championship is growing so quickly, and the level of competition in the LMP2 class is the highest it’s been in a long time – the opposition looks set to be very tough indeed. We know we have the speed, so the key now will be to focus on minimising mistakes. Ultimately, that is what will make the difference between winning and losing this year.
“We all share the same desire to win at Signatech-Alpine, and we want to come out fighting at Silverstone. The calibre of the team speaks for itself, the car is fast and the driver line-up is on-point, so all the ingredients are in-place and I’m confident we will be ready to go. Of course, you can never be over-confident because you just don’t know what your rivals are doing, but we will keep our heads down and work hard, and hopefully that will be reflected in the end result.”