Gustavo Menezes belied his lack of sportscar racing experience and rookie status to claim his maiden LMP2 class victory with Signatech-Alpine in last weekend’s 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps – with the talented young American’s sparkling success vaulting him into the lead of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC).
Menezes has made the jump in 2016 from single-seaters to the fiercely-disputed pinnacle of international endurance racing, teaming up with established WEC front-runner Nicolas Lapierre and GT3 graduate Stéphane Richelmi behind the wheel of Signatech-Alpine’s 550bhp Alpine A460 prototype. A late puncture denied the trio a rostrum finish in the Silverstone curtain-raiser, but they travelled to Spa – widely regarded as the ultimate drivers’ track – with their eyes firmly on the prize.
The Santa Monica, California native boasts a stellar record around the popular Ardennes circuit – often likened to a rollercoaster ride by dint of its undulating nature – having beaten current Formula 1 star Max Verstappen to pole position there and tallied a podium double in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship two years ago. Menezes maintained that excellent form as he and his two team-mates featured consistently inside the top three during WEC free practice in Belgium amongst the 12 high-calibre LMP2 protagonists.
Sharing the Alpine A460 with Lapierre, the Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé helped to qualify the N°36 entry second-in-class and 11th overall and in front of some 56,000 spectators the next day, the Signatech-Alpine crew remained calm and composed throughout an incident-packed race.
Having initially focussed on tyre and fuel preservation as the team intelligently played the long game, Menezes snatched the lead shortly after half-distance and thereafter he, Lapierre and Richelmi proceeded to extend their margin over the chasing pack to a commanding 1m30s – until a prolonged safety car period in the final hour undid all of their efforts.
With their advantage suddenly erased and – unlike many of their rivals – a pit-stop still to make, Lapierre had no option but to get the hammer down once the action resumed with just half-an-hour left on the clock. A late splash ‘n’ dash momentarily cost the N°36 the top spot, before the experienced Frenchman fought back to regain the ascendancy with a bold move around the outside at Fagnes.
The result represented Menezes’ first WEC triumph in only his second start – not to mention a laudable seventh place outright – and secured the 21-year-old and his two team-mates a share of the drivers’ championship lead, with Signatech-Alpine rising to second in the teams’ standings. Next up, it’s the big one – the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours.
“I’m over-the-moon!” enthused the former Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award winner. “I always seem to go well at Spa; it’s a great track, and when you really have the car underneath you there, it’s an incredible experience. Nico and the Signatech-Alpine engineers have been working really closely with me to help me to maximise everything – it’s an insane learning curve, but thanks to everybody’s support, I feel Stéphane and I are both climbing it pretty quickly.
“We knew we had some improvements to make after Silverstone, where we had been able to set one fast lap but couldn’t sustain that kind of pace for long due to tyre degradation – the consistency just wasn’t there. That’s where we concentrated our efforts, and it paid off big-time. As a team, I feel we took a significant step forward between the two races and came back much stronger at Spa, which showed straightaway on the timesheets.
“We had a bit of traffic in qualifying, but it was really encouraging to be lapping at a similar pace to Nico again, because there’s no question that he’s one of the top sportscar drivers in the world. The car was then fantastic in race trim and ran faultlessly, and I enjoyed the fight for the lead. Once I was past, I got my head down and between myself, Nico and Stéphane, we managed to open up a really solid advantage.
“We were on-course for a clear victory and knew that the biggest threat would be a safety car intervention – and of course, that’s exactly what happened! That was pretty tough to take – having all worked so hard to build up a lead, it was gone in an instant through no fault of our own.
“Being at the front of the line, we missed the window to pit under the safety car, which meant Nico had to push like mad to enable us to take on a quick splash of fuel with ten minutes to go. With our four nearest competitors having all already stopped, it made for a pretty nerve-wracking end to the race in the Signatech-Alpine garage because at one stage, it looked like we would finish off the podium altogether.
“We had to make sure we kept our cool, and Nico did an impeccable job as always. Overtaking isn’t easy in LMP2 cars,but he pulled off a great move to reclaim the lead. It was a real team effort and a real team result, and I won’t lie – it’s pretty awesome to be leading the world championship now! I think we’ve proved we are serious contenders for WEC’s LMP2 class title this year – and the best bit is that there’s so much more still to come.
“On Saturday night we celebrated, but on Sunday morning, we got straight back down to business. Winning at Spa was a timely confidence boost and the perfect way to kick-start our preparations for Le Mans, which is obviously a huge deal for Alpine as an iconic French manufacturer making a big comeback this year. I feel we’re in a strong position as a team heading into what will unquestionably be the biggest race of my life. It will be a massive challenge, and I can’t wait!”