Gustavo Menezes has his sights firmly set on defending his hard-fought FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) crown in 2017, after inking a deal to continue with the rebaptised Signatech-Alpine Matmut squad in sportscar racing’s premier global series.
Having made the switch from single-seaters, the talented young American teamed up with Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi last year, artfully belying his lack of prior experience as he played a key role in a remarkable run of results for the trio behind the wheel of the 550bhp Alpine A460 prototype. From nine starts, the N°36 crew consummately conquered their opposition in the LMP2 category by tallying no fewer than seven podium finishes – including four victories – to wrap up the laurels in advance of the Bahrain finale.
For Menezes, undisputed highlights along the way included a popular triumph on home turf at the Circuit of the Americas as well as class victory on his debut in the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours. Indeed, the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native and his two team-mates simultaneously equalled the best-ever outright result for an LMP2 car at La Sarthe in fifth place overall.
In addition to being awarded the prestigious ‘Revelation of the Year’ accolade at the annual WEC prize-giving gala, Menezes was upgraded to FIA ‘Gold’ status by the sport’s governing body and invited to try out Porsche’s championship-winning LMP1 contender at the end of the season, turning heads once more by lapping fastest amongst the rookies on the track.
The Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé has been anything but idle over the winter, either, joining forces with Jackie Chan DC Racing in the Asian Le Mans Series and reaffirming his credentials by winning two races out of four – only being denied the title by cruel misfortune in the final round. He subsequently hooked up with ambitious Lexus outfit 3GT Racing for his third assault on the Rolex 24 At Daytona round-the-clock classic at the end of January.
His principal focus, however, remains resolutely on the forthcoming FIA WEC campaign in which – alongside Lapierre and new recruit Matt Rao – he will endeavour to tame Signatech-Alpine Matmut’s more powerful A470 prototype in the quest to secure back-to-back world championship spoils at the absolute pinnacle of international endurance competition.
“A lot of opportunities presented themselves following our success last year, but when we took everything into consideration, it really wasn’t that arduous a decision to make,” reflected the 22-year-old, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award.
“Signatech-Alpine Matmut made us an offer pretty soon after the end of the season, and having achieved so much together over such a short period of time, it would have been very difficult to leave – they welcomed me with open arms and I have immersed myself in French culture. I was proud and honoured to be a part of last year’s adventure and there is a very special place in my heart for everybody inside this team. Nobody works harder than these guys.
“We might not have been the out-and-out fastest at every race in 2016, but we had a great car that was ultra-reliable, the team’s strategy calls were almost always spot-on and we were very consistent, which – as we proved – is ultimately what wins you championships at this level.
“We actually began the season one step behind most of our rivals in having to get to grips with a new car, and it is testament to the calibre of this team that we not only caught the others up in double-quick time but rapidly overtook them all too. With the revised regulations, 2017 will be something of a ‘reset’ button and as such promises to be more of a level playing field from the outset.
“Driving with Nico again is unquestionably the best move for me; I learnt so much from him last year and we established an excellent working relationship as well as a close friendship. We understand how each other operates and share a very similar mentality. It’s obviously a shame to lose Stéphane from the N°36 line-up – due to the championship regulations not permitting three ‘Gold’ status drivers in the same car – but Matt is a great addition to the team. I’ve raced against him in both WEC and FIA European F3, and I’m sure that with Nico, the three of us will form a really strong partnership.
“I get on extremely well with the Signatech-Alpine Matmut engineers and mechanics, too, and now that I have experience of all the circuits on the calendar – which was far from the case last year – I can focus purely on getting the maximum out of myself and the team and helping to develop the Alpine A470.
“Having a season under my belt will make a huge difference in that respect – for me, 2016 marked a massive shift from sprint racing and I had to get used to managing tyre wear and fuel consumption over long stints. That was a challenge that I really enjoyed but moving forward, there won’t be any more time wasted adapting to new situations – and that’s vital, because in a series as fiercely-contested as WEC, there is frankly no time to waste.
“I’m under no illusions that this will be the most critical season of my career to-date, and we will have to work tremendously hard to replicate last year’s outcome because the level in LMP2 has stepped up another gear over the winter and I genuinely believe the championship will be more competitive than ever. That said, I know what this team is capable of and that fills me with a lot of confidence. I think we have as potent a driver line-up and overall package as anybody else on the grid, and I can’t wait to get going.
“I approached last season quite humbly as a rookie, and I intend to adopt exactly the same approach as a sophomore in 2017 because I recognise that I still have plenty to learn. It goes without saying that the dream and the goal is to win both Le Mans and the world championship again. We are well aware of how tough that will be and to successfully defend even one of them would be fantastic, but the trouble is, having done the double last year, we know it’s attainable now…”
Source. Russell Atkins Media/Photo. Renault