Gustavo Menezes found his efforts to make a winning start to the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) campaign frustrated by misfortune at Silverstone – but despite the disappointment, the talented young American insists he is more confident than ever as he bids to defend his hard-earned LMP2 class crown.
After stunning the sportscar fraternity by teaming up with Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi to lift the fiercely-disputed LMP2 laurels at his first attempt in 2016, Menezes has his sights firmly focussed on making it back-to-back successes in endurance racing’s premier global series this year.
With Richelmi having been replaced over the winter by Matt Rao, the Signatech Alpine Matmut crew headed to the celebrated ‘Home of British Motor Racing’ off the back of a promising pre-season test at Monza.
The three practice sessions were used to adapt and fine-tune the 600bhp Alpine A470 prototype to the particular characteristics and demands of the high-speed Silverstone Grand Prix Circuit, and Lapierre and Rao duly qualified the N°36 entry second amongst the nine LMP2 protagonists, a scant 0.046s shy of the top spot.
In front of more than 50,000 spectators in the 6 Hours of Silverstone the following day, Lapierre instantly outlined the team’s objectives by snatching the class lead on the opening lap. Together, he and Menezes worked hard to extend that advantage over the first two-thirds of the race as they artfully controlled proceedings, with little to choose between the pair in terms of outright pace.
By the time the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native peeled into the pits to hand over to Rao, the Signatech Alpine Matmut trio had more than a minute in-hand over their closest pursuers – but that was when misfortune intervened, in the shape of an ill-timed and lengthy safety car period that undermined the squad’s aggressive strategy by bunching the field right up.
With Rao subsequently struggling with tyre wear and handling on a damp track surface and a gaggle of rivals breathing down his neck, the N°36 car fell as low as fifth at one stage, before Lapierre dug deep during a determined final stint to recover fourth place at the chequered flag. Whilst that was faint reward for the crew that had led the most laps and looked set to score a commanding triumph, Menezes was quick to point to the positives of a victory stolen from his and his team-mates’ grasp.
“I guess that’s just the way the dice roll sometimes,” mused the 22-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “It’s obviously hugely disappointing to end up losing a race that we were dominating through no fault of our own, but we’ve clearly shown that we have the speed and potential to win.
“Nico made an incredible start to take the LMP2 lead straightaway, and he had established about a 15-second margin when he got out of the car. I subsequently stretched the gap further and midway through my second stint, we were just over 40 seconds in front when it began raining quite heavily. A lot of drivers pitted to switch to intermediate tyres, but the team asked me if I was comfortable staying out on slicks because the rain was not due to last long.
“It was very tricky and I had to tiptoe around so as not to take any unnecessary risks, but sure enough it dried up only three laps later so it was definitely the right call not to stop and it allowed us to further increase our lead.
“I completed a triple stint behind the wheel and we were just over a minute ahead of the rest of the LMP2 field when a Full Course Yellow came out shortly after half-distance. We took advantage of that to pit and get Matt out in the car, but then we found ourselves unexpectedly caught out by the safety car period, which completely erased the lead we had worked so hard to build up.
“Irrespective of the final outcome, though, I have to say the Alpine A470 was fantastic to drive; I was the quickest LMP2 car on the track during my stints, even on old tyres and without pushing flat-out, so there’s no question that we have some serious pace. The most encouraging aspect was that whilst last year we finished fourth at Silverstone because we weren’t fast enough, this year we finished fourth because of sheer bad luck – we were very capable of winning the race and we are very capable of fighting for the world championship again.
“The calibre of the competition is definitely higher in LMP2 this year, but so is our confidence and our belief that we can get the job done. It’s fair to say we weren’t always the out-and-out quickest last season, but now we have a car that can fight for victory in every race – and that is an extremely exciting prospect moving forward.”
Source. Russell Atkins Media/Photo. John Patterson