Gustavo Menezes continued to home in on the top of the points table in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) at Fuji last weekend (13-15 October), despite not even turning a wheel in a ‘crazy’ race punctuated by no fewer than six safety car periods, one Full Course Yellow and two red flag stoppages.
Fresh off the back of a scene-stealing performance at Petit Le Mans a week earlier – in which he had pulled off some spectacular overtaking manoeuvres to scythe through from fourth position into the overall lead – the talented young American returned to the track in Japan with his focus firmly on maintaining his positive run of momentum.
In the legendary ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, it was somewhat ironic that virtually the entire weekend would be plagued by heavy rain, and Menezes and his Signatech Alpine Matmut team-mates Nicolas Lapierre and André Negrão initially struggled to extract the best out of their 600bhp Alpine A470 prototype in the inclement conditions.
Lapierre and Negrão dug deep in qualifying to secure fourth on the grid amongst the nine high-calibre LMP2 category protagonists, before overnight set-up work transformed the N°36 entry ahead of the following day’s 6 Hours of Fuji, which was held in front of more than 50,000 enthusiastic Japanese fans and against the dramatic backdrop of the iconic mountain that gives the fast-and-flowing, 2.835-mile circuit its name.
The Frenchman took the start of the race, and despite losing ground on the opening lap when he had to avoid a spinning Nelson Piquet Jnr, he rapidly set about storming through the pack, lapping significantly quicker than his rivals to advance to second before proceeding to apply pressure on the class leader.
An aggressive strategy enabled Negrão to seize the advantage on lap 85, and – unlike the majority of the LMP2 brigade – the Alpine was fuelled to reach the finish when the action was halted for good on lap 115, with rain and dense fog reducing visibility to nigh-on non-existent.
Like a number of other drivers in the field, that meant Menezes – who was scheduled to climb behind the wheel for the final stint – never got to take to the track. With the result declared before most of the LMP2 contenders had served their last pit-stop, the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native and his two team-mates were classified a frustrated second, right in the slipstream of the race-winner.
To rub salt into the wounds, Lapierre’s fastest lap was comfortably the best in-class, while Menezes took the honour of the fastest Alpine lap of the weekend outright in FP1, meaning the defending FIA WEC LMP2 Champion and 2016 ‘Revelation of the Year’ had at least proven his pace in practice, even if he was denied the opportunity to demonstrate his ability in the race itself.
His fourth rostrum finish in swift succession nonetheless saw Menezes close to just 25 points shy of the championship lead in endurance racing’s premier global series, with 52 still in play over the remaining two outings of 2017 in Shanghai and Bahrain – and he is ready to fight.
“What a crazy race!” reflected the 23-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “That was the first time I’ve ever been on the podium without actually having driven the car! The conditions were really difficult all weekend, right from the word ‘go’. Initially we found it tricky to establish a good balance for the A470, however come race day, Alpine and the engineers did an amazing job and the guys created a rocketship!
“Fourth on the grid placed us well in the ballpark to achieve a good result, and Nico demonstrated just how strong we were by recording the fastest lap of the race prior to handing over to André.
“Although I unfortunately didn’t get to drive my stint due to the many delays and stoppages, I still experienced all the excitement from the pit garage. I also shared the frustration of the team, because we clearly had the car, the strategy and the speed to win and without the final red flag, I’m confident we would have done so as we had a pit-stop in hand over our closest rivals and were the fastest on the track. The end result was obviously disappointing, but safety has to be the number one priority and with such heavy rain and thick fog, the risk was just too great to re-start.
“Our fourth consecutive podium enabled us to narrow the gap slightly to the top of the LMP2 standings, and while we should have closed up even more, there are still two races to go and we will keep pushing right the way to the end. We’ve really found the sweet spot with the Alpine A470 now and we’re keeping the pressure up, so bring on Shanghai!”