Gustavo Menezes fired himself firmly back into title contention in the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) in Austin last weekend, with a commanding and hugely popular victory on home soil as Signatech Alpine Matmut celebrated an overdue return to winning ways.
Having endured a difficult start to the defence of his hard-fought FIA WEC LMP2 class crown, Menezes’ season kicked up a gear over the summer, with third place at Germany’s Nürburgring and second in Mexico City, leaving the talented young American with his tail up heading to his home race, the 6 Hours of COTA held around the undulating and technical Circuit of The Americas.
Behind the wheel of the 600bhp Alpine A470 prototype, Menezes and his Signatech Alpine Matmut team-mates Nicolas Lapierre and André Negrão featured consistently inside the top five during free practice amongst the nine high-calibre LMP2 protagonists.
The Frenchman and Brazilian then teamed up in qualifying to annex a second consecutive pole position, with Lapierre taking to the N°36 entry for the start of the race and going on to pull inexorably away from the chasing pack under the blazing Texan sun.
With the team deliberately adopting an aggressive strategy, Negrão and Menezes continued that good work, but their 40-second lead was reduced to nothing shortly after half-distance when the safety car emerged and bunched up the field.
The highly-rated Santa Monica, California native wasted no time at all in re-establishing a healthy advantage once the action resumed, and he was back in the car in the closing stages when a late scare necessitated a rear bodywork change with just 12 minutes left on the clock. Once again, Menezes found himself having to get back on the gas, but he had enough in-hand to cross the finish line comfortably clear of the second-placed car, with Lapierre claiming a new lap record for good measure.
The result not only confirmed Signatech Alpine Matmut’s recent progress and upward trajectory, but also replicated Menezes and Lapierre’s 2016 Texan triumph. Notably, the 23-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé is now the leading LMP2 scorer from the last three rounds in sportscar racing’s premier and most fiercely-disputed global series. Having advanced to third in the championship standings, he has closed the gap to the top of the table from 42 points to 28 with 78 remaining in play over the final three outings – beginning across the other side of the Pacific Ocean at Fuji in Japan in mid-October.
“We’re back in the groove!” enthused 2016 FIA WEC ‘Revelation of the Year’ Menezes, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “This win has been a long time coming, and what makes it all-the-more satisfying is that there was no element of luck involved – we were the team to beat throughout and it was so good to be able to go out there and truly take charge of the race. We led for 144 of the 177 laps, which I think speaks for itself.
“As the only American driver in the field, I knew I was upholding national pride so there was a little bit of pressure on my shoulders from that perspective, and there’s no question that for me, after Le Mans, COTA is the most important race. Not only that, but it’s the most physical track on the calendar, its anti-clockwise layout is tiring on the neck muscles and the temperatures make tyre management key.
“During practice, our sole focus was on race pace, so to take pole position the way we did in qualifying came as a bit of a surprise. We knew we were going to be competitive, but we didn’t expect to be quite that competitive. Nico and André did a great job, which proves just how well this new partnership is working. It already felt quite natural and cohesive in Mexico, and I think we gelled even more in Austin.
“In the race, we managed our strategy perfectly – although it was obviously tough to see the 40-second lead that we had worked so hard to build up wiped out by the appearance of the safety car. That left us with it all to do over again, but the car felt fantastic so we had a lot of fun pushing to re-establish our advantage and because I was in the cockpit at the time, it gave me the opportunity to really show what I could do.
“My final stint wasn’t straightforward either. We had increased our lead to around a minute heading into the closing stages when I got a radio call from the team saying, ‘you need to back off a bit to save fuel so we can avoid a late splash n’ dash’. That was followed by another call shortly afterwards saying, ‘scrap that, you need to push because we have to pit to replace the rear assembly due to a tail-light failure’.
“The Signatech Alpine Matmut guys did an incredible job to complete the work in just ten seconds, which meant we still had an 18-second margin when we rejoined the track and I could essentially just cruise to the finish. It was very special for me to be able to take the chequered flag again, and a proud and emotional moment to clinch our first win of the season at my home event.
“This victory has put us back in the championship hunt, so now the key will be to keep our positive momentum going. The level of competition in WEC is so high that you need to be absolutely on top of your game but after a difficult start to the season, we’re finally beginning to rediscover the form we showed last year – which means it’s maximum attack from here on in!”