Sam Smith meets a former single-seater racer who has found instant success in the World Endurance Championship
What a difference a year has made for Gustavo Menezes. In the summer of 2015 he was, by his own admission, struggling in the FIA European F3 midfield. It was the 21-year-old Brazilian-American’s second season at that level and results just weren’t coming. Indeed, he made headlines only when he was involved in a huge aerial accident at Spa.
Menezes recalibrated over the winter to conclude a deal with the Signatech Alpine LMP2 team for a full WEC campaign – a shrewd choice, it seems, after he secured a Le Mans win at his first attempt. “It has worked out quite nicely, hasn’t it?” he says. “It is hard when you are going through tough times in this sport to see light at the end of the tunnel, but I guess everyone goes through it.
“Things didn’t come together in 2015, but moving into endurance racing has opened my eyes to many things. I am enjoying the teamwork element so much and learning a great deal about every aspect of racing.”
After a hard-fought victory at Spa in May, Menezes and Signatech co-drivers Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi were rated among the favourites in the biggest and best LMP2 field yet assembled at Le Mans. They went on to secure victory in conclusive style, leading more than half the race in the Alpine A460 chassis designed and built by ORECA, and have since also won at the Nürburgring.
“Rain made the start tricky at Le Mans and we played it safe with tyres,” Menezes says. “In the first few hours we were not dictating the pace, but we were not worried. When I got in the cockpit for the first time it was dry and we were able to get back up to the front of the field, but in all honesty I didn’t know what position we were in because it was just total focus on the car and ensuring we could build a race-winning advantage.
“The big thing for me was the night driving. I did a quadruple stint and it is amazing how quickly you get into a rhythm. After the 12-hour mark we knew that, with the gap we had, we could just keep on doing what we were doing to give ourselves a really good chance. Obviously nobody says it, but we had the feeling that we were in as much control of the race as we could have been – it was a nice sensation.”
The scenes of joy at the end of the race were unconfined as proud Signatech boss Philippe Sinault led his troops onto the famous rostrum. “I did my best to soak it all in, but still it was over so quickly,” Menezes says. “It was like a dream coming true there and then. The feeling is pretty incredible, the range of emotions extreme.”
With the added bonus of double points, Menezes’ garden is rosy at the moment but he knows the LMP2 title fight will be tough.
“As long as we approach each weekend as we have been doing, then I’m sure we will get the job done because the Signatech crew is so slick and the car is very capable of winning on any type of track. We feel good about the rest of the season but we still have lots of racing ahead.”
Menezes also has eyes on the season-ending WEC rookie test in Bahrain, where the three LMP1 manufacturers offer up a seat for the day.
“LMP2 is great preparation for an LMP1 chance,” he says, “so if an opportunity comes to get my hands on the wheel of one of those cars then I’ll grab it. I’m going to be pushing hard to get an opportunity like this. The first objective is the WEC LMP2 title and playing the team game, then we will see after that.”