Alain Menu turning back the clock


The young Alain Menu’s passion for motor racing was stoked by the cartoon exploits of Michel Vaillant – France’s ‘Roy of the Races’. There seemed little chance, however, of emulating his hero: Menu’s family had neither a connection with the sport nor the funds to make one.

Still, he took that little chance and enrolled at the famous Elf Winfield Racing School.

That was 30 years ago. He hasn’t matched Vaillant’s record – nobody has; it varies only in the variety of its victories – but Menu has enjoyed a long and successful career in his dream job.

And it’s not over yet.

Though there was a time last year when he thought it might have been.

After eight seasons with – and 23 wins for – Chevrolet in the World Touring Car Championship, he planned to contest the Porsche Supercup, only for a lack of finance, problems with the car and dissatisfaction with Porsche’s methods to bring his campaign to a halt after two disappointing outings.

“I was not being paid, I was not having fun, and so I decided it was better to stop,” says the 50-year-old Genevan. “For two or three months I was not bothered – phhft! – about not racing. It was May and there was no chance of finding anything else. Anyway, I had other worries, things in my life to deal with, and I took the time to do that. But then I did the Masters race [in November] at Macau and – boom! – it all came back.”

Menu beat a host of old and new tin-top heroes in identical VW Scirocco Rs to pole position. He didn’t make it around the first lap – Emanuele Pirro hit the wall and Menu had nowhere to go – but people were talking about him again.

Among them was Geoff Kingston, Menu’s race engineer from his debut half-season of the British Touring Car Championship: 1992, in a Prodrive BMW. Kingston arranged a December meeting between his boss, ex-British Superbike rider Warren Scott, and the experienced Swiss star.

“I liked Warren straight away,” says Menu. “I liked what he had to say about his hopes for the team. He is very ambitious. The big plans for it were for 2015, but my signing has brought that forward a bit.”

Thus Menu will drive a VW Passat CC for Team BMR in the BTCC, 14 years after winning the championship for a second time. His painting company will just have to carry on without him.

Menu: “I’ve owned it for seven years, since I moved back to Switzerland. I bought it as an existing business. It’s something I wasn’t really interested in – DIY isn’t me! – so I just run the thing. My sister works with me and the manager has been in the business for 20 years, so I have nothing to worry about when I’m away.”

Alain Menu in the BTCC, 1992-00
Champion, 1997 and 2000
36 wins
28 poles
20 fastest laps

A lack of testing as the new season looms is more concerning.

“We are still waiting for a few parts,” explains Menu. “Hopefully, we will test next week. We need to, because we have a lot to learn. We should be able to do five or six days of pre-season testing. They will, however, be crammed into a couple of weeks. The package looks good on paper and I am sure it will be good – I am just not sure when.”

Menu in 1997, when he took the championship with 12 wins from 24 races

Menu’s return is only a part of the buzz surrounding this year’s BTCC. A raft of champions – Fabrizio Giovanardi, another two-time winner, is also making a comeback – will take on a (kitty) litter of young pups as 11 makes ‘trade paint’. It’s not as pure as once it was – today’s cars are basically the same under their skins – but numerous body shapes, including Honda’s estatesmanlike Civic Tourer, remains a healthy indicator.

“I spoke with people who have been involved in the BTCC for a long time and they assured me that it was on its way back: big crowds, live coverage on TV,” says Menu. “I felt it was the right time to return. Sure, I want to win, it’s always better when you do – still I push, push, push! – but also I want to relax in a nice environment and enjoy the racing.

“I am looking forward to the mix. It’s always good to have fresh blood in a championship. Just because I have won the BTCC before doesn’t mean I am going to beat everyone every time; I’m not Ayrton Senna. BMR has also employed young drivers [Árón Smith and Jack Goff] and I know that they are going to kick my ass from time to time. You have to learn new things from the young guys and find that bit extra from within yourself.

Menu won twice at Donington for Ford in 2000 on the way to his second BTCC crown

“I am looking forward to racing in the UK again. Super Touring in the BTCC of the mid-1990s with the Williams team [he won the 1997 title in its Renault Laguna] was the best time of my career. Better than the WTCC: more manufacturers, more professional teams. We used to say that the BTCC then was a world championship in one country.

“WTCC cars are more forgiving, a little bit easier to drive. To find the last two-tenths is always the hardest part – but a Super Touring car gave you more satisfaction. Everything was pretty much perfect.

“It will be great to see old friends again – motor racing is my second family – but I am ready in my mind for it to be different. Anyway, I don’t want to go back 20 years. Life moves on.”

Yes, he dyed his hair and shaved his beard in 2012, but he only did so for his childhood hero. At the Portimao round of the WTCC, Menu played the Vaillant role to perfection, winning the second race.

Chevy’s super team at Macau in 2012. Menu leads Rob Huff and Yvan Muller.

“It was nice to be him for a few days,” he says. “It was a great thing to do and it made more of an impact than I expected. What I didn’t like was the dye. I prefer my normal hair. It took a long time for my ‘silver fox’ to come back.”

But not years, eh, Alain?

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