MENEZES CLOSES ON CHAMPIONSHIP LEAD AS ALPINE WEATHER FUJI STORM

MENEZES CLOSES ON CHAMPIONSHIP LEAD AS ALPINE WEATHER FUJI STORM

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!

MENEZES REIGNITES TITLE DEFENCE WITH DOMINANT VICTORY ON HOME TURF

MENEZES REIGNITES TITLE DEFENCE WITH DOMINANT VICTORY ON HOME TURF

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!

MENEZES VOWS NO LET-UP AFTER EPIC LE MANS FIGHTBACK

MENEZES VOWS NO LET-UP AFTER EPIC LE MANS FIGHTBACK

For the second year in a row, Gustavo Menezes showcased his scintillating raw speed in the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours, but 12 months on from his outstanding rookie success, the talented young American’s bid to make it back-to-back triumphs in the ‘world’s toughest race’ was undone by a variety of dramas.

Buoyed by the headline-grabbing form evinced by the sister Signatech Alpine Matmut entry at the official pre-event test day, Menezes returned to the iconic La Sarthe circuit for the 85th edition of the celebrated round-the-clock classic in optimistic spirits – and ready to tackle an ultra-competitive LMP2 class field comprising no fewer than eight ex-Formula 1 drivers. As France basked in a heatwave, track temperatures exceeded a dizzying 50°C but underscoring his peak physical fitness, the Santa Monica, California native was the quickest of the high-calibre Alpine sextet throughout practice and the first two qualifying sessions – consistently outpacing experienced team-mate Romain Dumas, two times an outright winner at Le Mans.

He unfortunately found his efforts thwarted by traffic when it mattered most, with the lack of a clear lap and repeated yellow flag appearances conspiring to mask the true potential of the 600bhp Alpine A470 prototype, leaving Menezes, Dumas and Britain’s Matt Rao an unrepresentative 11th on the grid amongst the 25 LMP2 contenders and 17th overall. The defending FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) title-holder took to the wheel at the beginning of the race and immediately made up ground to ninth in-class before a small mistake saw him overshoot at Mulsanne Corner and dig into the gravel, with the delay dropping the car to 59th place out of the 60 starters.

Alongside his two team-mates, the 22-year-old had battled back as far as 15th in-class when gearbox issues struck – a legacy of the earlier ‘off’ and costing another eight laps – while the final nail was hammered in by a ten-minute pit halt shortly before 11pm on Saturday to resolve an electronics issue that was causing the engine to cut out. From 20th amongst the LMP2 protagonists at midnight, the N°36 car had scythed through to 12th by daybreak – with Menezes alone gaining five spots during the course of an impressive three-hour stint. By virtue of refusing to give up and pushing right to the end, the Signatech Alpine Matmut crew snatched a late spot to secure eighth position out of the 20 classified LMP2 finishers and tenth overall.

It was a heroic comeback that undeniably deserved more, but the Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé nonetheless made his mark by lapping half-a-second faster than any of his Alpine counterparts. The result has also elevated Menezes and Rao to third in the fiercely-disputed FIA WEC Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers, with six of 2017’s nine outings yet to run.

 

Le Mans this year was a rough ride – a very different experience to 12 months ago,” mused the former Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award winner. “The race felt a lot longer, for a start! We thought we had some pretty decent pace after the test day, but we didn’t seem to improve as much as some of our rivals as the track conditions evolved – the higher temperatures altered the balance of the car and impacted on tyre wear.

We struggled for single-lap speed during practice and qualifying and Romain and I both got caught up in traffic, which meant we didn’t manage to put the lap time in that we were capable of. Having said that, I don’t think the gap to the leading cars could be totally explained away by that and we probably didn’t have quite enough to challenge for pole position, but we did know we had a very solid race car underneath us.

I made up a few spots at the start, but I was having a lot of difficulty with the rear brakes locking in the high temperatures and was probably pushing a bit too hard to keep up with the cars ahead, which was what sent me off the track at Mulsanne. That was the first of several dramas, and I felt so bad for all the guys in the team, who deserved better. I was very disappointed in myself, because although it was a comparatively minor error, we paid a heavy price.

We later ran into related gearbox issues that cost us a further eight laps, and during my quadruple stint going into the night, we encountered problems with the ECU. At that point we knew it would be impossible to come back, but we kept fighting and refused to become disheartened. We were almost last at one stage, so to finish inside the category top ten was genuinely a marathon effort!

Although clearly not the result we had been targeting, reaching the chequered flag after everything that had happened was at least something to give back to everybody at Signatech Alpine Matmut, who worked tirelessly throughout and truly put their heart and soul into the race. To rebuild the gearbox in just half-an-hour was incredible. It was tough on them, and I take my hat off to each and every member of the team.

With an error-free race, I think there’s little doubt we would have finished on the podium – the N°35 Alpine proved the pace was there, and once I’d settled into a rhythm, I was able to string together some very quick and consistent lap times – but the reality was that we went to Le Mans aiming to defend our crown from 2016 and we came up a long way short. That’s life I guess, and as they say, you can’t win them all, but we do want to win some of them this year so we need to get our heads down before the Nürburgring next month.

I’m really excited to have Nico [Lapierre] back in the car now for the rest of the season. It has been brilliant working with Romain and he is without question a class act, but Nico was a key part of our winning crew from last year so it’s great to welcome him back to the fold. There is still a long way to go in this championship battle – and I assure you that we will work our absolute tails off to turn this car into a rocketship and come back fighting!

MENEZES FIRED-UP TO DEFEND HIS CROWN IN BIGGEST RACE OF THE YEAR

MENEZES FIRED-UP TO DEFEND HIS CROWN IN BIGGEST RACE OF THE YEAR

Gustavo Menezes is ready to fight to defend one of the most coveted trophies in international motorsport later this month, following a positive and productive ‘dress rehearsal’ for the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours.

Menezes stunned the sportscar racing fraternity last year by speeding to LMP2 class victory at La Sarthe as a rookie, alongside team-mates Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi. The talented young American will be the only one of the race-winning trio to return to the cockpit of the N°36 Signatech Alpine Matmut entry 12 months on – now partnered by Romain Dumas, a man with two outright triumphs to his name at Le Mans, and newcomer Matt Rao – and his sights are firmly set on replicating his stellar 2016 result.

Behind the wheel of the 600bhp Alpine A470 prototype, Menezes, Dumas and Rao took it in turns to lap the ultra-fast 13.629km French circuit during the course of the official test day, with the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native completing 28 tours as he outpaced multiple grand prix-winner Rubens Barrichello amongst a whole host of fiercely competitive adversaries. In ideal weather conditions, the primary focus was on long runs, aerodynamic evaluations, tyre durability comparisons and race set-up. Whilst single-lap form was not a major preoccupation, the Alpine A470 did display consistently strong pace on both new and used rubber, as Nelson Panciatici in the N°35 sister car topped the timesheets with a new class lap record – at an average speed of an eye-watering 235.72km/h.

Menezes was denied the opportunity to challenge that benchmark by traffic – with the N°36 Alpine ultimately placing eighth amongst the 25 high-calibre LMP2 protagonists and 14th out of 60 overall – but the 22-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé was nonetheless greatly encouraged by both reliability and performance as preparations intensify for the 85th edition of the iconic round-the-clock classic on 17/18 June.

 

The test day went well,” affirmed the reigning FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) LMP2 title-holder. “It’s fantastic to go back to Le Mans and our speed looked good straight out-of-the-box. With everybody following their individual agendas, it’s tricky to ascertain the true pecking order at this early stage – but one thing for sure is that it’s insanely close in LMP2.

The N°35 car put in a great lap, which proved the potential of the package we have and that’s promising because our pace was very similar but we just never got a clear run to show it. We concentrated on our own technical programme, played around with a variety of different set-ups, came away with plenty of useful data and – most importantly of all – worked well together as a team.

At Le Mans in particular, you can really feel the extra downforce and power in LMP2 this year because the long straights allow the cars to properly stretch their legs. The Alpine A470 felt incredible to drive round there – more like a single-seater than ever before. We were hitting top speeds in excess of 330km/h, which was very impressive and in a non-competitive session, Nelson was already eight seconds faster than last year’s best LMP2 qualifying time – meaning we’re likely to be even quicker come the race weekend itself.

We still have a bit more work to do, of course, but I think we’re in reasonable shape and I’m really excited to return next week. The team and Alpine have placed their trust in me, and I want to reward them for that by fighting for the win again. The clear objective is to keep up my 100 per cent record at Le Mans and whilst that obviously won’t be easy, nothing worth having ever is – so bring it on!

It was a very positive day,” echoed Alpine Deputy Managing Director Bernard Ollivier, “with a lot of work completed by the team and some superb performances. They say it’s only testing and it’s true that we don’t necessarily know the strategies adopted by our rivals, but I think we can safely say we have the potential to successfully defend our victory.

Le Mans is the most important race of the year, and not just because there are double points on offer towards the FIA WEC standings. We want to live up to the achievements of last season, and we came away from the test with a lot of confidence that we can be a force to be reckoned with again.”

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