It had been four races since Gustavo Menezes had last set foot on the podium in the fiercely-disputed FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), but the talented young American and his Signatech Alpine Matmut team-mates finally uncorked the champagne bottles for the first time in 2017 following a gritty performance at the Nürburgring last weekend (14-16 July).
Alongside Nicolas Lapierre and Matt Rao, Menezes travelled to Germany’s Eifel Mountains region determined to rediscover the sparkling form that saw him sensationally clinch the LMP2 class World Championship crown last year as a sportscar racing rookie. Buoyed by a productive run through free practice behind the wheel of the 600bhp Alpine A470 prototype, the Santa Monica, California native teamed up with Rao to attack qualifying. Despite posting the quickest Alpine lap of the entire weekend, however, an uncharacteristic error restricted the N°36 crew to sixth on the grid amongst the 11 high-calibre LMP2 protagonists for Sunday’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring – the fourth round on the calendar in endurance racing’s premier global series.
In front of some 52,000 trackside spectators and many millions more watching on TV, Lapierre started the race and dug deep to battle up the order before handing over to Menezes in fourth. Approaching the two-hour mark, the Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé found himself embroiled in a three-way tussle for the runner-up spoils and had advanced to third by the time Rao took over after half-distance.
The Englishman kept firmly in touch, before a late flourish from Lapierre saw the defending title-holders overhaul the N°13 Vaillante Rebellion in the closing stages to secure the final spot on the rostrum, with the Frenchman setting the fastest LMP2 lap of the race for good measure. The result consolidated Menezes’ third position in the championship standings, with a seven-week break now before the action resumes in Mexico at the beginning of September to kick-start the season’s long-haul leg.
“It felt so good to be back on the podium again – it’s been a long time and we really needed it!” acknowledged the 22-year-old, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “It was our strongest weekend of the campaign to-date, without question, and we were in the ballpark the whole way through.”
Saying that, I was slightly disappointed with my qualifying effort; I had a small lock-up and didn’t extract the most out of the tyres, which cost us about four tenths-of-a-second. That made the race harder work than it arguably should have been because we spent a lot of time caught up in traffic and other cars’ dirty air, which is a particular penalty at the Nürburgring, where the straights aren’t really long enough to get a tow and you just can’t stay close to the car ahead through the corners. Without that handicap, I genuinely believe we would have finished second.
Still, Nico did an incredible job to gain ground during his first stint, I continued that progression by moving up into the top three – despite running on older tyres and being driven off the track by an LMP1 car at one stage – and Matt then similarly maintained the momentum when he got in. I must say, Matt drove extremely well. It felt like he took a big step forward last weekend, and for his level of experience, his pace was impressive.
As a team, we were a lot more consistent than we have been so far in 2017, and whilst we clearly still have more work to do, this is a great way to go into the summer break and gives us plenty of motivation looking ahead to the second half of the year. It’s a big shot in the arm for everybody at Signatech Alpine Matmut; all the boys worked exceptionally hard for not much reward over the first few races of the season, so it’s tremendously satisfying to finally be able to pay them back – seeing the smiles on their faces from the podium was a fantastic feeling.
“There are still five races to go in this championship and plenty of points to fight for, so nothing is decided yet. We will go away, recharge our batteries, knuckle down and come back even stronger in Mexico – that’s a promise!”