Gustavo Menezes produced a champion’s performance in the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) season finale in Bahrain last weekend, and whilst he was not able to overcome the inconceivable odds to clinch back-to-back titles in sportscar racing’s premier global series, the talented young American certainly did not surrender his hard-earned crown without a fight.
Menezes travelled to the Middle East sitting 23 points adrift of the top of the table in WEC’s fiercely-disputed LMP2 class with just 26 remaining in play, meaning he and team-mates Nicolas Lapierre and André Negrão essentially needed to secure both pole position and the race win while hoping their rivals scarcely troubled the scorers.
It was, quite literally, a case of all or nothing and admittedly the very tallest of orders, but in tandem with Negrão, highly-rated Santa Monica, California native Menezes was on scintillating form in qualifying to annex Signatech Alpine Matmut’s third pole of the year – and third in swift succession in the ‘Land of One Thousand and One Nights’ – almost four tenths-of-a-second clear of their closest pursuers.
So far, so good, and Lapierre subsequently stuck to the plan as he led away at the start of the next day’s 6 Hours of Bahrain, which began late afternoon and continued into the evening under the floodlights illuminating Sakhir’s Bahrain International Circuit. Unfortunately, traffic and premature tyre wear on the hard-compound rubber forced the Frenchman to relinquish his advantage, and following a change of strategy at his first pit-stop, he re-emerged down in seventh place.
After completing a rapid triple stint, Lapierre handed over to Negrão as night fell, and both the Brazilian and Menezes maintained the offensive as the N°36 crew endeavoured to battle their way back up the order behind the wheel of the 600bhp Alpine A470 prototype. Erstwhile Toyota factory ace Lapierre returned to the cockpit for the final blast and ultimately took the chequered flag in fourth position, with Alpine Deputy Managing Director Bernard Ollivier quick to praise the ‘excellent’ performances of all three men.
The result guaranteed Menezes the same spot in the prestigious FIA Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers at the end of a campaign that saw the 2016 FIA WEC LMP2 Champion, Le Mans 24 Hours winner and ‘Revelation of the Year’ place inside the top five in every race – finishing on the podium more often than not, including a popular victory on home turf in Austin.
Although understandably disappointed at not being able to make it back-to-back title triumphs, Menezes acknowledged that after conceding ground at the beginning of the season, it was always going to be the very longest of long shots.
“We gave it our all and I am satisfied with what we achieved,” reflected the 23-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “We had a rocky start to the weekend and whilst we took steps forward throughout practice, we knew there was much more left in the tank and we proved that in qualifying as André and I pulled out a mega effort for pole, which kept the championship dream alive.
Unfortunately, we made a wrong call on tyres in the race, which turned out to be very expensive for us. Nico did a great job in his first stint to stay among the leaders, but it was difficult to know exactly where we were in relation to the other cars, given we were on a different strategy due to the unexpectedly high tyre degradation that left us playing catch-up from early on.
We took a gamble after that by switching to the medium compound, but by then, the damage was already done. André went on the attack and was fast throughout his stints, and I gave it absolutely everything when I got into the car, as I have done all year. My best lap was very comparable with Nico’s at the end of the race, which is extremely positive as everybody knows how quick and capable he is.
Although on paper, the results don’t necessarily suggest it, I’m pleased to have made progress this season and to have accumulated more experience. The standard in LMP2 unquestionably stepped up several notches in 2017, but we held our own and we can be proud of the work we put in. I’d like to congratulate Vaillante Rebellion on their well-deserved title success.”