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!”