Gustavo Menezes stated his case for career progression in convincing style in Bahrain this weekend, proving himself as the fastest LMP2 class driver en route to a podium finish in the fiercely-disputed FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) finale, before turning heads on a tryout for the pace-setting Porsche Team in the series’ official Rookie Test.
Menezes was selected to take part in the end-of-season trial by the FIA WEC promoter, in recognition of his stellar performances and the palpable potential he has evinced during his maiden campaign of sportscar competition this year at the pinnacle of international endurance racing.
In partnership with Signatech-Alpine stablemates Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi, the talented young American has been a class act throughout 2016, with no fewer than four LMP2 victories aboard the 550bhp Alpine A460 prototype – including memorable successes in the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours at his first attempt and on home turf in Texas – and three further rostrums from just nine starts paving the way to the coveted world championship crown.
The latest podium came in Saturday’s 6 Hours of Bahrain. Menezes quickly mastered the Bahrain International Circuit as he and Richelmi annexed a second pole position of the season for the N°36 entry under the Sakhir floodlights. During his double stint behind the wheel at the start of the race, the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native duly established a solid lead over his nine LMP2 pursuers, posting a fastest lap time in-class that none of his adversaries would subsequently eclipse.
Lapierre then took over and remained at the front of the field until mid-distance, but unexpected understeer and an unexplained rear vibration precipitated a dramatic drop-off in performance and forced the Signatech-Alpine crew onto the defensive. Richelmi found himself similarly afflicted, and it required a superhuman effort from all three drivers to salvage a hard-fought third-place finish at the chequered flag.
The following day, Menezes – who was recently upgraded from FIA Silver status to Gold off the back of his standout results this season – switched garages to climb behind the wheel of the cutting-edge, phenomenally potent Porsche 919 Hybrid, in so doing becoming the first of his countrymen to sample a top flight sportscar in the modern era.
The Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé wasted no time at all in getting up-to-speed in the formidable 900bhp prototype – a car capable of sprinting from 0-60mph in an eye-watering 2.2 seconds – as he lapped close to the pace of its present incumbents and outperformed all of his fellow rookies, clearly impressing Porsche in the process.
“Gustavo did a very respectable job considering he had never sat in the car before,” reflected Porsche Team’s Head Racing Engineer Steven Mitas. “He had three runs – two on scrubbed tyres and the last on new tyres. He was pleasantly surprised with the performance of the car, particularly the braking and acceleration which is obviously quite different to LMP2.”
Indeed, Menezes could scarcely wipe the broad smile off his face after climbing out of the cockpit at the end of the test, waxing lyrical about his first experience of factory LMP1 machinery – and in the current world championship and Le Mans-winning car, no less. As he evaluates his options for 2017, it has certainly whetted his appetite and provided him with food for thought.
“That was surreal – like living a dream,” remarked the 22-year-old, a former recipient of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “It was an opportunity that I was absolutely determined to make the most of, because it’s something I’ve been building towards for a long time.
“I spent a few hours with the Porsche boys on Thursday running through everything and the regular drivers gave me all the advice they could, but a lot of things you just have to get a feel for yourself. The 919 Hybrid is unreal. The overall grip is amazing, it’s so stable and it accelerates like a rocket. I was blown away by the power, the torque and the gearbox; you’re only at half-throttle and you’re already running through the gears, which is outrageous! It felt like an LMP2 car on nitro and steroids!
“I got comfortable very quickly and I really enjoyed the day. I’m hugely thankful to the FIA WEC promoter for putting me forward for the test and to Porsche for having me; they brought me in and treated me like any of their other drivers and I had a great time.
“I obviously owe a massive debt of gratitude to Alpine, too, and to everybody else that has supported me. Although I was a bit disappointed with our result in Bahrain after two perfect stints that enabled us to open up an eight-second lead, we shouldn’t lose sight of what an awesome season we’ve had. We won a lot of races – including the Le Mans 24 Hours – we never finished lower than fourth and ultimately, we are world champions! It’s been an incredible first year for me in endurance racing, and the LMP1 test just underlined how hard I’m willing to work to get into a car like that! Hopefully, it was a taste of things to come…”
Source. Russell Atkins Media/Photo. jtap