Gustavo Menezes has taken a significant step forward in his burgeoning motorsport career, after being recruited by factory-backed sportscar outfit Signatech-Alpine to contest the prestigious FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) and legendary Le Mans 24 Hours in 2016.
Menezes has spent the past three seasons competing in Formula 3, placing fourth in the German Championship and going on to claim a brace of podiums and no fewer than 28 top ten finishes in the fiercely-disputed FIA Formula 3 European Championship – by common consent, the toughest junior single-seater series on the planet.
In-between his open-wheel exploits, the talented young American has showcased his sportscar racing credentials with eye-catching appearances in the Rolex 24 At Daytona – twice leading the Prototype Challenge field before falling victim to reliability woes – 12 Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans endurance classics.
Those performances brought him to the attention of Signatech-Alpine, for whom Menezes tested in Bahrain last November after the 2015 WEC finale. The highly-rated Santa Monica, California native impressed the team with his attitude, pace and feedback, in so doing earning himself one of the three available seats in the squad's potent new Alpine A460.
As he prepares to graduate from European-level competition to the World Championship stage for his first full-time sportscar assault, Menezes can scarcely conceal his anticipation.
“I'm ridiculously excited for the season ahead!” enthused the 21-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé. “It will obviously be a big change after three years of Formula 3, but it was the right moment to move on. We spent the second half of 2015 exploring all the available options to determine what would be best to advance my career. We spoke to several teams, and when I tested with Signatech-Alpine in Bahrain, I was blown away!
“Being a heavier car than I've been used to, I could feel the extra power and the weight transfer, but at the same time you can really push it to the limit and have the confidence to lean on it through the quick corners because there is so much grip – and the brakes are incredible! I absolutely loved it, and the new Alpine A460 looks like a big step-up – an awesome piece of kit. It'll be the fastest car I've ever driven, with a top speed of around 330km/h, and it should be more aerodynamically efficient than its predecessor and kinder to the tyres.
“I immediately felt at home with the team, too; we 'clicked' really easily, and it's fantastic to now be a factory driver for such an illustrious manufacturer as Alpine. It's an iconic brand with a long and proud motorsport history, and they are on the verge of launching their first new road-going sportscar in more than 20 years, which looks set to be mega.
“Signatech itself has experience of Formula 3, so the engineers understand what is required to help guys like me to adjust, and that will be a huge advantage as we aim to hit the ground running. Not only that, but their record in sportscars speaks for itself; they won back-to-back European Le Mans Series titles in 2013 and 2014 and by the end of last season, they were one of if not the team to beat in WEC's LMP2 class. They're ultra-professional, and I really believe we can bring the best out of each other and achieve great things together.
“Endurance racing is a real team effort in which everybody has a crucial role to play, and it calls for a completely different mentality and style to single-seaters. Formula 3 is all about short, flat-out sprints, whereas in sportscars, the races are much longer and you're sharing the car with two other drivers. There's generally a lot more to think about – from managing the fuel load to looking after the tyres – as opposed to just putting your foot flat to the floor for 35 minutes.
“There's no doubt that we'll need to dig deep because the calibre of competition in WEC's LMP2 class is extremely high, with a lot of big-name drivers – some of them ex-Formula 1 – either already signed up or showing an interest. That will make for an immensely strong field, but the aim is clearly to be amongst the front-runners right from the outset and I'm confident we will be.”
Menezes' 2016 calendar will begin with the 6 Hours of Silverstone in April before taking in the awe-inspiring Le Mans 24 Hours, regularly described as the hardest race in the world. Over the course of the campaign, he will visit all four corners of the globe from Fuji to Mexico City and Shanghai to Spa-Francorchamps, with a 'home' outing for the former Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award winner at the celebrated Circuit of the Americas in Texas in September.
“WEC is a phenomenal championship with massive potential, so this really is a tremendous opportunity for me to prove myself and show what I can do on an international platform,” he acknowledged. “It's unquestionably the place to be for an increasing number of young, up-and-coming drivers, and as for Le Mans, although I've never been, I've always dreamt about it and have watched a lot of videos. I think pretty much every driver has a soft spot for that race and it's very high on my bucket list – it's right up there with the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix in terms of prestige.
“It's a supreme challenge and it will be amazing to compete there. With Signatech being a French team based just a couple of hours from Le Mans and Alpine a French manufacturer making a major comeback, it will be a particularly big deal this year and a very special occasion. I can't wait to be a part of it!
“My ultimate goal is to carve out a successful long-term career as a professional sportscar driver, and this is the first step on that journey. I'm in the right championship, with the right team and the right car – so now the rest of it is up to me.”
Signatech-Alpine team principal Philippe Sinault is similarly enthusiastic about the new partnership, and is convinced it will not take Menezes long to settle into the groove in the world's pre-eminent endurance racing series.
“I'm delighted that we have been able to reach an agreement with Gustavo,” he affirmed. “I followed his progress keenly in F3, and when he tested with us in Bahrain last November, he demonstrated a strong level of performance. What's more, he already comes with some LMP experience from the United SportsCar Championship. It is clear that he possesses genuine potential and all the necessary attributes to become a valued member of the Alpine family.”