American racer Gustavo Menezes is geared up to defend his 24 Hours of Le Mans crown with Signatech Alpine next weekend, but expects a tough challenge in the “insanely close” LMP2 class.
Menezes, 22, won Le Mans for Signatech Alpine last year alongside Nicolas Lapierre and Stephane Richelmi en route to the LMP2 crown in the World Endurance Championship, becoming the first American champion to win an FIA world title since 1981 in the process.
The revamped LMP2 class has looked closer than ever through the opening two rounds of the WEC season, with Menezes recording P4 and P5 finishes at Silverstone and Le Mans respectively in the No. 36 Signatech Alpine A470 Gibson.
Menezes returned to the Circuit de la Sarthe for the first time since his Le Mans victory last weekend, taking part in Sunday’s test running, with the official pre-race schedule set to get underway next week.
“The test day went well. It’s fantastic to go back to Le Mans and our speed looked good straight out-of-the-box,” Menezes said.
“With everybody following their individual agendas, it’s tricky to ascertain the true pecking order at this early stage. But one thing for sure is that it’s insanely close in LMP2.
“The No. 35 car put in a great lap, which proved the potential of the package we have and that’s promising because our pace was very similar but we just never got a clear run to show it.
“We concentrated on our own technical program, played around with a variety of different set-ups, came away with plenty of useful data and – most importantly of all – worked well together as a team.”
The new Oreca chassis (rebranded by the team) for 2017 and added power has resulted in a significant improvement in lap time for the LMP2 class, with straight line speeds outstripping those set by the LMP1 runners.
“At Le Mans in particular, you can really feel the extra downforce and power in LMP2 this year because the long straights allow the cars to properly stretch their legs,” Menezes explained.
“The Alpine A470 felt incredible to drive round there – more like a single-seater than ever before. We were hitting top speeds in excess of 330km/h, which was very impressive.
“In a non-competitive session, Nelson [Panciatici] was already eight seconds faster than last year’s best LMP2 qualifying time, meaning we’re likely to be even quicker come the race weekend itself.
“We still have a bit more work to do, of course, but I think we’re in reasonable shape and I’m really excited to return next week.
“The team and Alpine have placed their trust in me, and I want to reward them for that by fighting for the win again.
“The clear objective is to keep up my 100 per cent record at Le Mans and whilst that obviously won’t be easy, nothing worth having ever is. So bring it on!”
Menezes will defend his Le Mans LMP2 title on June 17-18.