Gustavo Menezes is the latest open-wheel convert to join the FIA World Endurance Championship, a move in which the young American is hoping will lead to a long and successful career in top-level sports car racing.
The 21-year-old Californian, who is coming off two seasons of the FIA European F3 Championship, has made the full-time switch to endurance racing this year, joining the Signatech Alpine squad in what’s become a rejuvenated and highly competitive LMP2 class.
“Last year I was competing in F3 in Europe and I had a few tastes of sports car racing in America in the PC class,” Menezes told Sportscar365. “It was actually great that I got that opportunity because it prepared me a lot for this.
“Midway through last season, we started looking at what are the best opportunities to continue my career into a professional career. Immediately, P2 was one of the main topics.”
Menezes, who made selected Prototype Challenge starts with RSR Racing over the last three seasons, got his first laps in a LMP2 car in a post-season test with Signatech late last year, having taken a red-eye flight from Macau to Bahrain for the opportunity.
His effort was rewarded, with the former Star Mazda driver impressing in the test and having been signed alongside Frenchmen Nicolas Lapierre and Stephane Richelmi for the team’s 2016 campaign.
It marks a transition of sorts for Menezes, who has spent the last five years racing full-time in Europe but never before with a French team. However, it’s been easier than expected.
“I was very surprised, as the team comes from a F3 background, the engineering staff… they’ve all worked in F3 in the past, so it’s an environment I’m very accustomed to,” he said. “They were very welcoming in helping me get used to the car.
“They had seen my driving style and they were helping me adapt right away because they know where I come from.
“It’s a almost a bit of an exception. It’s a lot more comfortable than I would have thought and everyone’s getting along so well.
“It’s funny to say that an American guy is really happy with the French! It’s going really well. I’m really happy with everyone.”
Menezes has already impressed behind the wheel of the team’s Alpine A460 Nissan, having set competitive lap times in last month’s official pre-season Prologue test at Paul Ricard and has been gelling well with his French co-drivers.
While the LMP2 class features a stacked field this year, with 11 cars set to do battle beginning with this weekend’s season-opening Six Hours of Silverstone, the Silver-rated Menezes has set optimistic goals considering their pre-season strength.
“It’s difficult to say as a rookie as I don’t want to be overconfident because I think there’s so much to learn and there’s a lot of very experienced people,” he said.
“The team has a proven history. They’ve done great in the ELMS in the past and this year with the new car that won Le Mans in 2015 [as an Oreca 05] with a proven engine package an proven drivers…
“I see no reason why we shouldn’t set our mindset to fight for a championship and Le Mans right away.”
While not completely giving up on his open-wheel dreams, Menezes sees the WEC as one of the strongest proving grounds in the motorsports world today.
“It’s a realistic future that I would be very happy with,” he said. “When you walk around the paddock here, you see how professional the teams are and the work ethic. It feels like you’re part of a big program.
“It was a big step for me, coming from Formula 3, in the way the team works and the way they listen and expect you to perform as well. It’s a very good environment. I’d be very happy to stay here for the rest of my career, honestly.”
That, no doubt, means LMP1 is on the radar screen for the rising American star.
“That’s a dream that’s a lot more likely than Formula One for a lot of drivers,” Menezes said. “When you start looking at F1, it’s a dream in the far sunset, where LMP1 is possible.
“They’re looking at drivers from P2 all the time. There’s always manufacturers dabbling around and if one manufacturer joins in the next few years, that’s six to nine seats available, like that.
“All I can do is prove myself as well as possible. But honestly, I’d be happy to stay in P2, P1, GT… anything, as long as I can prove myself.”