The sight of 350km/h bright red pencils otherwise known as Formula One cars screaming around circuits today is what most people think of when someone blurts out “Ferrari race car”. However, Scuderia Ferrari’s history in sports car racing and, in particular, the 24-hours of Le Mans is worthy of standing alongside their 73-year legacy in F1.
Some of the greatest drivers, greatest racing cars, and fiercest battles have involved the Modena-based manufacturer, and their six consecutive wins at Le Mans stood as a record for decades. Now, in 2023 and on the 100th anniversary of Le Mans, Ferrari has fielded a factory top-tier team at the round-the-clock classic for the first time in 50 years, and they’ve won.
Their 10th outright win at what most consider the greatest motorsport event in the world will stand as a special one, but it stands on the shoulders of some epic history.
- Enzo, ex-Alfa
- Le Mans: the greatest race of all
- Domination 1960-1965
- 58 years later
Enzo Ferrari didn’t create his legendary car brand out of fat air: he’d been Alfa Romeo’s racing manager for years, having raced the famous Milanese machines as a young man. Once he was let go from Alfa he set out to build his own racing team and cars, and he started with sports car racing in the late 1940s.
Ferraris had already shown great promise winning the ferocious Mille Miglia in 1949 (they actually won the 1000-mile epic from 1948-’52) and the reputation for these new, high-tech cars to excel in long distance racing helped inspire two privateer entries to the 1949 Le Mans 24-hour; the first LM24 following World War II.
The Le Mans 24-hour was already considered one of the greatest motor races before World War 2 but the sudden explosion of car development through the later 1940s and the thirst for fun of a war-weary Europe only added to the excitement for a race which went longer than any other circuit-based event. And Ferrari was about to write its legacy.
Le Mans: the greatest race of all
For the 1949 LM24 wasn’t yet stacked with factory teams trying to steamroller through with multi-car teams, like Mercedes, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Porsche and Ford would do later on. This left the door open for more than 50 individual cars to battle hard for the win, knowing there were no team orders at play.
As with most legendary European tracks of the time Circuit La Sarthe was a brutally fast road loop in this era, with crazy high-speeds being held for most of the 13.5km lap. Repeat this over 24-hours and it becomes one of the single greatest tests of engineering and bravery rolled into one exhausting, thrilling event. And then throw in the added pressure of night racing with cars of varying speed potentials in changing weather!
So, the 140hp 2.0-litre V12 Ferrari 166 MM wasn’t expected to win against other, more powerful French and English machinery, yet two-time LM24-winner Luigi Chinetti brought Peter Mitchell-Thompson’s 166 MM home in first place. Amazingly, he drove 22.5-hours of the 24-hour race, a feat of epic endurance in itself!
In 1954 Ferrari’s ferocious 5.0-litre V12 375 Plus took on the new, high-tech aero-slicked Jaguar D-Types and won, despite heavy bouts of rain favouring the six-cylinder lightweight Jaguars. Jose Froilan-Gonzalez and Maurice Trintignant brought the sledgehammer home ahead of the scalpel, in a hugely popular win.
In 1958 racing fans were abuzz with the prospect of watching works teams from Aston Martin, Jaguar, Porsche, and Ferrari all duke it out at La Sarthe. With engines restricted to 3.0-litres of capacity to limit speeds there was concern the race might not have the same thrills as years past but this wasn’t to be, and Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien took a sensational win for the new 250 Testa Rossa; one of Ferrari’s most special racing models.
Gendebien and the Ferrari 250 TR would become frequent visitors to the top step of the Le Mans podium in the 1960s. The Belgian endurance driving ace drove Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa models to wins at the Le Mans 24-hour in 1960, ’61 and ’62, enshrining his place among the all-time racing legends forever. Ferrari set race records and even went 1-2-3 in ’61!
Olivier Gendebien, one of Ferrari’s favourite drivers, was ably assisted with some of the best driving talent of the day, including with his 1958 driving partner Phil Hill. The first American to win the Formula One World Driver’s Championship in 1961, Hill was racing alongside Gendebien in ’61 and ’62, while it was an all-Belgian pairing of Gendebien and Paul Frere who won in ’60.
The 1962 race was notable as the last win by a front-engined race car; the formidable, 330 TRI/LM Spyder. This was a one-off variant of the 250 TR built using a crashed Testa Rossa just to win Le Mans, and featuring a larger Tipo 163 four-litre V12 engine than the 250’s three-litre Colombo unit.
Ferrari F1 ace Lorenzo Bandini and Ludovico Scarfiotti took the win in 1963 using the new mid-engined Ferrari 250 P, one of the most beautiful sports racing cars of all time, ushering in a new era for Ferrari sports racing cars. The following year saw the 250 P modified into the 275 P, and Nino Vaccarella and Jean Guichet take a hugely popular win, as the Italian brand stamped its dominance on the French race.
Posthumous 1970 Formula One Driver’s Champion, Austria’s Jochen Rindt, was paired with Americans Masten Gregory and Ed Hugus to take out the ’65 Le Mans 24-hour. This would be the final outright win for the Scuderia Ferrari at Le Mans in the classic era as the Ford GT40 and Porsche 917 juggernauts prevented Enzo from standing high at La Sarthe again. In 1973 Ferrari would leave sports cars to concentrate on F1.
58 years later
Sports car racing has been through some huge, tumultuous eras since Ferrari last tasted victory at La Sarthe. In 2023 there is renewed interest in the pinnacle of closed-wheel racing, with Cadillac, Ferrari, and Porsche all joining Toyota in the top-tier of sports cars.
In unbelievable scenes, at the 100th anniversary race at Le Mans, Ferrari’s 499P Hypercar driven by James Calado, Antonio Giovinazzi and Alessandro Pier Guidi took a hugely sentimental victory. The 499P saw huge competition from other factory entries but also battled treacherous wet conditions and a hard-charging Toyota GR010 prototype to come out on top.
Are we standing on the precipice of another golden era of Ferrari at Le Mans? With the new Hypercar rules in place we can only hope!