Ferrari’s win at 24 Hours of Le Mans sees the title head ‘home’ after 58 years
In 2023, Ferrari stamped the seal on their return to Le Mans with a long-awaited victory, a fitting achievement for the centenary of the iconic race.
In 1965, Ferrari stood on the top step of the podium in Le Mans when drivers Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory brought their Ferrari 250 LM to victory, recording top speeds of more than 194km/h. It was the sixth consecutive victory for the team in a remarkable winning streak. It was also the last, until now.
Fifty-eight years later, Ferrari returned to winning ways at Le Mans. As glasses of Champagne sparkled against a summer blue sky and red flags waved across the circuit, it almost seemed worth the wait.
The team from Maranello looked racy from the start of the weekend, but the competition against Toyota was fierce.
The Hyperpole session – where the fastest cars in each class get one final shot at putting in a qualifying lap – kicked off at 8pm on Thursday, 8 June.
The track was cooling off from the blistering heat of the day, and the conditions were perfect for each car to demonstrate one thing, and one thing alone: speed.
Each team selected their two fastest drivers to push the machines to the limit in bids for pole position, and Ferrari quickly asserted their dominance.
On the first flying lap, Alessandro Pier Guidi blasted around the circuit with a time of 3:23.897 in Ferrari’s No 51 car. In the sister No 50 car, Antonio Fuoco guided his Ferrari 499P around the circuit to the top with a time of 3:22.982. Ferrari had locked out the front row.
On Friday afternoon, after Thursday’s Hyperpole, crowds packed into Le Mans’ town centre. Each team received cheers as their drivers made their way along the parade. When Ferrari rounded the corner, a roar rose from the barriers where fans were pressed, hands lifted and reaching towards their heroes.
This is a team that had not competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 1973; yet, as they made their return, it was as though they had never left a half a century ago. The Tifosi and Le Mans welcomed them back with open arms. Such is the power of Ferrari.
Raring to go
As the teams made their way to the grid on race day, there was a clear challenge hanging in the air. Ferrari had shown they were raring to go, but the Toyotas in the rear-view mirrors could not be discounted. It was a battle between two factories steeped in racing history, both at Le Mans and away from it.
Although the Ferrari team had stepped away from competing at Le Mans for 50 years, Toyota had stayed. Ferrari could not discount this.
“Looking ahead to the race … we know that we always aim to win, but we are aware that we have a young car and team, and that we drivers still have minimal experience in this class. So we will do our best, hoping to have a reliable car, and we will try to put pressure on our more experienced opponents who have already enjoyed success here at Le Mans,” said car No 51 driver Antonio Giovinazzi ahead of the weekend.
“We know [Toyota] are strong. They still are the best in the Hypercar [category]. We [Ferrari] are the rookies,” Guidi echoed.
“We’re working hard to be at their level,” said driver James Calado.
When the 62 cars lined up on track, there was a sense of anticipation across the circuit. For the next 24 hours, the drivers pushed themselves and their machines as far as they could go.
Witnessing the sheer speed of these vehicles was breathtaking, but the real test at Le Mans is endurance. Running for a full day, in challenging conditions, against a full field of 61 other cars, is the only way to win.
As the starting flag waved, the outside world fell away. The only clock that mattered was the one that counted down over the next 24 hours, for participants and fans alike.
A total of 325,000 guests packed into the circuit venue, filling the grandstands, viewing points and race villages. They were young and old, families with small children – with earphones to protect against the roar of the cars – and groups of mates who have been loyally attending for decades.
A few hours in, ominous clouds gathered and rain began to fall, affecting race strategy but not the spirit. Spectators simply threw on plastic ponchos, put up umbrellas or headed for cover close to a big screen.
The rain stopped and, as the heat of the day gave way to a cool evening, the party continued.
Before midnight, fireworks filled the sky and the beer still flowed. In the darkness, the headlights of the cars were blinding each time they flew past.
By this stage each team had put their fastest driver behind the wheel. And a cooling track and spread-out field meant the fastest laps were being pumped out.
A new dawn
The sun rose just after 5am, and the faithful were still pressed against the barriers to witness those cars that had survived the night speed through.
The halfway mark of the race was reached, and the battle between Toyota and Ferrari was tense. Each took a turn at the front of the leaderboard, swapping positions with a few daring moves and well-timed pit stops.
A new day dawned, and the pressure was still on. Then, with 100 minutes to go, the No 8 Toyota, which had been within striking distance of the Ferrari, found the barriers, giving the Maranello team the advantage.
“You always had glimpses of hope, because we led for so long, but you know that anything can happen,” Calado said.
Later, with just 25 minutes on the clock, the 499P struggled to restart. Would Ferrari be their own enemy? All eyes were on the red garage until, at last, the hypercar peeled out of the pits, retaking the lead of the race.
With the last few seconds on the clock counting down, the No 51 Ferrari flew across the finish line and the racing world erupted.
“This is what we work all our lives to do, to get these amazing moments, and it’s very … emotional,” Calado told Daily Maverick.
The spray of Champagne filled the air. Gold wreaths were placed around the necks of the team in red. History was made here, as the iconic Le Mans trophy headed “home”, to the stables in Maranello. DM
This story first appeared in DM168 at the weekend.