Some days live in the collective memory forever. For petrolheads, June 11, 2023, will forever be one of those days: the day Ferrari came back to win at Le Mans, after five decades away from La Sarthe.
I see a problem with this text. This is a newspaper and what I am writing is hardly news. It happened almost two weeks ago. But bear with me, I promise to make it interesting. Unless you are a Toyota die-hard fan – in that case, you better turn the page now.
All of those who walked around planet Earth in the last week and a half will know that Ferrari have won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That may seem pretty standard stuff as Ferrari is the biggest name in the automotive world, a name synonym with motorsport, and Le Mans is the biggest race on the calendar.
However, that is not so. Ferrari may be permanently linked with racing, but it had not contested the top category at Le Mans in exactly 50 years. FIFTY years. Most of the people in the world today weren’t even born. But that’s not all. It had not won in 58 years, and this was the Centenary Edition of the historic race, first run in 1923. It will take another 100 years for such a momentous occasion to happen again. And who knows what the world, less alone racing, will look like in 100 years.
If I say this was the most important motor race to be held in the 21st century, you may think I am overreacting, but think about it: the 100-year celebration of the sporting event National Geographic themselves say it’s the biggest in the world. Bigger than the Football World Cup; bigger than the finals at Wimbledon; bigger even than the Olympic Games.
Like so many other incredible stories of victory over adversity, this one began almost purely by chance. When Formula One introduced the cost cap rule for the 2021 season, implementing a spending ceiling of $145 million per team, the biggest outfits – that’s Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull – all found themselves with a major problem: what would they do with all the redundant personnel of engineers, designers, technicians and more, who were a big part of the racing effort as a whole but, if kept, would push the spending ceiling well above the limit?
At Maranello, Mattia Binotto, then the sporting and technical director of Scuderia Ferrari, convinced the board to keep everybody within the brand, allocating all of those who could not stay at F1 to a new programme in the World Endurance Championship, with the ultimate goal of, eventually, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans again. Eventually.
This was 2021. All the technical expertise at Ferrari would surely produce a competitive car, but I am absolutely certain no one in Maranello – NO ONE – believed the team could win Le Mans first time out.
In fact, it’s quite rare to see any driver or team member from any team contesting the event talking about winning. Le Mans is so random, so unpredictable, many sure-fire winners have fallen by the side of the road throughout the race over the years. When the Toyota TS050 lost power on the last lap in 2016, after dominating rival Porsche for 23 hours and 59 minutes, the legend of Le Mans choosing its winners and not the other way round became even more palpable.
In 2023, leading up to the 24 hours, Ferrari had lost the first three races of the WEC to Toyota and the wise money was on the Japanese constructor winning Le Mans for the sixth year in a row – which would have been more than fair, as Toyota have been giving more to motorsport as a whole in the last decade than any other maker, beating each and every rival at Le Mans, the World Rally Championship and the Dakar Rally.
Coming into La Sarthe, the reality was this: Toyota was on their second full competitive year under the new Hypercar rules, now the top-flight category on the WEC and Le Mans, while all others were still in the infancy of their efforts.
Peugeot had done a few races in 2022 but was still learning how their revolutionary 9X8 racer works; the Scuderia Glickenhaus cars, however competitive they may be, would never have the means to beat a works constructor; and the likes of Ferrari, Porsche and Cadillac were objectively on their fourth race ever with their respective machines.
One year before Le Mans 2023, Ferrari were still testing the 499P chassis at Maranello. The car then had its first outing at the Fiorano test track in July. Toyota were winning races with their GR010 Hybrid when the 499P was still a project on paper. And remember, one is the biggest car maker in the world, the other a small operation out of a little Italian village.
So, you see how winning Le Mans in 2023 was nothing more than a dream for Ferrari. A dream a Hollywood screenwriter would deem too impossible to be believable. But the reasons why Ferrari is the greatest name in automotive history are made of this kind of stuff; of magical moments that create mythical stories and make the passion for these cars and this badge go from generation to generation.
Remember this: in 1967, when Ferrari was only 20 years old as a constructor, it had already built the world’s most desirable cars, it already was Ferrari as we know it today. How? By making these things happen. By playing with people’s emotions and then building them into four-wheeled pieces of art.
The brand’s Le Mans racer, the 499P, marries the 296 GTB road car V6 engine, producing 680 horse power, to a highly complex hybrid system that adds another 272 electric ponies. Weight is kept very low at 1030kg, thus generating brutal performance and speed. Besides, it is incredibly beautiful, a mix of modernity and classic Le Mans prototype lines that give it an even bigger aura.
And now it won the most important Le Mans race ever (again, not an exaggeration), the 499P instantly became an icon of Ferrari lore and one of the most important and significant racing Ferraris ever built. Necessarily, it is also one of the greatest racing cars in the history of the world.
As for the drivers, I don’t think I have ever been more jealous of someone in my whole life. Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Antonio Giovinazzi put together a performance that will live in the hearts and minds of the tifosi, well, forever. Overnight, these three have joined an exclusive and illustrious list of Ferrari’s greatest ever drivers. A list that is made of names like Schumacher, Lauda, Villeneuve, Hill, Surtees, Bandini, Scarfiotti, Fangio or Ascari.
The two Italians, joined by an Englishman with Portuguese roots, driving the #51 Ferrari 499P, made such a great pairing that there was less than one tenth of a second between the fastest lap of each of them – precisely 0.092 seconds on a 13.6km lap! That is how you win a race. That is how you make history.
Enormous kudos to AF Corse as well, obviously. The Italian outfit, responsible for the Ferrari GT programme in the WEC and Le Mans for the past decades, stepped up its game in the Hypercar category and duly beat everyone else, performing faultlessly for the duration of the 342 laps.
It was a magnificent race, with five different constructors and six different cars leading in the first three hours – something never seen before in 100 years of racing at the circuit of La Sarthe – and with Ferrari and Toyota battling it out throughout the 24 hours until the #8 Toyota crashed and lost more than 3 minutes to the Ferrari, 90 minutes before the end.
From there, the red #51 car simply had to manage the pace and make sure it did not have any electronic glitches. And it didn’t. Tom Kristensen, the driver with most overall wins in Le Mans history, with nine titles to his name, waived the chequered flag to Alessandro Pier Guidi, the Italian who was surely the happiest man on the planet at that moment in time.
Kristensen himself, in the aftermath of the race, confessed this was, in his opinion, if not the greatest Le Mans 24 Hours in history, then surely one of the greatest. Ferrari twice overtaking the Toyota on track to reclaim the lead of the race, taking their 10th overall victory, on their return after a 50-year absence and on the Centenary Edition – it was just one of those days that writes the history of the world and makes the Prancing Horse a cultural phenomenon like no other in automotive terms.
Me? I watched the whole thing, only dozing off for a few brief moments in the middle of the night and crying like a baby at the end. The last time Ferrari had won at Le Mans, in 1965, with an achingly gorgeous 250 LM, my father was 10 years old and my mother was a three-year-old toddler. I was not even an idea yet. And still, I have read about that victory time and time again. This one will surely elicit the same results today and tomorrow and, inevitably, be a reference point for the younger generations of Ferraristi the world over.
They will be talking about AF Corse, Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, Antonio Giovinazzi and the incredible 499P for the rest of their lives.