A very special round of the Ferrari Challenge Trofeo Pirelli Europe ran at Le Mans as a support race to the iconic Centenary 24 Hours, a unique event that saw Ferrari’s return to the Hypercar top class with an extraordinary and historic victory for the 499P number 51.
A global Challenge. The Prancing Horse one-make series brought together drivers from all the Ferrari Challenge series for the eagerly anticipated Circuit de la Sarthe round. Besides the European series, many came from the North American and British championships, and there were even teams from this year’s newly launched Japanese series. The weekend’s four podiums fully capture the uniqueness of this event, with awards for all the championships represented. As well as the European podiums, there were wins for the American Matthew Kurzejewski, third place for Japan’s Nobuhiro Imada in the Trofeo Pirelli Am and third place for the UK’s Paul Hogarth in the Coppa Shell Am.
Five times shark. Among the many excited newcomers competing for the first time on the 13-kilometre-plus circuit in the Loire Valley some were making their fifth appearance, just like the Ferrari Challenge, which has come to Le Mans five times in its 31-year history: the “shark” Fons Scheltema returned to the French track driving for Kessel Racing after his runner-up finish in 2019. However, things didn’t go as well this year, with the Dutchman having to settle for sixth place in the Coppa Shell. The gap between him and the head of the standings grew to 46 points.
Neubauer’s revenge. However, Thomas Neubauer did considerably better than four years ago in his unfortunate experience of 2019, when a collision on lap one put him out of contention. This time the 2022 World Champion took pole position and led throughout, triumphing in his debut season in the Ferrari Challenge. Neubauer’s performance in the 24 Hours was less positive, with a premature end to the LMGTE Am class race for the young Frenchman and crewmates Louis Prette and Giacomo Petrobelli with the JMW Motorsport team.
Ferrari paddock. During the Le Mans week, a strong connection built up between the Ferrari Challenge drivers, the 499P crews and the official drivers involved in the LMGTE Am class. Between the sessions, there was plenty of advice, encouragement and opportunities for socialising. One of the most involved was Nicklas Nielsen, driver of the Prancing Horse’s number 50 hypercar, who reminisced about his early days in the one-make series: “The positive aspect is that I could show my potential in a class where all the cars were identical. It’s a situation where you can make a difference. So the Ferrari Challenge gave me the tools to move into GT cars and then Hypercars. The situation has evolved quickly, but I’ve managed to keep up over the last four years.”
Halfway mark. As usual, the single 35-minute race awarded increased points, starting with 20 points instead of 15 for the class winner. Coupled with the inclusion of drivers from other series, this helped spice up the overall standings as we enter the business end of the season, with the last three rounds on the 2023 calendar. While Eliseo Donno is comfortably ahead in the Trofeo Pirelli, the battle behind him is fierce, with three drivers – Thomas Fleming, Bence Valint and Max Mugelli – bunched together within eight points. Thomas Engstler’s blank at Le Mans in the Trofeo Pirelli Am was not fully exploited by his closest rivals, while David Gostner, runner-up in the race, now lies in fourth place in the standings.
Axel Sartingen in the Coppa Shell also held off his rivals’ comeback, with the day’s winner, Manuela Gostner, now second in the standings, only shaving a few points off his lead. The Coppa Shell Am standings are tight, with Martinus Richter moving closer to Kirk Baerwaldt at the top, thanks to his second straight win. The next event for all drivers is Estoril in mid-July.