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In it for the long run

Next year Ferrari will compete for outright victory at Le Mans for the first time in 50 years. We look back at the Prancing Horse’s glorious record in the world’s most famous sports car race.
Words: Gavin Green - Video: Ollie McIntyre

Le Mans is where Ferrari forged its international reputation. After its 1949 victory, it was elevated into the sports car premier league.

There had been earlier wins for Enzo Ferrari’s precocious new sports car company. Just one year after the first Ferrari left the new Maranello factory in 1947, Prancing Horse cars won Sicily’s Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia – the daunting 1000-mile road race from Brescia to Rome and back. These were elite sports car races, never mind that entrants were overwhelmingly Italian. 

Le Mans, on the other hand, was truly international, attracting the best teams from France, Germany and the UK, as well as Italy. Later, the Americans and Japanese would chase (and achieve) glory.

Watch the history of Ferrari's success at Le Mans and get a glimpse of their long-awaited comeback next year

Then, as now, it was the world’s greatest sports car race: a 24-hour around the clock high-speed marathon on a taxing circuit including a famously long straight, where nowadays cars regularly exceed 320 km/h (200 mph). In 1949, the winning Ferrari covered an astonishing 3178 km (1974 miles) in the 24 hours. (Last year the winner covered 5177 km, or 3217 miles, averaging 215 km/h or 134mph.) The extraordinary rigours of 24-hour racing have proved invaluable in car development, particularly for powertrains, brakes and tyres.

Le Mans is the world’s oldest active endurance sports car race, 100 years old next year. Along with the Monaco GP and Indianapolis 500, it is probably the world’s most famous motor race. 

The 1949 race was the first post-war Le Mans. The circuit had been extensively

rebuilt after heavy bombing (it had been used by the Luftwaffe as a landing strip during the war). A section of the outfield was still off limits, for fear of landmines.

Luigi Chinetti takes the chequered flag at Le Mans in 1949, marking Ferrari's first victory and the first victory for a car with a V12 engine

Entries came mostly from fancied French and British brands. Two Ferrari 166MMs started. It was a physically small car for a potential Le Mans winner and its engine was also unusual: a small capacity (just 2.0 litres) V12 while rivals typically used much bigger four- or six-cylinder engines.

Soon after nightfall, Luigi Chinetti’s Ferrari took the lead. He never lost it.

Chinetti slowed towards the end with a slipping clutch but still won by a lap. Heroically, he drove for almost 23 of the 24 hours. Teammate Peter Mitchell-Thomson, better known as Lord Selsdon, felt unwell and managed just one hour and 12 minutes behind the wheel. 

The victorious 166 MM was the first V12-powered car to win Le Mans. Its 2.0-litre engine had the smallest capacity of any Le Mans winner, a record held until 2015.

Phil Hill tears around the Le Mans circuit in 1961 in his 250 TR on the way to his second victory for Ferrari

It was the first of nine Ferrari Le Mans wins. For the next two decades, it would become Ferrari’s most successful race. Victories followed in 1954, 1958 and then six straight wins from 1960 to 1965.

They included heroic drives from future world champion Phil Hill, who steered his 250 TR (Testa Rossa) to victory in horrendous conditions in 1958, and, four years earlier, José Froilán González driving a 375 Plus, narrowly beating the highly fancied new D-type Jaguars. The last win, in 1965, was also special: Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory beat the new, big budget Ford GT40s in their largely unfancied (and comprehensively outgunned in power) 250 LM.

Now, 50 years since it last competed at Le Mans, Ferrari prepares to return to the pinnacle of the sport with the new 499P Hypercar, pictured here at the 2022 Finali Mondiali

Now, 50 years after Scuderia Ferrari last entered Le Mans – when a 312P finished second in 1973 – the Prancing Horse is back. Ferraris have raced at the Sarthe circuit regularly since, often achieving class victories. Indeed, just last year a Ferrari 488 GTE won the GTE Pro class.

Next year, though, Ferrari’s stunning new 499P will vie for outright victory. It competes in the elite LMH (Le Mans Hypercar) class in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), including Le Mans, and uses an avant-garde hybrid electric powertrain: a twin-turbo mid-rear V6 296 GT3-based engine combined with a front electric motor. Total power is 680 cv. 

The car is futuristic, a test bed for new Ferrari technology. Yet it is steeped in heritage, including a colour scheme based on the 50-year-old 312P – and a celebrated Le Mans record that goes back to a famous win 73 years ago.