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Magical Le Mans

It’s the greatest long-distance motoring event in the world, and the most important sports car race for Ferrari. In the run-up to this year's race, we chart the marque's illustrious Le Mans victories
Words: Gavin Green

Last year, the new Ferrari 499P won an impressive victory on the 100th anniversary of the world’s most important and longest-running sports car endurance race. This victory, Ferrari’s 10th overall, was also one of Maranello’s finest. James Calado, Antonio Giovinazzi and Alessando Pier Guidi were in the top positions for most of the race, beating off strong opposition from Toyota, Porsche, Peugeot and Cadillac. A 499P also started from pole position, underlining an impressive Le Mans debut for Ferrari’s new hybrid-electric hypercar.

Above: José Froilán González powers over the finish line in his 375 Plus, taking victory at Le Mans in 1954. It was the second win for Ferrari at the legendary road race 

Le Mans is where Ferrari first came to global prominence. Enzo Ferrari’s newly formed sports car company won the first post-war Le Mans, in 1949. The scars of war were still evident. A section of the outfield was still off limits for fear of land mines. 

The winning 166 MM was a small car by previous Le Mans-winning standards and had the smallest capacity engine ever to win the race, just 2.0-litres. Yet it was also the first V12 to win: previous winners typically had bigger capacity four- and six-cylinder engines.

The 166 MM set the template for future Ferraris and for future Le Mans winners. Its V12 would become a Ferrari signature. Its lightweight, aerodynamically efficient body would influence every car that would subsequently taste victory.

Above: Luigi Chinetti, at the wheel of a Ferrari 166 MM, pictured crossing the finish line at Le Mans in 1949. The heroic Chinetti drove for almost 23 of the race’s 24 hours after his teammate fell ill

That 1949 win was also heroic. Luigi Chinetti drove for almost 23 of the 24 hours after his teammate Peter Mitchell-Thomson, better known as Lord Selsdon, fell ill. Chinetti would go on to become Ferrari’s North American importer.

Ferrari’s second win was in 1954 and that is also now celebrated as one of its finest. The new Jaguar D-Type was the hot favourite. The Ferrari 375 Plus of José Froilán González led for much of the race, continually being attacked by a swarm of D-Types, including Stirling Moss’s much fancied car. The underdog Ferrari heroically hung on, including through heavy rain, helped by its superior reliability and some superb driving from González.

Above: Phil Hill takes victory at Le Mans in 1958. He steered his Ferrari 250 TR through torrential rain and won the race by an astonishing 12 laps

By 1958, Jaguar had notched up a hat trick of Le Mans wins and was race favourite. Also highly fancied was the new Aston Martin DB3S and new Porsche 718 RSK. Ferrari entered its proven 250 TR (Testa Rossa). The race was marred by atrocious weather: it rained for 15 hours, three of them torrential. In one of his greatest drives for the Scuderia, Phil Hill steered his 250 TR through the tempest – ably abetted by co-driver Olivier Gendebien – to vanquish the highly fancied British cars, beating the second-placed Aston Martin by 12 laps. It was the first Le Mans win for an American-born driver. Hill would go on to win Le Mans three times and became the first American F1 world champion, for Ferrari, in 1961.

Ferrari dominated Le Mans from 1960-1964. No win was more dominant, or more significant, than 1963’s victory. The 250 P scored the first-ever win for a rear-mid-engined car. It was also the first all-Italian win, Lorenzo Bandini and Ludovico Scarfiotti winning by 16 laps from a 250 GTO. Ferraris filled the first six places.

From left: José Froilán González, his Ferrari 375 Plus and his pit crew celebrate their victory in 1954; the Ferrari 250 P, driven by Lorenzo Bandini and Ludovico Scarfiotti, takes victory at Le Mans in 1963; the 250 LM of Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory following its win in 1965

By 1965, there was a new favourite. Ford had failed to beat Ferrari the previous year, but were back with an even bigger budget, a bigger team of cars and highly fancied drivers, including Phil Hill. Its new GT40 was powerful and fast. Eleven Fords were entered, including a monster-engine 7.0-litre version of the GT40.

Facing them was the new Ferrari 330 P2, plus an assortment of older P1s and 250 LMs entered by privateers. The early laps saw the GT40s and P2s dice for the lead. By the seventh hour all the Fords had retired. Then the P2s ran into trouble. Ferrari was trialling innovative new radial ventilation disc brakes, soon to become widespread in motor sport. Unfortunately, the new experimental discs began to crack.

The number 50 Ferrari 499P of Fuoco, Molina and Nielsen in action last year

And, so, the hugely unfancied 250 LM of future world champion Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory, entered by Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team, won by five laps from another privately entered 250 LM. It would be Ferrari’s last outright victory for 58 years, until the 499P memorably won last year’s race.

Cover image: The number 51 Ferrari 499P wins Le Mans in 2023. It was Ferrari’s 10th overall win, on the 100th anniversary of the race