Le Mans is the world’s most bewitching motor race. It’s only when the sun sets and darkness envelops La Sarthe that the enormity of the challenge strikes you: 24 hours is a hell of a long time to race a car.
Ferrari heads into this weekend’s event with the 488 GTE having established an impressive lead in a closely fought class. The new car heralds the return of the Ferrari turbo engine, last seen in the early 1990s with the F40. The front and rear extractor profile provides more downforce, while the gearbox is transversal and both the suspension and brakes have been updated.
Absence from the LMP1 category may preclude an overall win for Ferrari in 2016, but Le Mans remains the scene of some of the Prancing Horse’s most spectacular competition wins. Nine of them, in fact.
Luigi Chinetti drives to victory in 1949 Photo: Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images
Not the least of these came at the first attempt. Following a 10-year gap, the race returned in 1949, and one of Enzo Ferrari’s key allies, the indefatigable Luigi Chinetti, twice a former winner, persuaded the Old Man to enter. Two 166 MM Barchettas lined up on the grid on 25 June 1949 and, 24 hours later, Chinetti won the race, pretty much single-handedly, piloting the same chassis that had won the Mille Miglia a few months earlier.
The second win came five years later when Ferrari’s 375 Plus dominated proceedings. The 4.9-litre V12 had enormous firepower and, despite a nerve-shredding last pit-stop, José Froilán-González (along with co-driver Maurice Trintignant) took a gutsy win.
In 1958, Ferrari’s Le Mans imperial streak began, a period that coincided with the arrival of the 250 Testa Rossa, powered by the Gioachino Colombo-designed 3.0-litre V12.
Olivier Gendebien and Phil Hill race in the Ferrari 330 TRI/LM in the 1962 race Photo: LAT Photographic
Phil Hill, the quiet American who would later win the Formula One world title for Ferrari, got himself firmly on everyone’s radar by winning alongside Olivier Gendebien. The Belgian won again in 1960, with compatriot Paul Frère co-driving. The new 250 GT SWB also racked up the top four places in its class, a portent of things to come.
In 1961, the streamlined TR/61s took a one-two finish, Gendebien and Hill triumphant again, with Willy Mairesse and Mike Parkes finishing three laps behind.
Hill and Gendebien won again in 1962, despite more rule changes and the fact that the 330 TRI/LM was really a revised version of the previous year’s car, now powered by a 4.0-litre V12. Notably, this was the last front-engined Ferrari to win at Le Mans; the mid-engined configuration was poised to dominate from here on.
Hill and Gendebien celebrate victory in 1958 Photo: LAT Photographic
In 1963 the 250 P won, with Lorenzo Bandini and Ludovico Scarfiotti driving, a handful of 250 GTOs were firmly in the mix, and the 330 LMB was still extant. In 1964, Ford’s celebrated GT40 landed, but Ferrari prevailed: six of the top 10 finishers were Ferraris, Jean Guichet and Nino Vaccarella at the summit in their 275 P.
Ferrari’s last overall victory came in 1965. The 250 LM remains epochal, and it was the NART-entered car (that man Chinetti again) that triumphed, with Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory at the wheel.
Added to those nine overall triumphs are 25 class wins for Ferrari, stretching back to 1957 and Lucien Bianchi and Georges Harris’ victory in the 2.0 litre category. Most recently, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander, racing for Risi Competizione, have their eyes on an historic third Le Mans win, following victories in 2012 and 2014.
The new Ferrari 488 GTE in action earlier this season
Ford are back again this season, reigniting one of motorsports’ keenest rivalries. The American manufacturer’s GT model is an extreme car, one showing plenty of potential as we head further into the season. It all promises to be a hugely exciting 2016.
Whatever happens this weekend, Ferrari and Le Mans have an inviolable connection. A connection that the 488 GTE reinforces.