History repeating? Remembering Ferrari at Le Mans

| 3 Mar 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari at Le Mans

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The relationship between Ferrari and Le Mans is a paradox.

By 1965, no marque had mastered the Circuit de La Sarthe better than the already nine-time winners. Not even Bentley. No manufacturer had more consecutive wins, either. Not even Alfa Romeo.

Half a century later, modern and casual fans consider there to be no relationship at all except for in the lower classes; Bentley, meanwhile, remains synonymous with Le Mans despite only three entries since 1930.

Ferrari also created the star of perhaps the greatest sports car racer nobody has heard of in Olivier Gendebien. He was near-unbeatable when the 1950s was being swapped for the ’60s.

But that might all change, with last week’s announcement that the Prancing Horse is going to build and develop a factory Le Mans Hypercar project for 2023 – exactly 50 years since it last raced at La Sarthe in the top class as a works team.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari at Le Mans
Luigi Chinetti’s epic win in 1949

While this news has sent a frisson of excitement through the endurance-racing community, it’s the perfect moment to remember Ferrari’s illustrious history at Le Mans.

Even the marque’s first win, little more than a year after Ferrari was formalised as a car-maker and four years since WW2 had ended, was special.

Luigi Chinetti – winner of Alfa’s last, 15 years earlier – raced Lord Selsdon’s privateer 166MM to victory almost single-handedly in 1949.

The 47-year-old Italian-living-in-America’s opening stint ended at 4:26am, his second resumed an hour’s catnap later until the flag. And it had been no plain-sailing cruise.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari at Le Mans
In 1960, Belgians OIivier Gendebien and Paul Frère won in the number 11 Ferrari

Five years later, Grand Prix winner José Froilán González teamed up with Maurice Trintignant and beat the Jaguars in a wet-weather epic.

No other 375 Plus saw the finish. González hadn’t eaten or slept, and was flagging, but prevailed to become the works Scuderia’s double first winner; ‘The Pampas Bull’ had scored the company’s maiden Formula One Grand Prix win at Silverstone in 1951, too.

Come 1958 and so began the Gendebien Years. Four wins in five races would follow; three with the great Phil Hill, the other with racing journalist Paul Frère.

Rain played its role in ’58, when Hill and Gendebien stroked their 250 Testa Rossa serenely to victory as others fell foul of poor reliability and the terrible weather.

Gendebien and Frère, the latter runner-up in the intervening and anomalous 1959 with Aston Martin, led all but one hour of the 1960 encounter.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari at Le Mans
The pairing of Gendebien and Hill took Ferrari’s 330TRI/LM to victory in ’62

In ’61, two upstart Mexicans in a NART-entered TR pushed the eventual winning Belgian and America’s first World Champion Hill hard, only for a misfire to all but end the Rodríguez brothers’ assault at 7am, when the lead gap was barely three seconds.

A year later, driving the one-of-one open-top 330TR/LM, Gendebien etched his name indelibly into the history books with a fourth win, one more than Woolf Barnato and Chinetti, and a third on the trot – a feat then matched only by Bentley’s ‘Babe’.

Gendebien and Hill, himself now a three-time winner, into the Pantheon and the as-yet only driver to win the F1 title and Le Mans in the same year, saw off all-comers for a five-lap win after another Rodríguez fight.

Hill wouldn’t be seen racing a Ferrari at Le Mans again, Gendebien there at all.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari at Le Mans
Phil Hill celebrates his third Le Mans triumph in 1962

Ferraris locked out the top six in ’63, a race down on entries but not on speed.

Nobody had ever gone faster, and nobody had ever gone farther than the winning new 250P. Dashing Italian Grand Prix stars Lorenzo Bandini and Ludovico Scarfiotti took a patriotic 16-lap win.

It was the 1964 victory, less than 12 months after Enzo’s nearly selling his company to Ford, that was perhaps the forerunner to Ferrari’s demise.

Five Ferraris finishing in the top six, led by Nino Vaccarella and Jean Guichet in a 275P, and no GT40s left running by 4pm Sunday, was chastening for Henry.

Carroll Shelby was enlisted to beat Il Commendatore – Shelby’s Ford-engined Daytona being driven to fifth by Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant had, after all, been the snake among the Prancing Horses.

Classic & Sports Car – Ferrari at Le Mans
Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt (and possibly Ed Hugus) claimed 1965’s spoils in a NART-entered 250LM, Ferrari’s final overall Le Mans win, so far…

Rising star Jochen Rindt, nonplussed by Le Mans (and much else), provided the final hurrah in 1965 with the bespectacled Masten Gregory. From 11th on the grid.

The GT40s struggled into retirement again, but so did Maranello’s new 330P2s. The victorious 250LM was pushed on hard regardless of delays at the start – aided by the literally moonlighting Ed Hugus for one stint during the dead of night, according to some (including himself) – and chased the unexpectedly front-running Pierre Dumay-entered 250LM until one of the French car’s Dunlops gave up.

Gregory assumed the lead and nursed his now-ailing LM home.

And with that, Ferrari would never trouble the scorers again for outright wins, able to beat Ford, Porsche or Matra elsewhere but never again at Le Mans, before slipping into the supporting cast.

A variety including Daytonas and 512BBs, F40s and 333SPs, 360s and now 488s have claimed class honours since.

Images: Ferrari


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