The race Ferrari doesn't need

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It’s 50 years since last the Prancing Horse triumphed outright at Le Mans. The race helped forge the marque’s legend, but was abruptly dropped from its roster during the early 1970s
Writer Paul Fearnley

Enzo Ferrari thought him a Milanese chancer, a fair-weather lightweight who sold Alfa Romeos in frivolous Paris before ducking the war in prosperous New York. Now, here he was, a freshly minted American citizen slumming it in the country of his birth, seeking help. Luigi Chinetti had indeed taken his chance – and leave – by neglecting to return from Frenchman René Dreyfus’ Indianapolis 500 campaign of 1940. Now, here he was, after a prodigious journey over ocean, snow and ice, offering help.

They would remember their meeting of Christmas Eve 1946 very differently.

According to chatty Chinetti, Enzo was maudlin and appeared and acted older than his 48 years as they sat, chilled to the marrow, in a factory that evoked the ghosts of races past. He’d arrived, via Constellation (to Paris) and Citroën (thence to Modena), from the Land of Plenty bearing the gift of a golden future, but was met by dusty dreams and musty memories.

Ungrateful Enzo would barely make mention of it. (His memoirs dispatched Chinetti with a stroke of a pen.) As far as he was concerned, he was being told something he knew: that adventurous and/or vain rich men liked to buy fast, glamorous cars. No, this weasel had dragged himself, his Yankee wife and child, halfway around a war-torn world because he, Ferrari, held the golden key. Chinetti had simply got wind of the new car – the ambitious, Gioacchino Colombo-designed V12 was nearing completion when he arrived unannounced – and was blustering like the wheeler-dealer he was.

Enzo, a salesman himself, held his cards – and car – close before a backdrop that was the chiaroscuro to America’s Kodachrome.

A half-lit unwelcoming workshop was the ideal setting for the increasingly reclusive role that he was perfecting. Probably he overplayed the wartime hardships – the wreckage of his, note, new factory at Maranello – and underplayed the money made by copying without consent German machine tooling. But his character was based on dark truths: friends and colleagues had been assassinated or kidnapped; bombs had been dropped and some had been dodged and others not.

Chinetti was bemused rather than shocked by these tales, not only because he knew Enzo through their extended pre-war association with Alfa Romeo, but also because he had not experienced the wearying effect of invasion, occupation and privation.

It’s hardly surprising that they misread each other’s signals: Chinetti’s proposal, though businesslike, was genuine and flecked with sentiment, while Enzo was no doubt secretly proud to receive confirmation of a new and eager albeit distant market. The deal reached was tentative: Chinetti promised to sell five cars in America should Enzo choose to supply him; 20, if he felt so inclined.

Though loathe to admit it, Enzo was aware that his cosmopolitan acquaintance, energetic and engaging, would be useful. He soothed himself with the thought that Chinetti would have to dance to an occasionally discordant tune because he lacked the substance – the balls! – to build a car of his own.

Chinetti, in turn, was no patsy. His repeated boast that it was he who pointed Enzo in the right direction and provided the initial impetus would have seen lesser men cut dead rather than merely undermined from time to time. He survived because it had foundation: Americans, though Enzo was disdainful, provided Ferrari with funds to go racing.

Plus Chinetti immediately walked the talk by winning the only European race – one for which Enzo had no time and never attended – possessing cachet on the wealthier side of The Pond. Ferrari’s victories in the Paris 12 Hours (by Chinetti), Targa Florio and Mille Miglia simply did not cut the mayo. It had to be Le Mans.

Already twice a winner there, with Raymond Sommer (1932) and Philippe Étancelin (1934) in privateer Alfas, Chinetti, acting younger than his 48 years, was relentless in 1949. With co-driver and car owner Lord Selsdon euphemistically ‘indisposed’ for its majority, and in sweltering conditions that melted the track, he won the first post-war running of the race by a lap. Thus he proved that this 2-litre, with its multi-cylinder siren song, light tubular frame and five-speed gearbox possessed both the speed and reliability to beat the larger cars of more-established marques. Procter & Gamble heir Briggs Cunningham raced his imported Ferrari at Watkins Glen in Upstate New York a few months later. The process had begun.

Le Mans would remain Ferrari’s fundamental fixture for 20 years. John Surtees, its most influential driver of the 1960s, was surprised by his first task: to test the new sports-racer. His experience of them ran only to some fun (but fast) laps in an Aston Martin prior to his switch to four wheels in 1960. Though he asked Ferrari to concentrate on F1, he soon realised that there were too many clients to keep happy and that single seaters would remain second in the queue until June had passed. Enzo’s heart lay with F1, too, but his head – and wallet – were in La Sarthe. That’s why when jilted Henry Ford II threatened to ‘kick his ass’, he aimed where it would hurt most: Le Mans.

Not that wins came thick and fast after 1949. Ferrari was found wanting against more methodical Jaguar – and later Ford. In 1950 all five Ferraris retired for different reasons. Nine were entered in 1951 and, co-driven by Jean Lucas, Chinetti’s eighth place in a 340 America – there’s a clue in the name – was the best result.

All bar one of an unsettling variety of seven coupés and open cockpits, ranging from 2.5 to 4.1 litres, were done by 13 hours in 1952. The remaining 340 America of André Simon/Lucien Vincent finished fifth. Ferrari’s world champion Alberto Ascari was more circumspect in 1953 yet set the fastest lap again and paid the price – a failed clutch after 20 hours – for his early chase of the disc-braked Jagu-hare of Stirling Moss.

That this sledgehammer approach finally cracked it in 1954 was due to a performance of delicious delicacy in atrocious conditions by bulky Froilán González and his pencil-slim, pencil-tached co-driver Maurice Trintignant. Their thunderous 4.9-litre 375 Plus suffered a late scare when a hailstorm scrambled its electrics – ‘Trint’ had not been advised of the driver-adjustable inlet flap – and Jaguar team boss ‘Lofty’ England chose not to protest the overeager extra mechanic who plunged illegally into the resultant panicky pitstop.

That karma reaped its reward when Jaguar’s lightning-quick D-type won the next three on the bounce. During which time only two works Ferraris finished. The best of them, however, was co-driven by one half of the partnership that would calm a chaotic Scuderia and make it whole at Le Mans: Olivier Gendebien. An ex-paratrooper, this cultured, wealthy Belgian rose above Enzo’s political peccadilloes to form one of sports car racing’s most cerebral and successful partnerships with Phil Hill.

Both men, the American more so, were frustrated by their lack of F1 opportunity at Ferrari – but Enzo knew they were a precious commodity: fast, reliable drivers who were mechanically sympathetic and capable of putting their egos in a box for the common good. He had them marked as sports car royalty and, Hill’s 1961 F1 world title notwithstanding, that assessment was correct.

In 1958, in a pontoon-bodied Testa Rossa that channelled rain into its cockpit, Hill drove without goggles at such speed as to cause team-mate Mike Hawthorn to marvel. Hill and Gendebien’s winning margin was 12 laps. They might have won the following year, too, were it not for a water leak with four hours to go while holding a four-lap lead. It was left to Ferrari’s Gran Turismo privateers to salvage third, fourth, fifth and sixth behind an Aston Martin 1-2.

By 1960 Enzo was insisting that GTs should become the race’s future but, of course, he continued to build prototypes that refused to be killed off by half-cocked rule changes regarding luggage space, turning circle and windscreen. Hill and Gendebien were split up for some unfathomable reason, but the latter won with fellow Belgian Paul Frère as Ferrari swept the board in the absence of Aston.

Jaguar had long ago withdrawn and handed responsibility to its privateers – the race had worked its magic in America – and Maserati was financially crippled. Le Mans had become a one-horse race. Not that it mattered, such was the mystique of plunging into the dark of dusk and beyond to emerge through the morning mist. Ferrari constructed fewer than 300 cars that year and half were sold in America.

His share of those proceeds gave Chinetti the money to go racing with his North American Racing Team. The Rodríguez brothers would be a thorn in the Scuderia’s side at Le Mans in 1961, ignoring all beseeching to slow down until a misfire ended a torrid 14-hour lead battle with the restored Hill/Gendebien.

Those rebellious young Mexicans were brought in-house for 1962 and Hill/Gendebien scored a comfortable victory, the last for a front-engined car. This signalled a sea change from without as well as within Ferrari. Gendebien retired forthwith and Hill, weary of the false fronts and backbiting, left the team at the season’s end. So, too, did eight disgruntled senior staff. Some of the latter returned, tails between their legs, but new blood was infused: Mauro Forghieri was made chief engineer at 28, and driver/engineer Surtees and engineer/driver Mike Parkes joined within weeks of each other. The Englishmen clunked rather than clicked but made telling contributions that guided the team through transition.

This, however, came as little relief to Enzo. Failing health and complicated home lives plus Italy’s troubled economy and troublesome unions had worn him down. That the annual production number had doubled was not entirely good news. Rushed cars, in jarring colours that were hard to sell, generated more complaints about dodgy electrics and dicky clutches, problems an enthusiast could live with but a stranded industrialist running late could not. Bustling Blue Oval men bristling with can-do efficiency, all clipboards and beady eagle eyes, were conspicuous in Modena and Maranello by April. Enzo was ready to sell.

The offer was $18 million for 90 per cent of the stock and all future rights. It was a good deal – more lucrative than the one Enzo would eventually agree with Fiat – but there was a sticking point: Ford wanted to dictate the racing programmes. Enzo refused to budge and eventually left 14 angry men agape around the table. Negotiations were through. This affront not only seriously pissed off ‘Hank the Deuce’, it gave Enzo a shot in the arm.

Ferrari’s 1963 win, for Italian dup Lodovico Scarfiotti and Lorenzo Bandini, was unopposed but reliant on others’ misfortunes. Sharing with Surtees, Willy Mairesse lost the lead when a half-shut fuel cap caused a hospitalising fire the first time he braked after a stop. Ferrari could still be slipshod.

Ford’s arrival in 1964 altered the dynamics. Ferrari called on its privateers to help run six full-shot prototypes against three GT40s built, prepped and run by John Wyer’s Ford Advanced Vehicles of Slough. Richie Ginther, another American relieved to have left the Scuderia – he was searched on the way out! – blew by three Ferraris on the Mulsanne Straight to lead the early stages, and team-mate Hill set the race’s fastest lap. But ultimately Ford was let down by its Italian Colotti gearbox and victory went to the second-tier Ferrari of Nino Vaccarella and Jean Guichet.

The stakes were raised again in 1965. (Just about) pocket change for FoMoCo, this was a game of budgetary chicken that impecunious Maranello had no chance of winning – yet it rustled up a mix of 10 prototypes to Ford’s six. Two of the latter were 7-litre Galaxie-engined MkIIs developed in Dearborn in response to the disappointment of 1964 and run by Shelby American. Hill gleefully put one on pole, by five seconds from Surtees, and set another fastest race lap. But again Ford faltered: all were sidelined before midnight. The battle had taken its toll on Ferrari, too, and it dawned that its victory might come from an unwelcome source.

It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely Le Mans duo than Masten ‘The Kansas City Flash’ Gregory and Jochen Rindt. Both knew one way: flat out. And neither was enamoured with the prospect of driving NART’s uncompetitive 250LM for a day and a night. At the first sign of trouble Rindt was into his civvies and would have high-tailed it had his road car not been boxed in [For another view, see p110]. The misfire was in fact easily cured and, more than 20 hours later, Gregory persuaded Rindt to let him undertake the closing stint.

The American had come too far not to win and knew that the younger, less experienced Austrian had no plan to moderate his approach.

Ferrari was far from delighted. NART’s car was on Goodyears, whereas the battling privateer 250LM of Pierre Dumay and co-driver ‘Taf’ Gosselin was on Dunlops, Ferrari’s main supplier. No amount of bellyaching, berating or bribery could persuade Chinetti to rein back his chargers; they would have paid no heed in any case. He had forewarned Enzo about Ford muscle and surmised that this might be the last chance for a while for Ferrari to win. He was right. But he could never have guessed that it would today remain its most recent victory.

Ford, its Shelby Cobra Daytonas also beaten by Ferrari in the GT class, cancelled its programme. For a fortnight. It arrived in 1966 with an armada of eight MkIIs, and with official NASCAR arm Holman Moody and Britain’s Alan Mann Racing bolstering Shelby American. In contrast, Ferrari sent just two of its new 4-litre V12 P3s. Though beautiful, they were outgunned as well as outnumbered. Surtees, who set the fastest time at the official test in April, was its only realistic hope and, though he qualified fifth, he planned to attack from the off.

At which point team manager Eugenio Dragoni, with whom he had an increasingly starchy relationship, told him that his co-driver, a journeyman in contrast, would be undertaking the opening stint. This was done to charm Scarfiotti’s spectating uncle Gianni – Agnelli, that is, Fiat’s new president. Surtees blew a gasket and dashed to Maranello to put his case to Enzo. He refuses to reveal what was said to end his Ferrari career.

That three Fords pitted at the end of the first lap gave Ferrari some encouragement. Twenty-four hours later three Fords swept across the finish in formation. Ferrari again took the GT honours, thanks to Maranello Concessionaires’ eighth-placed 275GTB/C of Formula 3 tyros Roy Pike and Piers Courage, but there was no hiding from its hiding.

The agony continued in 1967. Ford’s MkIV, built in America by official subsidiary Kar Kraft, was a 220mph arrow through Enzo’s heart. Though weight saved by its aluminium honeycomb tub was counterbalanced by the addition of a roll-cage in response to Ken Miles’ fatal testing crash in the J-car predecessor, it had Ferrari’s measure. Parkes failed in a cheeky but desperate attempt to goad leader Dan Gurney into an unnecessary dice – they parked nose to tail at Arnage for several seconds – and the latter’s trend-setting spraying of champagne burst the Ferrari bubble at Le Mans.

No works Ferraris were entered for 1968, and not a single class victory was scored; Richard Piper’s 250LM, co-driven by Richard Attwood, finished seventh. That same venerable model, intended originally to take the GT fight to the Cobras, scored the marque’s best result in 1969, too: the NART version of Sam Posey/Teo Zeccoli finishing eighth. Ford’s GT40, given a new lease by a change of regulation, won both times.

An injection of lire from the coyly courted and more understanding Fiat – 90 per cent for $11 million; 40 per cent now and 50 more upon Enzo’s death – caused a Ferrari glut at Le Mans: no fewer than 11 512S models ran in 1970. But the magnificent 917, in long- or short-tailed form, was better, ultimately more reliable and scored a 1-2. This was Porsche’s first win and already the race was doing for Stuttgart what it had for Ferrari. These great companies were at opposite ends of their Le Mans journeys.

Forghieri is to this day miffed that Enzo handed the 512M updates to his privateers for 1971. The designer’s belief that it possessed the speed to scare the 917s was proved by the admittedly heavily reworked Penske car of Mark Donohue, but even that lacked the stamina for Le Mans and Porsche scored a 1-2.

Enzo’s diktat, however, paid dividends in 1972 when the battle-hardened 3-litre flat-12 312PB Group 6 Prototype swept all before it – except at Le Mans. Rival Matra’s decision to concentrate on that race led Enzo to retaliate by withdrawing the week before. For a second year in succession at Le Mans there would be no works Ferrari representation.

More of the same was expected in 1973, particularly as Matra had by now proved itself faster in the ‘sprint’ races of the World Championship for Makes. Ferrari, however, made a late decision to attend and a determined effort held the result in abeyance until the final 90 minutes; Jacky Ickx/Brian Redman were on the lead lap when valve-gear cooked earlier by a loose exhaust finally failed.

At least there was honour in that defeat. The same season’s F1 campaign was arguably the most shambolic in Ferrari’s history. Worse, it was completed using a monocoque chassis made in England. When new team manager Luca di Montezemolo suggested that F1 should be the sole sporting focus, he met with surprisingly little opposition. A momentous decision went through pretty much on the nod. Its withdrawal from sports car racing – the new car had been tested at Paul Ricard in December – stripped the gloss from a fading category that would require more than 10 years to recover.

Though Enzo’s physical health was failing, his mental acuity was unimpaired. He saw that the deeper he receded into that half-light, the more famous he and his cars became. Those aspects that Chinetti had long ago perceived as weaknesses were blended to become a strength. It was a strange game – a mix of morbidity and lack of sentiment, plus vulpine cunning, ignorance and brute force – that Enzo played so well.

Though eminently capable of braggadocio and vacillation, when finally he cut himself free from Le Mans, the resounding anvil that had shaped his company, he did so with dispassion.

F1 was where the commercial money lay. There was no grey. This was night and day. So much so that more than 40 years on – and 50 since its last win – we await the arrival of a new Ferrari dawn at Le Mans.

The truth, though, is this: the most famous manufacturer of sports cars does not need the most famous race for sports cars.

Absent without leaving
The lack of a factory team has been no barrier to a string of Ferrari class wins

Though there have been Ferrari-free Le Mans races since 1973, non-works machinery has more often than not kept the Black Horse in its field.

Its muscularly handsome 4.4-litre V12 365GTB/4 Daytona dominated the GT category in 1972 and ’73, when run by Charles Pozzi and driven by the likes of Jean-Claude Andruet, Claude Ballot-Léna and Vic Elford, then continued its run in 1974: Cyril Grandet/Dominique ‘Segard’ Bardini also finished fifth overall and won the Index of Thermal Efficiency in Raymond Touroul’s car.

Porsche’s Carrera 1975 RSR ended the Daytona’s reign, however, and the only ‘Ferrari’ in ’76 was a turbo V6 in the tail of a Lancia Stratos.

Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team, looking elsewhere for its Ferrari fix, hoped the mid-engined 365GT/4 Berlinetta Boxer, released for sale at the 1973 Paris Motor Show, would provide it. Although it used one of these 4.3-litre flat-12s as early as the 1975 Daytona 24 Hours, the model did not make its Le Mans debut until two years later – it finished 16th – by which time it had been superseded by the 4.9-litre 512BB.

All four of the newer model retired in 1978 – three with gearbox problems – and it was left to the older, albeit updated car to uphold what honour remained, François Migault/Lucien Guitteny again finishing 16th.

Fuel injection for carburettors and a longer, more flowing Pininfarina body were introduced in 1979 for an LM version of 512BB, but it was no match for Porsche’s 935 and BMW’s M1 in the IMSA category. Fifth in class, 12th overall, was the best it could muster.

It improved to third in class, 10th overall, in 1980 – albeit again beaten by 935s – before turning the tables in ’81 when the Pozzi-tended car of Andruet/Ballot-Léna/Hervé Regout finished fifth to win IMSA GTX by a lap.

Porsche regained its pre-eminence the following year, and that was that for Ferrari for quite some time.

After providing a twin-turbo V8 for the lovely mid-1980s Group C Lancia LC2, which was sufficiently fast to claim pole in 1984 but too fragile to challenge for victory, a bits-and-pieces era ensued: LC2s in privateer hands (Dollop Racing among them!), a turbo Ferrari-engined C2 Spice that failed to qualify in 1991 and some dainty 348s.

Then came the most likely Ferrari for 20 years: 333SP. Commissioned for IMSA’s World Sports Car Championship rules of 1994, this open-top machine looked the part – thanks to some works input plus that of notable consultants Tony Southgate and Dallara – and sounded it, too, due to an F1-based 4-litre V12.

Though it would enjoy a long and successful career, winning the Sebring 12 Hours three times, it fell short at Le Mans: Eric van de Poele set fastest lap in ’96; project catalyst Gianpiero Moretti, co-driven by Didier Theys and Max Papis, finished sixth in ’97; and in ’98 Doyle Risi Racing won Class LMP1 by finishing eighth overall.

Another subsequent lull concluded when Prodrive began its customer programme with the front-engined 6-litre V12 550 Maranello in 2003, having run a development car the year before. Its battles with Chevy’s Corvette and later Aston’s DBR9, also developed by Prodrive, were fierce. The Ferrari held the upper hand in the GTS class of 2003 thanks to Tomás Enge/Peter Kox/Jamie Davies, but was overtaken in GT1, despite finishing ninth and 12th overall, in 2004/’05.

The replacement was a nimbler mid-engined machine: the V8 F430. Risi Competizione’s Mika Salo and Jaime Melo, with help from co-drivers Gianmaria Bruni and Pierre Kaffer, won GT2 in 2008 and ’09.

After a class defeat by Porsche in 2010, the 458 Italia, an update on the theme, replaced the F430. It, too, has butted heads with the ‘Vettes: twice it has won the GTE Pro section of GT2 and twice it has been beaten. Amato Ferrari’s AF Corse squad of Bruni/Toni Vilander/Giancarlo Fisichella achieved those victories in 2012 and ’14.

The moral? If it non-works maybe you should leave it.