When Ferrari conquered Le Mans: how it won nine times — so far

Le Mans News

Ferrari's golden era at Le Mans saw it win seven of eight races in the '50s and '60s. Andrew Frankel examines the characters and cars behind the victories

Graham Hill in the Ferrari 330P at the 1964 Le Mans 24 Hours

Ferrari claimed a clean sweep of the podium places at Le Mans in 1964. Graham Hill (pictured) was second, driving with Jo Bonnier

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The participation of Ferrari at Le Mans started in 1949 when Ferrari the company was but two years old, though Ferrari the man was already in his fifties. But it is another man, Luigi Chinetti, who was the dominant figure in Ferrari’s early 24 hour campaigns in France. Already a double Le Mans winner (in 1932 and 1934 in Alfa Romeos), and then agent for Ferrari in France and US, he made it his business to establish Ferrari as one of the names in what was already regarded as one of the world’s greatest long-distance races.

That year he drove a 166MM with Peter Mitchell-Thomson, better known as Lord Selsdon, though in truth illness prevented the latter from playing a meaningful role in the race. It was left to Chinetti, himself no spring chicken at nearly 48, to drive 22 hours solo against a field mainly comprising Delages and Delahayes with far larger engines than the little 2-litre V12 at his command. But his was a flawless performance, winning the class, the race and the Index of Performance some 17 years after his first Le Mans win, a feat to this day matched only by Hurley Haywood (1977-94) and beaten by none. Chinetti would race Ferraris in the next four Le Mans, emerging with one eighth-place finish in 1951 as his only meaningful result.

Ferrari itself didn’t enter as a works team until 1952 but the performance of Ascari and Villoresi need not delay us for long here. Soon to be F1 World Champion Ascari started, led with ease, smashed the lap record and retired with a shot clutch after just three hours. The following year brought a proper works effort with three brutal 340MMs taking the start, though the dream team of Farina and Hawthorn were disqualified after less than two hours for a refuelling infringement leaving Ascari and Villoresi to make amends for the previous year. And they nearly did it, duking it out with the Jaguars until, once more, the clutch failed, this time just four hours from the flag.

Luigi Chinetti in his Ferrari 166MM at the 1949 Le Mans 24 Hours

Luigi Chinetti was the first Ferrari Le Mans winner in 1949 — 17 years after his initial victory in the race

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Only two works Ferraris entered the race in 1954, but it was enough, with González and Trintignant winning in a 5-litre 375 Plus. An easy win then, given the only opposition at the flag was the 3.4-litre Jaguar D-type of Rolt and Hamilton? Not a bit of it: the D-type was state of the art with disc brakes, cutting edge aerodynamics and monocoque construction while the 375 was architecturally almost pre-war by comparison. Moreover its drivers had to wrestle with it throughout one of the wettest Le Mans on record up until that time. It was a victory as hard-earned as it was thoroughly deserved.

There then followed a distinctly fallow period for the Scuderia: five Ferraris entered in 1955, none finished. Third place in 1956 was all that could be salvaged from six Ferraris starting while in 1957 no fewer than nine started, all prototypes, but just two were still running 24 hours later in fifth and seventh places. Few would have predicted the golden era that was about to dawn.

Froilan Gonzalez in his Ferrari 375 at the 1954 Le Mans 24 Hours

González (pictured) and Trintignant scored a victory over the cutting-edge Jaguar D-type in 1954

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In the eight races held between 1958 and 1965, Ferraris won seven, beaten only by Aston Martin in 1959. Some evidence of just how bad was the weather in 1958 is provided by the fact the winning Testa Rossa of Gendebien and Phil Hill covered 22 fewer laps than the private D-type that won the year before. It was however a dominant win, coming home fully 12 laps clear of the second-place Aston Martin DB3S of the Whitehead brothers.

The races from 1960-63 brought straightforward victories against frankly quite thin opposition, proved by the fact that in 1962 and 1963 second place was achieved by privately entered 250GTOs, the closest to date a car from the GT category has come to winning Le Mans outright. The 1962 event was also the last time a front-engined car would win Le Mans.

Phil Hill in his Ferrari 250TR at the 1958 Le Mans 24 Hours

Phill Hill, during a rare respite from the rain in 1958, on his way to victory with Gendebien in the Ferrari 250TR

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Olivier Gendebien with the Ferrari 250TR in the 1961 Le Mans 24 Hours

Gendebien (pictured) as his partnership with Hill earned another victory in 1961 with the Ferrari 250TRI/61

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It was only in 1964 when Ford turned up with a handy new device called the GT40 that Ferrari found itself with a proper fight on its hands. A stunning lap by John Surtees put Ferrari on pole, but there was a Ford right next to him. In the event the Fords were too new and too fragile and they’d all retire, leaving Ferrari to lock out all three places on the podium. The only suggestion that the tide was turning was the Shelby American Daytona Coupe in fourth place, ahead of all the GTOs and breaking Ferrari’s stranglehold on the GT category. Who would have bet as the corks popped in the pits that night that Ferrari would already have recorded its last works victory at Le Mans, at least until now?

From the archive

I’m not going to dwell for long on the 1965 race because Doug Nye has covered it recently and the failure of both the works Ferrari and Ford teams is well documented, as is the victory of the utterly unfancied NART 250LM of Rindt and Gregory and the probably untrue fable of one Ed Hugus doing a night time stint when no-one else was looking. But it does amuse me that the single biggest threat to the car’s win in the closing hours came from none other than Ferrari itself, possibly even Enzo Ferrari himself. The car was battling it out with an equally private Belgian LM, the biggest difference between the two being the Belgians were on Dunlop tyres, the NART car on Goodyears, and Ferrari was contracted to Dunlop. So an emissary was sent to tell the NART team that it would be most helpful if the Dunlop-shod car be allowed to win. They reckoned without the boss of NART, who made his feelings on the subject of throwing the race to suit Ferrari very clear. That boss? None other than Luigi Chinetti, the man responsible in very large part for both Ferrari’s first and most recent Le Mans wins.

Ferrari had no answer to the Fords for the next four years nor the Porsches in 1970 and 1971. But with the new 3-litre formula in 1972 Ferrari had a golden opportunity to return to winning ways. Its 312PB was so much better than anything else it won 10 of the 11 rounds of the championship that year and only failed in the 11th by not entering it. That race was Le Mans. Why? Essentially because Matra had taken a diametrically opposed strategy and forsaken all other races that year to focus its efforts on Le Mans alone. And it worked. Despite Ferrari being fastest at the test weekend, despite their being four 312PBs in the entry list, one week before the race they were all withdrawn giving its rival the clear run to victory it craved.

Arturo-Merzario-in-his-Ferrari-312PB-during-the-1972-Targa-Florio

Arturo Merzario on his way to Targa Florio victory in 1972 – but the 312PB wouldn’t race at Le Mans that year

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By contrast, the 1973 was a fine effort, promoted by the ACO as an epic battle between Matra and Ferrari on the 50th anniversary of the original running of the race. And it lived up to its billing. Ferrari certainly had the pace, the 312PBs lining up first and second on the grid with the Matras behind, but the cars proved fragile. A wonderful night time battle between the IckxRedman Ferrari and Larrousse-Pescarolo Matra ended when the Ferrari developed a fuel leak and then blew its engine fighting back through the field. By then the sister car of Reutemann and Schenken was already out with the same malady, leaving just the car of Merzario and Pace to fight the cause. And if it too had not suffered a fuel leak and the need to change the clutch maybe the outcome would have been different. In the end it merely split the surviving Matras, beating one by no fewer than 18 laps, but still six laps behind the winner.

And that was it: Ferrari retired its factory sports car team and every one wondered when it would be back. Few, I imagine, would have bet it would take 50 years.