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Ferrari Take Ultimate Glory on the Grandest Stage of All: Le Mans

Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by William Stephens

Ferrari marked their return to the top class of endurance racing for the first time in over 50 years, with a special victory at the grandest circuit on the calendar - the Circuit de La Sarthe. The #51 Ferrari 499P, driven by James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi, and Antonio Giovinazzi, came out on top after a strong battle with the formidable #8 Toyota, winning by over a minute and a half.

Triumphant on the biggest stage of all; Image credits - Clive Rose/Getty Images

Coming into the weekend, Toyota had won the opening three rounds of the season, and were on a five-race winning streak at Le Mans that stretched back to 2018. In a new era of multiple hypercar manufacturers battling at the top, a Toyota win would establish their dominance at the head of the field, while any of their competitors taking victory would send shockwaves through the world of endurance racing.

Returning to Le Mans for the first time in almost 50 years as a factory effort, Ferrari set the bar right away, taking a 1-2 in qualifying. The #50 took pole position, in the hands of Antonio Fuoco, while the #51 backed up this effort by qualifying right behind its fellow Ferrari. In contrast, the Toyota cars qualified third and fifth, the leading #8 car starting third, ahead of previous winners of the event in the #7.

Qualifying showed Ferrari had the pace, but sustaining the pace for 24 hours would be a whole different challenge altogether. And Toyota had won the last five editions of the event and most recently in their hypercar class car, so they weren’t to be counted out either.

The first lap of the race saw the #8 Toyota immediately take the lead from the leading Ferrari, with the #7 Toyota following later in the lap. Both drivers were on the softer tyres, and this paid off, at least initially into the race.

The Ferrari cars stayed on the #7 Toyota’s tail, as Mike Conway looked to be lacking pace in comparison to the lead Toyota of Sebastian Buemi. This would soon show, as Conway was passed by both Ferrari cars a few laps later. The chase was now on.

A differing fuel strategy initially allowed the #50 Ferrari to run long in the lead, until it began to rain. It was up to the Ferrari team to make the right calls, and they stayed out while everyone else peeled into the pits for rain tyres. Crucially, neither driver made mistakes, which meant they were leading by over a minute to the rest. Both Ferrari cars stopped under the Safety Car period that followed, rejoining third and fourth, with the #94 Peugeut of Gustavo Menezes leading.

The #94 Peugeot after its incident; Credit - Clive Rose/Getty Images

Nightfall saw a number of hypercars make mistakes, some more costly than the others. Pier Guidi had a spin into the gravel during a shower, allowing the Peugeot and the #7 Toyota past once again. However, the Toyota would have a costly shunt at Tertre Rouge shortly after, with damage from a four-car collision rendering the car unable to continue in the race. The #94 Peugeot too fell foul of the rain, as Menezes dropped his Peugeot into the gravel at the Mulsanne chicane.

Meanwhile, the #50 Ferrari had to be wheeled into the garage for repairs, following a suspected issue which put them out of the running, as they lost five laps. The #2 Cadillac in third had started to drop back too, and as dawn broke, it was becoming clear that the race for victory would be between the recovering #51 Ferrari and the #8 Toyota. Around 60 years ago, it was Ford vs Ferrari for the win, today, it would be Toyota vs Ferrari for ultimate glory.

The first signs of a battle brewing came when Alessandro Pier Guidi closed up to the slower-moving #8 Toyota before both entered the pits. As both teams changed drivers, with Ryo Hirakawa and James Calado taking the wheel of their respective cars, a front nose change delayed the Toyota’s charge out, allowing Calado to snatch the lead for Ferrari. The lead was now five seconds, and fluctuated between five and 15 seconds.

Giovinazzi and Buemi later took over the wheels for their respective cars, before the crucial portion of the race would follow. Ferrari held the lead by a minute to the #8 Toyota,once Pier Guidi got back in an issue with the electrical system on the car caused a delay in starting up the car once again. This allowed the Toyota back into the lead, and Ferrari, earlier the hunted, were now hunting down the Toyota car.

Having been tasked to chase down the Toyota once again, Pier Guidi did just that. He steadily closed up to the #8 car, just as Buemi was attempting to lap another car.

The Italian got a strong run off the first Mulsanne chicane. He pulled out of the draft behind the Toyota, and engaged in a drag race down to the second Mulsanne chicane, before swooping around the outside to take the lead once again, much to the delight of the Ferrari brigade. It wouldn’t be time to celebrate though, as over five hours were still left in the race. He had to stay focused, and keep the car pointing ahead, and on the track.

More pit stops would follow, as the gap remained around the five-second mark, after Brendon Hartley and Calado took over the wheels of their respective cars once again. Ferrari tried a tactic with the #50 car, a number of laps down by then, trying to slow down the oncoming Toyota and help the #51 ahead. This even led to Hartley cutting the first chicane, yet he would be frustrated behind the #50, the gap remaining at five seconds all the while.

The #50 slipped into the pits shortly after, giving Hartley some breathing room. Another round of pit stops later, and the Ferrari was still in the lead, the gap still increasing.

With two hours to go, the stage was set for a big finish, as the #51 still led the race. Hartley passed on the baton to Hirakawa to see out the race, while Ferrari continued with Giovinazzi at the wheel. However, a costly mistake by Hirakawa caused him to spin at Arnage corner, and the resultant precautionary pit stop dropped him from the running for the win.

Another minor scare would follow at the final stop for the #51, as Giovinazzi handed over the wheel to Pier Guidi, and a reset of the electronics was to be performed, but this would only do little to dampen the Scuderia’s chances for victory.

And Pier Guidi drove a composed stint in the final 25 minutes, while another Toyota stop extended the gap to over a minute and a half. Pier Guidi guided Ferrari to the top step of the most prestigious endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The winning moment; Credit - James Moy Photography/Getty Images

It was Ferrari’s first win at Le Mans since 1965, and their tenth on the circuit, in the centenary running of the Le Mans event. On that day, it would prove to be their last of their six wins in a row, before Ford broke their streak in an epic drive. And today, it was Ferrari breaking the streak of five consecutive Toyota victories at the circuit, establishing themselves as a formidable force in the series for the years to come.

The win sees Ferrari close up to Toyota in the standings, having taken a win and fifth place in the race, to Toyota’s second place. Although, the win means more than the 50 points taken by the Ferrari team. A win on the biggest stage of endurance racing is definitely a morale-boosting one, and will help boost the team’s charge into the final three rounds of the season. And many years on, people will look back at the race, not just as the centenary edition of Le Mans, but as the day Ferrari broke Toyota’s Le Mans stranglehold.


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