LE MANS, France – Ferrari ended a 50-year absence from the 24 Hours of Le Mans by toppling the mighty Toyota during the centenary of the world’s most iconic sports car race.
Ferrari last competed at Le Mans in 1973, but returned to Circuit de la Sarthe this year as part of a new hybrid technology hyperclass category.
The hyperclass grew out of a convergence of rules that both allowed competitors from the United States’ top sports car series, IMSA, to compete at Le Mans, and also created an attractive platform that automakers saw as an opportunity to showcase their road car technology.
Ferrari developed its program – a two-car effort competing in the World Endurance Championship – over several years in a strategy similar to what was depicted in “Ford v Ferrari”, the movie that focused on the pressures in the boardroom and the drama surrounding Ford’s successful 1963 race attempt to end Ferrari’s reign at Le Mans.
Only this time it was Ferrari trying to take down a giant; the two-car Toyota Gazoo effort, which had competed in the two 24-hour race that ended Sunday with a five-year winning streak.
Toyota was dealt a blow before the race even started when race officials this week added extra weight to the dominant GR010s in a controversial “balance of performance” tweak designed to level the playing field.
Ferrari jumped into a pair of 499Ps and swept the front row in qualifying, solving every challenge from Toyota. His chances were helped overnight when Kamui Kobayashi was scrapped from the race, making it two to one in Ferrari’s favour.
The trio of Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Antonio Giovinazzi – with Ferrari Formula 1 driver Charles Leclerc watching in the garage – was the easy winner. The trio held a solid lead even before defending race winner Ryo Hirakawa locked his Toyota’s brakes and hit the wall with 1 hour and 44 minutes remaining.
It took about 3 minutes to fix the car, not enough time to help Chip Ganassi Racing, which carried the American flag at Le Mans for IMSA.
The centenary marked the first year of IMSA’s top class entry into Le Mans, and the new hyperclass brought Cadillac back to both IMSA and WEC with Ganassi, the same for Porsche with Roger Penske in the 86-year-old’s bid for a of the very few races missing from his list.
It also sparked a slew of new manufacturer interest in sports car racing, helping to draw a sold-out crowd of over 300,000 spectators to the sprawling 13.626 km (8.467 mi) circuit.
The Ganassi Cadillacs were running third and fourth as Hirakawa spun, eliminating the defending champion’s chances of a replay. But it created a momentary opportunity for one or both Cadillacs to improve their finishing position.
Toyota performed its pit stop flawlessly and the Cadillacs did not gain ground. It was the WEC team of Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook that took the final spot on the podium, while the IMSA team of Le Mans native Sebastien Bourdais, Renger van der Zande and Scott Dixon finished fourth.
Ferrari’s second car finished fifth, one spot ahead of Team Penske’s top-finishing Porsche. His other two 963s were both in early retirement.
The third Cadillac, entered by Action Express Racing from IMSA, crashed on the first lap of the race and never entered contention. That team is backed by IMSA and NASCAR owner Jim France, who successfully brought a stock car to Le Mans to represent the American series in the 75th anniversary season.
NASCAR last attended Le Mans in 1976 and returned this year with a version of its second-year Next Gen car. The “Garage 56” Camaro was entered by Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, the winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier in NASCAR’s 75 years.
The No. 24 Camaro was in a league of its own, racing against no other cars.
The initial goal was simply to finish the race and put NASCAR in the spotlight. The Chad Knaus-led project was so outstanding that until a brake failure with about five hours to go, it looked like the lineup of seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and former Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller could beat the entire 21-car GTE AM field.
The time to fix the brakes took that off the table and it felt like a disappointment to everything NASCAR had accomplished. The car had a later issue that required a gearbox change, but the engine lasted long and the car came over under the checkered flag for a champagne celebration for the NASCAR effort.
The car finished 39th in the 62-car field, enough for the 10th of the GTE cars. The Camaro was second when it had to stop to replace its brakes.
It was still an impressive finish for the NASCAR project, as the Garage 56 entry has rarely made it to the black and white checkered flag.
Ferrari wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans in return after 50 years of absence; NASCAR entry finishes originally appeared on NBCSports.com