Ferrari win back-to-back Le Mans 24 Hours after intense battle with Toyota

<span>Drivers Miguel Molina, Antonio Fuoco and Nicklas Nielsen celebrate victory.</span><span>Photograph: Christophe Petit-Tesson/EPA</span>
Drivers Miguel Molina, Antonio Fuoco and Nicklas Nielsen celebrate victory.Photograph: Christophe Petit-Tesson/EPA

After a relentless battle likely to be remembered for the ages even amid the storied history of this race, ­Ferrari’s victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours must count as one of the team’s hardest fought wins at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Ultimately it was the No 50 ­Ferrari 499P of Italy’s Antonio Fuoco, Spain’s Miguel Molina and Denmark’s ­Nicklas Nielsen who took the flag in the 92nd Grand Prix d’Endurance, a first ­victory at the 24 for all three drivers, who will remember this day long into their dotage.

Their winning margin at the flag having completed 311 laps was just 14 seconds over the second-placed No 7 Toyota of José María López, Kamui Kobayashi and Nyck de Vries and only 36sec over the sister Ferrari of last year’s winners Alessandro Pier Guidi, Antonio Giovinazzi and James Calado, who were third.

Related: ‘F1 was forever ago, a different life’: Jenson Button relishing Le Mans bid

Just how intense it had been was evident on Nielsen’s face. There were tears for the Dane, of joy but also no little relief as he brought his car home after what had been a mighty final stint. He did so in treacherous wet conditions and under immense ­pressure, where a single mistake would have cost him the race and where the 27‑year‑old even endured a Ferrari wobble at the last.

After a to-and-fro scrap throughout, albeit one interrupted by a four‑hour safety car intervention in the early morning because of heavy rain and fog, with three hours remaining the five leading cars were separated by just 35sec. Cadillac, from Porsche, the two Ferraris and Toyota set for a dash to the end.

Then late rain added drama to what was an impossibly tense finish. With nerves jangling across the paddock, Nielsen, who was leading, had a door not closed properly on his car. ­Facing a mandatory stop to ­rectify it, he was forced to try to slam it ­himself while driving but bravely bang at it as he might from his ­cockpit, it was to no avail.

An extra stop had to be taken where it was fixed by the tried and tested method of a mechanic giving it a big old shove but his lead was gone to the Toyota with López at the wheel and an F1 grand prix distance still to run. The Ferrari pace was strong, however, and they retook the place through the stops as the two cars pounded to the finish in the teeming rain.

By the time the flag fell on a ­classic vingt-quatre, nine cars were on the lead lap after the full 24 hours, an unprecedented level of ­competitiveness for the race and Nielsen acknowledged what it meant to him and the team.

“After the issue with the door I thought everything was lost but then I knew the pace was good in the wet by the end,” he said. “It was a long last sting and a very long last lap. For us to take it this year is an even greater achievement, doing it back to back.”

Indeed, the scale of the ­achievement for Ferrari, who now have 11 wins at Le Mans, after also taking the flag here last year at their first race in the top class since 1973, cannot be overestimated. With 23 cars across nine constructors in the top Hypercar class the battle was set to be formidable and so it proved. Picking a winner beforehand was all but impossible and in a race run at breakneck pace it remained so almost to the death.

From the moment Zinedine Zidane waved the tricolour to set the 62-car field in motion at 4pm on Saturday, it was clear there would be an intense fight. Ferrari, Porsche, Toyota and Cadillac proceeded to go wheel to wheel at sprint race pace, with the lead repeatedly changing hands between them as the hours ticked by and strategy calls proved vital as rain repeatedly peppered the track.

In the end, however, it was Ferrari and Nielsen who held their nerve to close out victory at the sport’s most celebrated race.

The LMP2 class was won by Oliver Jarvis, Bijoy Garg and Nolan Siegel in the United Autosports Oreca, while LMGT3 honours went to the Manthey Porsche of Richard Lietz, Yasser Shahin, and Morris Schuring.