Ferrari made a triumphant return to Le Mans as Britain’s James Calado led the team to victory in the Centenary edition of the 24 Hours.
Sharing his No 51 Ferrari 499P with his long-time team-mate Alessandro Pier Guidi and former Grand Prix driver Antonio Giovanizzi, the crew held off the pre-race favourites Toyota to take Ferrari’s first win at the race since 1965.
It was an unexpected result for the team given that the car only tested for the first time last July, that this was the first time that Ferrari had raced at Le Mans as a factory in the top prototype class since 1973, and that Toyota, which had won every Le Mans since 2018, arrived at Le Mans having also dominated the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship with its GR010.
Yet after basketball star LeBron James waved the French Tricolor to send the cars on their way 100 years after the first running of the Le Mans 24 hours, Ferrari hardly put a foot - or a wheel - out of place despite changeable weather conditions on Saturday night causing havoc for many competitors.
Several drivers were caught out by sudden showers that swept only part of the circuit, leading to accidents that took out some of the front runners in each of the classes. Ferrari took a conservative approach to the first 12 hours, preferring to protect the car in difficult driving conditions, and then attacked in the second half of the race.
Ferrari silence reliability questions
Ferrari knew that they had the pace over one lap and it was no surprise to see the two 499Ps on the front row after qualifying in France. However, there were questions about the reliability of the new car after the failure of the hybrid system at Portimao in April. High rear tyre wear at each of the hot races were also a feature of the car that was expected to take it out of the running for the win, but ultimately those fears proved to be unfounded.
The team moved the front of the grid around mid-distance, after Pier Guidi had spun into the gravel in avoidance of an accident in front of him on Saturday evening. The car had the speed during the cooler temperatures of the night-time running to close up to and pass the No 8 Toyota ahead, and stayed there despite two slow pit stops where the car refused to fire up, including a heart-stopping final pit stop with 20 minutes remaining.
The team had time to reset the system for the second time, as the chasing Toyota of Ryo Hirakawa had crashed into the guardrail, losing valuable time repairing both front and rear-end damage.
Calado makes history as British winner for Ferrari 74 years on
The three drivers brought their Ferrari home more than a minute ahead of the Toyota to score a famous win. For Calado, the 33-year-old becomes the second Briton to have won Le Mans for Ferrari, following on from Peter Mitchell-Thompson, who drove to victory in Ferrari’s first win in 1949. “It is what we work for all our lives, to get these amazing moments,” said the English former GP2 driver after the race. “It is emotional, but it has not yet sunk in. When I am sitting down and having a beer I will realise what we have done.
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“The approach from our side was to run with low risk. I wanted to learn from it, finish the race, and a podium would have been a bonus. I didn’t expect to win, and from the first lap the car was superb. The last hour was super tense. I have never been so stressed in all my life. The amount of people here, the red around the circuit is really something special and I feel very appreciative of being part of this programme. I have won it twice with GT, but there is something different about winning it outright, and I am so happy to be part of it.”
Toyota let Le Mans grip slip
Ferrari’s victory, during the Centenary of the first running of the race, prevented Toyota from matching the Italian brand’s run of six straight wins between 1960 and 1965. The Japanese manufacturer lost the No 7 car during Saturday night when Kamui Kobayashi slowed for an accident ahead and was hit from behind by two cars.
The sister car of Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Hirakawa had picked up damage and engine temperatures were going high, but the team was able to repair the car at the next stop. However, they were not able to keep pace with the Ferrari, and admitted that they were over-driving the car trying to keep up.
Hirakawa was given the order to chase down the Ferrari in the final two hours, but a driving error put him into the barriers and relieved the pressure on Pier Guidi who took the flag.
Completing the podium were Englishmen Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook, who shared their Cadillac with New Zealander Earl Bamber.
2023 Le Mans 24 Hours results
1. Ferrari AF Corse (James Calado, Antonio Giovinazzi, Alessandro Pier Guidi), Hypercar - 342 laps
2. Toyota Gazoo Racing (Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley, Ryo Hirakawa), Hypercar +1:21.793
3. Cadillac Racing (Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn, Richard Westbrook), Hypercar + 1 lap
4. Cadillac Racing (Sebastien Bourdais, Renger van der Zande, Scott Dixon), Hypercar + 2 laps
5. Ferrari AF Corse (Antonio Fuoco, Miguel Molina, Nicklas Nielsen), Hypercar + 5 laps
6. Glickenhaus Racing (Romain Dumas, Olivier Pla, Ryan Briscoe), Hypercar + 7 laps
7. Glickenhaus Racing (Nathanael Berthon, Esteban Gutierrez, Franck Mailleux), Hypercar + 9 laps
8. Peugeot TotalEnergies (Paul Di Resta, Mikkel Jensen, Jean-Eric Vergne), Hypercar + 12 laps
9. Porsche Penske Motorsport (Dane Cameron, Michael Christensen, Frederic Makowiecki), Hypercar + 13 laps
10. Inter Europol Competition (Albert Costa, Fabio Scherer, Jakub Smiechowski), LMP2 + 14 laps
1. Inter Europol Competition (Albert Costa, Fabio Scherer, Jakub Smiechowski) + 14 laps
2. Team WRT (Rui Andrade, Louis Deletraz, Robert Kubica) + 14 laps
3. Duqueine Team (Neel Jani, Rene Binder, Nicolas Pino) + 15 laps
4. Alpine Elf Team (Matthieu Vaxiviere, Julien Canal, Charles Milesi) + 15 laps
5. Team WRT (Sean Galael, Ferdinand Habsburg, Robin Frijns) + 15 laps
6. IDEC Sport (Paul-Loup Chatin, Laurents Horr, Paul Lafargue) + 15 laps
7. Vector Sport (Gabriel Aubry, Ryan Cullen, Matthias Kaiser) + 17 laps
8. United Autosports (Tom Blomqvist, Oliver Jarvis, Josh Pierson) + 19 laps
9. Alpine Elf Team (Olli Caldwell, Andre Negrao, Memo Rojas) + 20 laps
10. Algarve Pro Racing (James Allen, Colin Braun, George Kurtz) + 20 laps
GTE Am results
1. Corvette Racing (Nicky Catsburg, Ben Keating, Nicholas Verrone) + 29 laps
2. Ort by TF (Ahmad Al Harthy, Michael Dinan, Charles Eastwood) +30 laps
3. GR Racing (Benjamin Barker, Roccardo Pera, Michael Wainwright) +30 laps
4. Iron Dames (Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting) +30 laps
5. AF Corse (Francesco Castellacci, Thomas Flohr, Davide Rigon) +30 laps
6. Northwest AMR (Ian James, Daniel Mancinelli, Alex Riberas) +32 laps
7. Project 1 - AO (Matteo Cairoli, PJ Hyett, Gunnas Jeannette) +33 laps
8. Walkenhorst Motorsport (Andrew Haryanto, Chandler Hull, Jeff Segal) +35 laps
9. Kessel Racing (Kei Cozzolino, Yorikatsu Tsujiko, Naoki Yokomizo) +39 laps
10. Kessel Racing (Scott Huffaker, Takeshi Kimura, Daniel Serra) +88 laps