Two in a row for Ferrari at rain-lashed Le Mans

Heavy showers tried to up-end the 24-hour race, but Ferrari came through.
Neil Briscoe
Neil Briscoe

Published on June 16, 2024

The abiding memory most will take from the 2024 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be dampness. A clammy, squelchy wetness that permeates the clothes and soaks the socks of those spectating against the fences that ring the fabulous 13km Circuit de la Sarthe. Frequent soaking showers (so heavy that during the night, they, along with some patches of fog, caused a lengthy pause of the race as the field circulated slowly behind the safety cars) bedevilled the 92nd running of the most famous 24-hour race of them all. At the end of an action-packed day, night and day it was Ferrari standing atop the podium, its second win on the bounce.

Not that Ferrari had it easy. While the 2023 running of the Le Mans race was the centenary event, celebrating the original running in 1923, this year was expected to be the big year for the racing connoisseur simply because there was going to be the biggest field of top-tier cars in the event since the late 1980s.

Since Le Mans changed its rules to allow more affordable, hybrid-powered race cars under the Hypercar banner (and combined those rules with those of the US-based IMSA series to allow teams to spread their investment) there has been a bumper crop of big-name car makers returning to endurance racing. Last year, Ferrari had to get past the serried ranks of Toyota, Porsche, Peugeot, Glickenhaus and Cadillac. This year the front of the grid swelled to include BMW (returning for the first time in the top class at Le Mans since it won the race in 1999), Lamborghini, Alpine (which actually raced last year but with an older design of car; this year it showed up with a cutting-edge racer), the little-fancied Isotta Fraschini entry, and an extra dose of privately-run Porsches.

There are road-based racers, too

The GT rules - those that govern the road-based cars which race alongside the mighty Hypercar prototypes - had also changed to allow GT3-spec cars to enter. As expected, this provided a good deal more variety for a class which has recently been filled largely by Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Corvette. This year, McLaren, Lamborghini, Lexus and BMW also all entered GT cars, although there were dark mutterings that somehow, the ACO (the racing club which governs Le Mans and sets most of the rules for the World Endurance Championship, the WEC) hadn’t managed to find space for GT3 racing stalwarts Mercedes and Audi.

Between these two classes were the LMP2 cars - the old junior category given a trotting out for Le Mans having been blanked from the other WEC rounds. As ever, this one-make formula (chassis by ORECA, 4.0-litre V8 from Gibson, once a Nissan engine) provided close and entertaining racing, with their engines being especially ear-splitting. The class was won this year by the United Autosports team owned by McLaren F1 boss Zak Brown, which has won at Le Mans multiple times before.

High expectations

All eyes were on the front of the grid though, and most eyes had it that Porsche was going to notch up a record-smashing 20th victory. Both the works 963 cars (run on behalf of Porsche by the legendary Penske team), and the private entities (two stunning, gold, Hertz-sponsored cars from Jota Racing and one white-and-green example from Proton racing) had been ominously fast in the run up to Le Mans, and while being favourite is never any guarantee at La Sarthe, few expected the trophy to go elsewhere.

Yet elsewhere it went. Porsche grabbed an impressively rapid pole position thanks to Kevin Estre’s efforts in the No.6 car (narrowing denying the Cadillac of Sebastian Bourdais - Caddy proving surprisingly rapid all through practice and qualifying) but it was all for nothing, really. After the usual pomp and ceremony of the build-up to the start (dramatic aerial displays by the French Air Force, the delivery of the starter’s flag by commandos rappelling down from a hovering helicopter, Zinédine Zidane flagging the race off), Estre lost the lead on the opening lap, and all three Ferraris - including the bright yellow private entry from AF Corse, which also - confusingly - operates the works Ferrari cars too - were past the Porsche and setting a blistering pace out front. Helped by a couple of safety car interventions, by the time evening was closing in and night approaching, the lead was being traded - and competitively traded at that - between the No.50 Ferrari and the private No.83 car, with former F1 star Robert Kubica being notably and impressively fast in the changeable conditions.

Action-packed night

But then Kubica’s speed got the better of him, and he accidentally clipped one of the works BMWs, pitching that car hard into the barrier on the Mulsanne Straight and - thanks to an earlier shunt for the dramatic-looking BMW ‘Art Car’ - ended the Munich brand’s hopes of an impressive finish. On top of that, lengthy barrier repairs meant long circulations behind the safety cars, closing up the pack and eradicating Ferrari’s advantage.

The weather would also get the better of the race itself, effectively putting things on hold for four long hours during the night as race director Eduardo Freitas decided that the combination of dark, rain and patches of fog made it just too perilous to continue at flat-out speeds. Only as day broke, and the smell of various breakfasts spread across the circuit from the packed campsites was racing fully resumed.

Anyone could win it

Now, it became a four-horse race. A recovering Porsche, an unexpectedly fast Cadillac and a resurgent Toyota took turns attacking Ferrari’s lead and between the three of them - all swerving around incidents which included an Aston Martin GT car being bounced onto its roof and the bright red semi-private Whelan Cadillac smacking hard into the barriers - they largely succeeded, keeping Ferrari close at hand.

Too close at hand at times. Coming into a damp Dunlop Corner, Jose Maria Lopez (brought back into the Toyota squad as a last-minute replacement when Mike Conway injured himself in a bicycling accident) lunged up the inside of the leading No.51 Ferrari in the No.7 Toyota, only to find the corner too narrow and too slippery, and the two cars traded paint and panels. The Ferrari stayed briefly ahead but Lopez finished the move further around the lap. Had Toyota pulled it off and sneaked a dramatic Le Mans victory out from under Ferrari?

No. Lopez suffered a spin which put him on the back foot for the rest of the race, and even though the private No.83 Ferrari suffered a cooked and smoking hybrid system which put it out of the race late on, ultimately none of Porsche, Cadillac, nor Toyota had an answer to the sheer speed of the Italian car.

Still an exciting finish

It did come down to the wire, however. As the No.50 Ferrari started its final lap and the rain continued to fall, Nicklas Nielsen’s fuel tank was almost on fumes and the No.8 Toyota of Brendon Hartley was only 22 seconds behind, ready to pounce should the Ferrari run dry, or have to run slow to ensure it made the finish. Seconds ticked by, and the Ferrari mechanics were seen anxiously tapping their feet and clenching their fists, but Nielsen did it, bringing the 499P - its bright red paint dulled by racing grime - across the line for Ferrari’s second win in a row at Le Mans.

Toyota came close to a massive upset, while Cadillac and Porsche’s performances deserved better than finishes away from the podium. The Cadillacs’ mighty V8 engines certainly provided the most memorable noises of the weekend, surely worth some kind of consolation prize.

A huge field of finishers

Further back the Hypercar grid, BMW and Alpine were both out early which was a shame as both showed bursts of speed which hopefully speak of future competitiveness. Peugeot’s dramatic-looking 9X8 - now with a rear wing, and heavily revised aero and suspension - proved too slow to keep up, but it ran reliably and was competitive in the wet. Will that be enough to give the squad a stay of execution from the Stellantis Group bean counters?

Lamborghini, on its Le Mans debut, ran comfortably enough in the gap between the Peugeots and the customer Porsches, but didn’t set the track alight. The singular Isotta Fraschini got to the end, but never looked quick enough to bother anyone, and could occasionally be spotted being mugged by LMP2 cars and even the odd GT3 car.

Ford happy with Mustang debut

Speaking of GT3, while McLaren had set the class pole (the company’s first ever pole position at Le Mans) all three of the 720S race cars made early exits. Ford’s debutant Mustang GT3 ran quickly - and noisily, second only to the Cadillacs in that regard - and the Proton Competition-run cars bagged a third and fourth behind the WRT BMW. The class was won by Porsche, however. The pair of 911s - the smallest number of such cars at Le Mans for many years - run by the hugely experienced Manthey squad never looked all that fast compared to the more flamboyant Fords and Lamborghinis, but in their stealth was speed, and the black and orange No.91 car of Richard Lietz, Yasser Shahin and Morris Schuring took the class win.

Book your camping for 2025 now

Next year will see an even larger entry in the Hypercar class as the existing grid (assuming all makes returns) will be joined by Aston Martin, basing its racer on the Valkyrie road car. Will 2025 prove an even more thrilling running of Le Mans? Will Ferrari score a hat-trick?

Whatever happens on the track, hopefully it will be sunnier. If only for the sake of my socks.