Ferrari Road to Le Mans 2023 : From Road to Race
Maranello, Italy to Le Mans, France – Years from now, folks will ask what we were doing the day Ferrari emerged after a fifty-year absence to re-enter the 24 Heuers du Mans (or Le Mans 24 if you prefer).
Why? Well, on the occasion of the premier endurance race’s Centenary, Ferrari would proceed to break the domination of the incumbent Toyota Gazoo Racing team to take top honours!
I was there on the day motorsports history was made at the Circuit de la Sarthe and it was clear that Ferrari wasn’t content with merely dispensing bloodied noses, because it went in for the KO punch…
We had been invited to join a symbolic pilgrimage of discovery from Ferrari’s home in Maranello to Le Mans, which in many ways mirrored the Prancing Horse’s triumphant return to the legendary endurance motorsports event.
The only constant in racing is that it is unpredictable and requires not just mental and physical fortitude, but also courage, boldness and a willingness to take risks – to spin the roulette of chance if you will.
The massive gamble that Ferrari took by involving so many of us media in its #ferrariroadtolemans tour certainly paid-off, even given the drama and theatrics that often accompany endurance racing.
Both its 499P hypercar entrants didn’t just take first and second at the starting grid before going on to complete the gruelling endurance event, but also came in first and fifth overall.
The now-legendary 499P #51 piloted by Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Antonio Giovinazzi stamped their authority by taking the chequered flag – complete with heart-stopping final pit-stop as the car had to be rebooted! – even as 499P #50 finished fifth, with Antonio Fuoco, Miguel Molina and Nicklas Nielsen at its helm.
From Maranello (where we picked up our companion cars and co-drivers) to Le Mans, we would end up covering some 1300km over the course of two days in the lead-up to the 24 Heuers du Mans Centenary Race weekend – our very own endurance race, if you permit us that indulgence!
Needless to say, unlike the race-drivers, we didn't have to drive at 100 per cent through all sorts of conditions including hot, cold, day, night, rain and fog, all the while fending off challengers and keeping an eye out for overtaking opportunities to move up the ranks!
In contrast, the only thing my co-driver and I had to contend with in the Portofino M was, "It's feeling too hot, shall we put the roof up?"
We even had our own tyre ‘pit-stop’, as we visited the Michelin Museum (L'Aventure Michelin) – tyres, not food! – in Clermont-Ferrand before the whole Ferrari contingent of 30-plus sportscars descended on the Michelin R&D Centre in Cébazat!
The cars themselves represented the brand’s current offerings, with a repertoire that encompassed hybrid V6, twin-turbo’d V8 and naturally, V12, which saw the likes of the mighty Purosangue, 296 GTB, 296 GTS, Roma and yes, even the Portofino M, which was to serve as our steed for the duration of the trip.
Although we covered just 1300km over two days, it’s probably worth mentioning that the Le Mans 24 would see the three drivers in each car completing over 340 laps (and 4500km) within 24 hours!
The only things my co-driver had to endure (apart from each other!) were Taylor Swift on repeat on Spotify and the frequent stops needed to relieve our bursting bladders… and seldom at the same time, I should add!
To win a race, you first have to finish it and this was an underlying theme throughout the race weekend.
Unlike the relatively ‘short’ 1.5hr burst of the F1 Grand Prix, an endurance race isn’t just about maximum attack lap after lap.
Instead, a successful result requires careful introspection and consideration for the race-car’s well-being (powertrain, tyres, bodywork), because the hypercars can be sensitive and temperamental and can’t be used and abused and still be expected to make it across the finish line.
Due to the pressure (time, not our bladders in this case), we had to take the fastest route to Le Mans, which meant plenty of motorway motoring before crossing into France via the 13km Fréjus tunnel from Bardonecchia in Italy.
Even for our softer blend of endurance driving, one still had to be fully-focused at the helm as we constantly kept watch for kamikaze trucks and slow-moving vehicles in the fast-lane.
Furthermore, breaking the monotony of maintaining a constant pace on the highway took some doing, which is why we alternated between having the hardtop convertible’s roof-up and down over different legs of the journey – not that we have a lot of hair to rough-up between the two of us!
Of the entire group, the Portofino M proved to be one of the most frugal – if not the most – for grand touring, because it still had decent levels of fuel left when we stopped to top-up the other models.
With its convertible hard-top, +2 rear seats and 292-litres trunk capacity, the Portofino M has a good mix of punch and panache, as it proved a versatile companion to have on the trip – we also liked that it has more aggressive looks compared to its predecessor.
620hp / 760Nm also means it is no slouch on both winding roads and highways, with sharp handling and plenty of push to achieve swift and safe overtaking manoeuvres.
However, when the flight of six Purosangues comes along with V12s singing lustily, everyone moves over.
In Italy, passers-by miming full-throttle with their hands are a given, but this would persist even after we crossed into France.
It almost seemed as though we formed a huge rechargeable battery convoy to charge up the tifosi’s passion for the Ferrari brand in the lead-up to Le Mans, which would come to a rousing fruition with the Prancing Horse’s triumph.
The appeal of Ferrari is universal – young or old, no one is immune to the brand’s charms.
The 13 cars were not travelling in convoy, but we occasionally grouped together when the traffic slowed.
It was certainly a sight to behold as the vehicles alongside were treated to glimpses of reds and blues as our flamboyant flash parade passed them by.
It was certainly a far cry from the many Johnny No-Joys we have in Singapore, who whinge and moan from the sound of any exhaust, with most of them filming you only for the purposes of Stomp.
In the small towns, kids would run excitedly alongside the Portofino M waving and shouting as we cruised by – top-down, Taylor Swift in our ears and the stirring twin-turbo’d V8 spooling in their ears.
Unless you’re there, it’s difficult to convey the swelling of pride and passion from the constant shock and awe evinced by the other motorists.
Kids pressed their faces against the window, passengers whipped out smartphones and took photos/videos of V8, V6 and V12 in full-song as the cars took flight.
If we didn’t know better, it’s almost as though they already knew the conclusion to the Le Mans 24 was sealed by the Scuderia!
At just after 1600hrs on 11 June, the pomp and pageantry at the Sarthe Circuit would be multiplied by a few hundred thousand times as Ferrari 499P #51 took the chequered flag to the accompaniment of the entire circuit erupting in rousing rapture.
It’s hard to think of a better way for Ferrari to stamp its authority during its debut ‘return’ to Le Mans 24.
It was never just about the cars though, because there was a jocular camaraderie and convivial air among the participants as we wound our way into France.
Mind you, this was even before we heard the news that Ferrari had secured first and second positions on the Hypercar starting grid for the race.
Our stable of 13 cars from Maranello would be joined by German and British contingents to swell to a massive 30 or so cars that would become a permanent and dramatic fixture at their designated parking in the Bugatti Circuit over the race weekend.
On the roads closer to Le Mans, we began to encounter other sportscars from different parts of the EU (and the UK) and it quickly underscored the inextricable bond and mutual respect that connects petrolheads the world over.
First, they (we) always move over for faster moving traffic and there’s an amiable fellowship between us from the friendly flashing and waves, just like the sportsmanship that exists between all the teams that compete in the Le Mans 24 extreme endurance race.
For a short section, we even travelled in the company of a small convoy of Porsches.
Cruising speed, overtaking and following distance were properly disciplined, but what made it more fascinating (and somewhat reassuring) was it was all unrehearsed – a Puronsangue took lead, the Porsches stayed in the middle and we took on sweeper duties in the Portofino M.
I guess this is an important element to operating in the big leagues, where there’s a healthy respect for the people and teams that are making big waves in the circuit. The small-minded will be happy to wallow in pettiness brought about by their own mediocrity, but the rest of us are only looking ahead.
Ferrari Chairman, John Elkann
At the end of the race, Ferrari Chairman, John Elkann (pictured above), said, “This has been an unforgettable day that I’d like to dedicate to everyone at Ferrari.
After 50 years we have returned to compete in the highest category of endurance racing that has a place at the very heart of our story and that of all motorsport.
We're proud indeed to have taken Italy once again to the top step of the podium at Le Mans, celebrating in the best possible style the centenary of the most important race of its kind in the world.
This victory that Antonello Coletta, Amato Ferrari and the entire team, from our mechanics to our drivers, have achieved today in such challenging conditions – because of the 24 hour duration, the unpredictable weather and the impressive strength of our competitors – serves as an example for us all.
The emotions they have given to our tifosi on a great day that brings together past, present and future, is also a reminder of the importance of finding the courage and the humility to always improve.
Full of enthusiasm and joy, I'd like to thank all our colleagues who have given us this extraordinary victory: a success that we celebrate with all of our tifosi and with our country.”