Well a Ferrari first won Le Mans in 1949 and most recently in 1965. And the earlier race would count not only for the heroics of Luigi Chinetti who drove for 22 of the 24 hours but also for the fact his 166MM used a tiny 2.0-litre V12 to beat off opposition with vastly larger engines. And it was the first time a marque had won the race at the first time of asking (if you don’t include Chenard et Walcker at the very first Le Mans in 1923), since when McLaren alone has matched the feat.
And you may well want to include the 1965 race where the utterly unfancied 250LM of Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt survived the total collapse of the factory Ford and Ferrari efforts to win through. But you can’t, because both Ferrari’s first and last Le Mans wins weren’t won by Ferrari, but private owners driving Ferraris: Lord Selsdon in 1949 and, as it happens, none other than Chinetti’s own North American Racing Team in 1965.
So which of the factory successes is most meritworthy? On balance I’d go for the first, when Maurice Trintignant and Froilán González won the 1954 race in a thing called a 375 Plus.
Although Ferrari the company was just seven years old, in Formula 1 it was already nearly invincible: Alberto Ascari had just pulled off back to back championships in such style that for an entire year starting in June 1952, no one else won a single race, an achievement that boggles my brain to this day. But at Le Mans the Scuderia had proven far less sure footed. It only entered as a factory team for the first time in 1952, Ascari retiring within three hours. He brought three 340MMs in 1953 of which Mike Hawthorn’s was disqualified, Ascari’s did its clutch again, leaving only the Marzotto brothers to struggle home in fifth place, fully ten laps behind the victorious Jaguar C-type.
For 1954 Ferrari again brought three cars, but this time with 4.5-litre V12s in place of the 340’s 4.1-litre motors and roadster rather than coupe bodies. The opposition, in essence, were three new Jaguar D-types, state of the art machines, built from scratch as racers rather than being distantly derived from a road car like the C-type. It had monocoque construction, disc brakes, and very latest aerodynamics. Even with another 400cc, what hope had the Ferraris against those armed only with ladder chassis, disc brakes and primitive aero? The previous year the 340’s hadn’t even been able to keep up with the C-types. And the weather forecast appeared to play straight into Jaguar’s hands.
It was a war of attrition even before the race started: the entry list had three works Mercedes-Benz, three works Lancias and three works Healeys, none of which turned up. Even so 57 cars started the race of which just nine has completed sufficient distance by the end to be classified. But it was still a thriller. González took the start and his car became the target for the rest of the race. At first it was the Moss-mounted Jaguar that gave chase but that succumbed to brake failure, ironic given that its discs were meant to be its now not-so-secret weapon. Others took up the charge, Paulo Marzotto’s 375 Plus even briefly gaining the lead. Then into the fray came Peter Whitehead in the second factory D-type before its fuel supply started to wilt.
By dawn and after a distinctly damp night, just one works Ferrari and one works Jaguar, driven by the winning duo of Rolt and Hamilton from the year before, remained. The Ferrari looked comfortable for most of the morning but come the afternoon and with less than two hours to go the heavens opened once more and the gap started to narrow. At its final pitstop the drenched Ferrari briefly refused to restart, the gap narrowed some more. Jaguar meanwhile put Hamilton in its car with a brief to go out and win the race. He drove in a such a manner that ‘I might have killed myself a dozen times’ but as he was gracious enough to concede ‘González was impossibly good. He handled that big Ferrari superbly and I could not catch him.’ Fifteen minutes before the flag the rain stopped, the track tried and for the first time in 23 hours and 45 minutes, the outcome was no longer doubted. At the flag they were just 87 seconds apart after a day and a night of racing.
I drove a 375 Plus once, not the Le Mans winner but one that was meant to have been written off by Farina on the Mille Miglia but which had somehow appeared to resurrect itself as such cars often did during a multi-decade sabbatical in South America. And while I’ve driven almost all the sports racers of that era – the Astons, the Jaguars, the Mercedes and even the 750 Monza Ferrari that replaced the 375 Plus – none scared me half so much as this. It was a brute, pure and simple: an over-engined, under-chassised brute. Its steering and brakes were simply inadequate, it inspired very little confidence and frankly I was glad to hand it back in one piece. Only the engine, that incredible Lampredi V12, lived up to expectations. It was a car I was more happy to have driven, than I was when driving it.
One last thing: I drove the car on deserted road in northern Italy in bright sunshine for less than an hour. Messrs González and Trintignant drove theirs for 24 hours, surrounded by dozens of lunatics and in some of the filthiest weather ever to visit Le Mans. And they still won. And that is why, of them all, 1954 is the greatest of the factory Ferrari Le Mans wins. So far…