a real thriller —

Ferrari wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans after a 50-year absence

After an absence of 50 years, it's like Ferrari never went away.

A red race car moves slowly down the pitlane at Le Mans after the race. There are hundreds of people cheering it on
Enlarge / Race winners, the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 499P of James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi, and Antonio Giovinazzi arrive down the pit lane toward parc ferme at the end of the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 11, 2023, in Le Mans, France.
James Moy Photography/Getty Images

One hundred is something of an arbitrary number, an accident of how many fingers we happen to have. But in years, it represents a long time to keep doing something again and again: like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an annual race around an 8-mile circuit in France that exists not just as a way to entertain but also to improve the cars we drive on the road. Windshield wipers, disc brakes, fuel injection, and laserbeam headlights are just a few examples that were proved in the cauldron of the 24 Hours before appearing on cars like the one you might drive.

This weekend saw the centenary edition of the race take place. Anticipation had been building for months thanks to a new ruleset that has revitalized the top class of prototypes, now called Hypercars. After several years of Toyota facing little competition by meagerly funded privateer teams, 2023's entry list also included cars from other major manufacturers—Cadillac, Ferrari, Peugeot, and Porsche.

Legends return

Each has raced at Le Mans before, the European makes with quite some success. Across 91 actual races—world wars prevented running some years—Porsche's entries notched 19 wins, more than anyone else. Audi has the next-best record, but it has opted to spend its racing budget on Formula 1 for the foreseeable future.

Porsche's new 963 fared best in the hands of the Jota team, which looked like it could challenge for the win early on. An accident put paid to that, however.
Enlarge / Porsche's new 963 fared best in the hands of the Jota team, which looked like it could challenge for the win early on. An accident put paid to that, however.
Ker Robertson/Getty Images

Peugeot is something of a home team, achieving glory in the '90s and 2000s, but it's hard to understate the significance of Ferrari's return. The long-distance race helped make the reputation of the Italian make, with nine wins between its first in 1949 and its last in 1964. Then in 1973 it decided to focus on Formula 1 to the exclusion of endurance racing, a drought that's now over.

The reason? A new class called Hypercar. Originally conceived as a venue for racing versions of ridiculously expensive, ridiculously fast road cars, it morphed a little, becoming a category for closed-cockpit racing prototypes built to one of two different sets of technical regulations, then "performance-balanced" to create a roughly level playing field. Your Hypercar doesn't have to be a hybrid, but it helps, and only Glickenhaus and Floyd Vanwall programs opted for just internal combustion.

Actual competition again

This year promised to be the most competitive Le Mans in years. Toyota has basically had the race to itself since 2018, winning five in a row to limited opposition. 2023 proved different, and at times each of the five big brands showed race-leading pace. The two Toyota GR010s remained the favorites in the lead-up to the race, but Ferrari's stunning new 499P proved its measure during qualifying.

Porsche's return has been almost as heralded as Ferrari's, despite a much shorter absence from the sport. Ars has followed the development of Porsche's 963, and four examples were entered in this year's race—three in the rainbow hues of the factory Penske Porsche team, one a golden Hertz livery for the independent Jota team. The gold car ran up front early but was caught out by slippery conditions following rain.

The three Penske Porsches underwhelmed, and ninth was the best result any could achieve. After failing to win at Daytona or either of the two races at Sebring earlier this year and now Le Mans, too, one has to wonder at the mood over in Stuttgart when it comes to their latest race car.

This crash damage took the #94 Peugeot out of contention for the win, but it still finished the race.
Enlarge / This crash damage took the #94 Peugeot out of contention for the win, but it still finished the race.
Clive Rose/Getty Images

What I wasn't quite expecting was for the Peugeot 9X8 to show as well as it did. This unconventional machine does without a rear wing, opting instead to make all its aerodynamic downforce from a sculpted underbody. The 9X8 started racing midway through last year's season, just after Le Mans, with many problems and little success. But it was designed with the peculiar demands of the French track in mind. Now wearing a multicolored livery in place of the somber gray we've seen until now, the 9X8s came alive, and one car looked like a contender for victory until it became another casualty of curves that remained wet and slippery even after the tarmac had dried out.

Channel Ars Technica