Luigi and the Lord: Ferrari’s victorious 1949 Le Mans

The Ferrari return to the pinnacle of endurance racing has sent shockwaves through the world of motorsport. A storied history in world sportscars includes thirteen World Sportscar Championship titles and nine Le Mans victories – behind Porsche and Audi, the Prancing Horse is still the third-most successful manufacturer to race at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Arguably the most famous era in Ferrari’s sportscar history was the 1960s, when the Scuderia’s front-engined Testa Rossas and rear-engined P series took five consecutive Le Mans victories. The Prancing Horse domination would only be toppled by Henry Ford’s GT40s, as portrayed in the biopic Le Mans ’66.

The Scuderia’s first Le Mans victory as a works outfit came back in 1954, but it had been five years previously that the trophy had first been won by a Ferrari.

1949: Le Mans reborn

The 1949 race was bathed in blossoming post-war euphoria. However, the scars of the conflict were still very much visible: the Luftwaffe had commandeered the adjacent airport, leading to heavy bombing from the British Royal Air Force, and had even turned the Mulsanne Straight into a makeshift runway, which was also bombed. The circuit facilities were also used as a prison camp for a short period of time.

It took four years following the end of the war for the race organisers, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, to raise the funds necessary to restore the Circuit de la Sarthe to its former glories. New grandstands, pits and press facilities were constructed, paid for with an enormous grant of €150,000 (roughly €6 million in today’s money) from the French government.

Ferrari had only existed for a decade, and the manufacturer was still finding its feet in racing. It had designed and built the 166 S in 1948, which was followed in 1949 by an upgrade in the form of the 166 Mille Miglia (MM). The 166 S had already won the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia in 1948 – both around 10 to 12 hours in length – but Maranello was uncertain that the cars would be able to last the distance at the jewel in the crown of endurance racing: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

An premiere with a private team

As many members of the British aristocracy, Peter Mitchell-Thompson, known as Lord Selsdon, raced at Le Mans on two occasions in the 1930s: in a Frazer-Nash in 1935 and a V12 Lagonda in 1939. For the 1949 race, the 36-year-old purchased a 166 MM from the Ferrari factory and enlisted the help of Luigi Chinetti, who already had two Le Mans victories to his name for Alfa Romeo in the 1930s.

A second Ferrari was entered by Pierre Louis Dreyfus and Jean Lucas, but was damaged even before the race began. Dreyfus swerved to avoid a child who had strayed onto the race track and colliding with the barriers, damaging the car. Fortunately the team were able to make the requisite repairs in time for Saturday. 

With only two Ferraris entered in the race, both privately, the prancing horse was seriously outnumbered by some of the more established names from the pre-war days. Among the favourites works cars from French manufacturers Delage, Talbot-Lago and Delahaye, the latter of whom had won the 1938 race. Most of the cars entered in the race had been built after the war, so for most attending the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1949 it was a step into the unknown.

A race of attrition

As expected, the pair of works Delahayes made good starts and established a lead of around a lap over the first few hours. Then, as is always the case at Le Mans, drama befell the lead cars.

“Flahault’s Delahaye commenced a series of pit-stops, the engine reluctant to restart, so that 43.2 minutes were lost, the symptoms suggesting slipped timing,” wrote Dennis Jenkinson in Motorsport Magazine. “And, as if that wasn’t enough, Pozzi in the leading Delahaye caught fire at Mulsanne, and it must have been half-an-hour before, amid a feverish ovation, he coaxed his stricken car to the pits, in the dusk sans lights!”

As the far quicker driver, Chinetti was left to his own devices by team owner and co-driver Lord Selsdon. The Italian kept pace with the Delahayes in third position but lost 7 minutes in the pits at dusk and almost fell in the clutches of the second Ferrari.

Ferrari – An unlikely Le Mans winner

Chinetti soon put the setback behind him, and benefited from the Delahaye drama to inherit the lead. The advantage over the two works Delages was around two minutes overnight and two laps at dawn. With Lord Selsdon’s professional co-driver having built up enough of an advantage, it was time for the Lord himself to “have a steer”. His stint lasted 72 minutes, before he handed back the 166 MM to a refreshed Chinetti.

Despite a slipping clutch in the closing, Chinetti held on for an all-but single-handed Ferrari victory on the Italian marque’s maiden appearance. A further eight would follow.

Chinetti, having moved originally to France and then to America after the war, became Ferrari’s exclusive North American importer. He also formed North American Racing Team, which entered Ferraris in sportscar racing and Formula 1. For Lord Selsdon, becoming the first Scot to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans was enough glory for his racing career. He never raced on the international stage again and died in 1963.

Further information

If you want to know more about the Ferrari comeback, you’ll find our latest news linked here. Even more “Legends of Le Mans” are available on this page.

Image © Ferrari 166MM – Winning car at the 1949 24 Hours Le Mans – CC BY-SA 2.0 Marty B auf Flickr