If It Can't Spend $400 Million in F1 Anymore, Ferrari Might as Well Win Le Mans
Race cars aren’t meant to sit. Or idle. Or park.
The Ferrari 499P prototype, destined for Le Mans but here now, on this cool and clear early February morning in Central Florida, sweeps across the broken concrete of Sebring International Raceway’s infield. It’s five weeks before the 499P’s first World Endurance Championship race on this track in March.
This story originally appeared in Volume 16 of Road & Track.
After 50 years, Ferrari returns to endurance racing, swinging this broadsword. Purring, burping, and barking after test laps, the 499P half-orbits around the two borrowed semis and their trailers with which Ferrari has formed its temporary mad science lab. The car comes to an uneasy rest under one of two black tents between the trucks. This four-wheel-drive hybrid racer is packed with computers, batteries, turbos, electric motors, and radiators. These components need airflow to keep from frying while the car is parked, so a Home Depot’s worth of Milwaukee M18 Fuel leaf blowers ($387 each, including a lithium-ion battery) is stuffed into the beast’s many openings. Like most modern race cars, this thing is at more thermal risk when it sits than when it’s rocketing.
“We’re having quite a nice winter session,” says Giuliano Salvi, the engineer leading Ferrari’s endurance effort. “We’ve planned properly our development, and it looks like we’re following our path. Of course, we need to stay humble. We are Ferrari, and we have a lot of expectations. And our targets are very high. But it is also true that we are beginners.”
Ferrari is chasing the volumes of experience—sheer raw data—accumulated by its new foes in world sports-car racing. If nothing else, Toyota’s five consecutive wins at Le Mans mean that the Japanese firm has five days of track time under race conditions. Porsche has 19 overall wins at the French road circuit since 1970 (if you count the Porsche-powered, Jaguar-based racers of the Nineties). Data comes with that experience and success.
At Sebring, Ferrari offered Road & Track an unprecedented glimpse at how it strives to accumulate knowledge rapidly. Besides the two cars—No. 50 and No. 51—there were at least 18 computer workstations under that tent using telemetry to measure everything the test subjects were doing on track, plus maybe a half-dozen more inside the trailers. The analysis Ferrari couldn’t do at Sebring it sent over the internet to Maranello, where another squadron of engineers drilled into the numbers. Racing today is as data-driven as everything else. Ferrari has plenty of racing experience and deep wells of F1 data, but they’re in catch-up mode in sports cars.
A half century wipes away institutional memory. Ferrari last competed for the World Sportscar Championship in 1973 with the 312PB. Built around the 3.0-liter flat-12 used in the 312B F1 car to then-current Group 5 specifications, the 312PB won races and earned Ferrari a championship in 1972. But, unsure of the engine’s longevity, Ferrari didn’t compete at Le Mans that year, and after the 1973 season, it withdrew from sports cars to concentrate on F1. Few members of this modern Ferrari endurance team were even alive then.
Group 5 is ancient history. Returning to endurance racing, Ferrari could build to either the Le Mans Hypercar (LMH) international rule set or Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) rules for IMSA in North America. It chose the more permissive and vastly more expensive LMH.
“It’s very simple,” explains Ferdinando Cannizzo, the technical director of the 499P project and head of GT Racing Car Design and Development for Ferrari, on a Zoom call from Maranello. An LMDh car “is not a car made by the manufacturer. The chassis is made by the chassis constructor, the hybrid system is common to every car, and you may only have the engine as part of the manufacturer’s design. With the [Le Mans] Hypercar, we design the chassis, the engine, and the hybrid system. It’s our DNA to create Ferraris. That’s what drove our decision to build the [Le Mans] Hypercar.”
Ferrari could afford to play the more expensive game. The company is generally assumed to have been F1’s biggest spender, with past outlays beyond $400 million a year—likely well beyond. The budget caps imposed on F1 teams during 2021 knocked those expenditures down to a maximum of $145 million. Then to $140 million for 2022 and $135 million for 2023 through 2025, not including concessions for extra races and inflation. Ferrari had a lot of experienced, fanatically competitive engineers with salaries it could no longer fund under the F1 program. So, it’s assumed, starting another program was a good idea—a parallel program with synergistic potential with F1.
“This is what the people believe,” Cannizzo contends. “But in the end, we’re a normal company, and we’ve been approved with a certain budget. And this is what we are going to respect.”
Still, even the LMH regulations result in more affordable racing than the astronomical efforts made under the old LMP1 rules. Maybe only $100 million for a season, max.
The 499P has a slimmer cockpit than the LMDh cars—those of Porsche, Cadillac, and Acura, for example—that use one of four off-the-shelf chassis. It’s still, at least theoretically, a two-seater and shaped to meet the WEC’s exacting rules of drag and downforce (a 4:1 downforce-to-drag ratio tested in an independent wind tunnel). And there’s some F1 know-how in those small directional wing fences, vortex generators, and Gurney flaps positioned around the car. Drag and downforce are regulated, but there’s clever optimization here.
Ferrari asked that R&T not photograph the intricate elements of the drivetrain. Some access was better than no access. The most surprising element is that the beast’s internal-combustion heart is a version of the 120-degree V-6 used in the roadgoing 296 GTB. In this case, the engine’s compact block is unique to the race car because it needs to be incorporated as a stressed member of the structure with the seven-speed gearbox hanging off its tail. As in the street machine, the wide angle of the vee allows easy plumbing of the turbos planted between the banks, keeps the engine’s weight down low, and makes a wonderful sound because of the harmonious natural balance of the cylinder splay. As in the 296, it nominally displaces 3.0 liters.
The civilian-spec 296 engine is rated at 654 hp, and the Hypercar rules limit output to 500 kilowatts (671 hp) in race trim.
Ferrari says the 499P’s hybrid system uses the same 900-volt battery and controller components it uses in its F1 cars. However, here they’re used to feed a 200-kW (268-hp) electric motor that drives only the front wheels in situations specified in the rules—in dry conditions at over 120 km/h (75 mph). How the battery discharges is specific to the car.
About the only time any crew member’s concentration seems to wander during the test is when they amble to the port-a-potty out where all the various rental cars are parked. Seeing what’s happening on the track isn’t important. Finding inspiration and additional speed in the numbers appearing on their displays is the task at hand. Could there be too much data? “There are a few people who are experienced, like myself,” promises Salvi, “whose job is to filter what is important and what is not. Luckily enough, we have a good environment here, and the level of the people is good, so we focus on the key factors in making the car perform. So far, we haven’t been lost.”
Although Ferrari’s and Ford’s market capitalizations are around $50 billion each, Ferrari sold about 13,000 cars worldwide in 2022 to Ford’s 4.2 million (which includes trucks). Whatever Ferrari spends on advertising every year is likely a thimble compared with the ocean it pours into racing. Racing is Ferrari’s marketing and where it proves the concepts and technologies that keep its road cars compelling. And it could spend much, much more on racing if it wanted. Or if the regulations allowed it to.
Former F1 pilot Antonio Giovinazzi is fresh out of Formula E and one of six drivers Ferrari has assigned to the Hypercar program and its development. After his testing stint, he hangs his driving suit out to dry on a line supporting the tent.
“I prefer racing,” he says, as if it’s the most obvious statement ever spoken. But testing is “part of the game. Particularly when you have a new project and car like that.”
Salvi’s goal for this year is modest. “To be realistic,” he sighs, “it is to see the checkered flag with both cars. For me, that would be a good target. We are here for reliability, reliability, and reliability. That’s the first step of our path.” That won’t be enough in the long run. “We are Ferrari, but we know our target. We need to be humble.”
Update: Ferrari’s new WEC team is ahead of schedule. The No. 50 499P qualified on the pole for its first race appearance, 1000 Miles of Sebring. It finished a strong third behind the two well-proven Toyotas. At the 6 Hours of Portimão in April, the No. 50 car finished second. In the third and final tune-up race before Le Mans, late-April’s 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, the Ferraris qualified second and third with the No. 51 finishing third behind the Toyotas. Already quick and reliable, the 499P seems destined to become a consistent winner.
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