Antonio Fuoco! Perhaps unfamiliar to followers of Formula 1, but a name now etched into Ferrari eternity thanks to claiming pole position for the start of the 2023 Le Mans 24 Hours – first run in 1923 – billed this year fittingly as The Race of the Century.
It was 50 years ago since the last Ferrari effort at Le Mans, Arturo Merzario and Carlos Pace put the Red car on pole, with Jacky Ickx and Brian Redman lining up beside them. Like in 1973, two Red cars will head the field into Turn 1 on Saturday for the start of the around-the-clock race aka the greatest endurance race in the world.
Ferrari seeking their 10th outright win at the legendary race. They have not won it since 1965 when the North American Racing Team (NART) run Ferrari 250LM took victory with Americans Masten Gregory and Ed Hugus sharing duties with Austrian Jochen Rindt.
A year earlier, in 1964, Jean Guichet and Nino Vaccarella were the last winners driving a factory Ferrari 275P to victory.
Fuoco’s Hyperpole-winning lap was special and gritty, the 27-year-old Italian showing his finest form when it mattered, avoiding slower traffic on the fastest part of the circuit, hanging in there to deliver a near-perfect last sector, Ferrari 499P and driver in splendid harmony.
Ditto the sister car, with Alessandro Pier Guidi on duty running his teammate close, and top of the timesheets until Fuoco stole the afternoon show at Le Mans.
Fuoco had P1 in the bag before the Red Flag came out
Notably, serial winners up until now, Toyota were left wanting. Brendon Hartley the quickest of the team’s fast chaps claiming P3 on the grid, and team boss Kamui Kobayashi. The Japanese team – feeling the pressure like never before at this level – seeking a sixth straight win at Circuit de la Sarthe, were unfortunate that a Red Flag with five minutes to go disrupted their plans, their fast stuff was still to come until it didn’t…
Fuoco had done the business by then, perhaps dousing what might’ve been a thriller had there been no interruption. The Ferrari driver didn’t even bother to go out when the pits opened for that final five-minute fling.
It can be argued that apart from the brownie points and Friday night publicity, starting P1 on Saturday for the 24-hour slog is hardly that important. Indeed that’s the only way Toyota will console themselves and thus still remain favourites to win the race.
But from yesterday until 16:00 (CET) on Saturday, when Le Bron James waves the starter’s flag, Le Mans belongs to Ferrari and their main man Fuoco who summed up his star-making session: “It’s something special to take pole position in a race that marks Ferrari’s return to the top endurance class of the most famous race.
“I think the entire team has done something fantastic in enabling our two Hypercars to take the front row. Now we’re enjoying this moment. We all deserve it, but we know we have a long and challenging race ahead of us. We’ll have to stay very focused and give our all.”
Nielson: Antonio took everything out of that lap even with a bit of traffic
His teammates were chuffed too, Nicklas Nielsen said: “It feels amazing to start from pole position: it was an awesome job by Antonio, and an awesome job by the sister car as we are coming here with a brand new car, on the first time that we race here, and being able to make a front row lockout it’s something really amazing.
“I’m very proud of the whole team, they have been working so hard to bring the car to where it is today. I think Antonio took everything out of that lap even if he had a bit of traffic and somehow this made it even better! Now we are focusing on the race even if we are really happy with qualifying because we know we have a long race ahead of us.”
The #50 Ferrari’s third driver Miguel Molina added: “It’s incredible. The whole team has worked hard to achieve this result, which is very important for all of us. We know that the race will be long, but it was important to start well. From now on we will be focused on the race. What we have done so far is part of history.”
In the sister #51 Ferrari, Pier Guidi said in the Scuderia’s Hyperpole report: “As a team, I don’t think there was a better way to return to Le Mans. Securing a red front row repays us all for the hard work we’ve put in over the past year without a break and always focused on our goals. My first attempt went very well, but I hit some traffic on my second one, and the lap wasn’t ideal for trying to improve the time.”
With the Ferrari Formula 1 team in the doldrums, Tifosi and everyone at Maranello will be fired up by this performance at Le Mans and even dream of the unlikely: Ferrari’s outright victory at Le Mans for the first time since the sixties.
Coletta: We’re enjoying a fantastic moment the fruit of exceptional work
Antonello Coletta, Global Head of Endurance and Corse Clienti summed up: “We are delighted with this result, fifty years after our previous appearance in the top class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Tonight after the Hyperpole, we are enjoying a fantastic moment, the fruit of exceptional work.
“The race, which will be long, and where several factors, first and foremost reliability, could prove decisive. I want to thank the entire team, from the technicians to the mechanics to the sporting and commercial areas. The immense effort put in by everyone has allowed us to be where we are in less than a year since our 499P’s first shakedown.”
Ferdinando Cannizzo, Head of Endurance Race Cars echoed the sentiments that prevailed on Thursday evening in the Ferrari camp: “Taking first and second place in the Hyperpole is an indescribable feeling. The credit goes to the entire team, from the drivers to the mechanics and engineers who enabled us to achieve this, something not just the result of one day but of months of intense work.
“We are incredibly proud but know there’s still a long way to go. The 24 Hours of Le Mans won’t be a easy race. There will be many key factors, starting with reliability, because these hypercars are complex, and attention to detail will prove decisive.
“We’ll also need to pay special attention to the choice of tyres and at the same time correctly read the weather, which will be variable from start to finish, according to the current forecast,” explained Cannizzo.