As the 499P Le Mans Hypercar makes its debut at the 1000 Miles of Sebring, we look back to 1956, when Ferrari’s first outing at the same circuit finished with a 1-2 Prancing Horse win.
This March Ferrari return to the top class of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) with the 499P Le Mans Hypercar, a hybrid-power 680cv Prancing Horse at the cutting edge of motor sport technology.
1000 Miles of Sebring
Fittingly, the 499P will make its debut at the 1000 miles of Sebring, the opening event of the 2023 FIA WEC and a circuit that has, since its inception in the middle of the last century, been considered the perfect warm-up for the most famous endurance race of them all, Le Mans.
Indeed, so formidable is the Sebring International Circuit that it forms one of the three in the Triple Crown of endurance racing, the other two being 24 Hours of Daytona and of course, Le Mans. In the 1950’s however, Sebring was still a relatively new circuit that, while known to the racing community, was yet to become a household name. That was all to change one hot afternoon in 1956.
If the Sebring circuit looked like something better suited for landing aircraft on than racing cars, that’s because it was. The long concrete straights were designed to take the full weight of a 32-ton Boeing Flying Fortress and the light, fast open-top race cars of the ‘50s skimmed across the bumpy surfaces with perilous imprecision.
It was dangerous, difficult driving and one lap of the 5.2 miles circuit in the scorching Florida heat was considered by many teams to be the equivalent of two laps at Le Mans. Which is why the European teams, who were dedicated to winning the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio back home, were willing to make the trip to the United States for one race of the year. In 1956 five manufacturers shipped their factory cars across for the race: Ferrari, Maserati, Aston Martin, Porsche and Jaguar.
Seventy-four cars entered (compare that to the 49 that entered Le Mans and you can see the popularity of this fledgling circuit) and despite the new threat from the Jaguar D-Types, Ferrari had come to win.
Of the three factory Prancing Horses they fielded, two were 860 Monzas; powered by 3.4 litre straight-four engines capable of hitting 260 km/hr – they were endurance racing behemoths forged on the unforgiving roads in the European mountains. The third was the 857 Sport, the 860’s predecessor which had earned its place on the grid by coming second at the 1000 km Buenos Aires in January that year.
The drivers of course, were as formidable as the cars. The first 860 Monza would be driven by Juan Manuel Fangio and Eugenio Castellotti – considered two of the greatest racing drivers to have ever lived. The second was piloted by F1 Scuderia drivers Luigi Musso and Harry Schell while the 857 had Alfonso de Portago and Jim Kimberley, both considered endurance racing specialists.
The race began at 10am in front of the 47,000 fans who had crisscrossed the country to witness the greatest accumulation of European talent America had ever seen. As everyone predicted, the Jaguar D-Types were fast. Mike Hawthorn’s fuel injected Jag started in 8th position and had overtaken the leading Chevrolet Corvette by the first corner.
By the end of the first lap, Stirling Moss, who started 28th and whose raw talent was making up for his Aston Martin’s weaknesses, had rifled through the gears to tuck himself in right behind him. But endurance races are not won on the first lap, and behind them Fangio settled into the seat of his 860 Monza, pushed hard on the accelerator and commenced a war of attrition that would last for the next twelve hours.
The Ferrari 857 retired after seven hours, and with Moss also out, the challenge of bearing down on the Hawthorn’s D-Type was left to Fangio / Castellotti and Musso / Schell. For almost half the day the two Ferraris and the Jaguar played pit stop cat-and-mouse: one would pit, the other would take the lead, then they would pit and lose the lead.
And so on, for hour after hour under the setting Florida sun. Until, incredibly, Hawthorn’s front brake line broke and his car bled out on the track, forcing him to retire. With the rest of the pack more than ten miles back, the 860s cruised to victory, gifting Ferrari their first 1-2 constructors win at Sebring, beating Europe’s best in America’s back yard to put the Scuderia firmly on the global map.
Report by Ross Brown for ferrari.com