As a lead-in to the exhibition dedicated to the 1949 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Rétromobile show in Paris 6-10 February 2019 (soon to be on display at the 24 Hours museum), this series takes a look back at the extraordinary year the race resumed after a decade-long hiatus. Ferrari's first victory was yet another triumph for Luigi Chinetti after claiming the top step on the podium in 1932 and 1934, a win that would forever change the course of his career.
1949 was a pivotal year for Luigi Chinetti. Enzo Ferrari had just created a stunning 2-liter V12 racing car bodied by Touring called the 166 MM (for Mille Miglia). Unfortunately, the car was saddled with two significant shortcomings, the clutch and gearbox. Additionally, it was ineligible to participate in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But, Ferrari was undeterred and so Luigi Chinetti set about devising a strategy to save the day. To get around the exclusion problem, Chinetti had the car bought by a distant cousin of the Queen, Lord Selsdon (Peter Mitchell Thompson), who had taken the start at the race pre-WWII (with Frazer Nash in 1935 and Lagonda in 1939, finishing fourth).
The second phase of his plan was so cunning some would call it diabolical. Concerned about the fragility of the car's clutch and gearbox, Chinetti was looking to do the race alone. On Friday, the day before the start, he found himself on the terrace of the Hippodrome hotel near Mulsanne, seated at a table with his teammate, Lord Selsdon, and a lovely bottle of cognac. Legend has it, as the aristocrat downed drink after drink, Chinetti repeatedly tossed his cognac over his shoulder into a planter of hydrangeas. Lord Selsdon went to sleep that night around 23:00 and did not emerge from his hotel room until Sunday morning, quickly making it to the circuit to cover a few laps in "his" car.
For his part, Chinetti was so stiff after winning the race he needed help from officials to get out of the car. The impact of this first Ferrari victory was invaluable to the marque and also sealed Chinetti's fate with the house of Maranello, of which he became the official representative in the U.S.
Chinetti went on to form his own team called North American Racing Team (NART), and over the course of the following 30 years fielded so many Ferraris at the 24 Hours of Le Mans he could have filled the entire grid at one running of the race. He figures in some of the greatest moments in the history of Le Mans, like the battles between the official Scuderia cars and brothers Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez, and Ferrari's win in 1965 thanks to American driver Masten Gregory and Austrian driver Jochen Rindt, still the marque's ninth and last win to date at the 24 Hours.
PHOTO (Copyright - ACO/Archives): A group photo of the 1949 24 Hours of Le Mans winners, with Luigi Chinetti (wearing a striped tie) and to his left, Lord Selsdon. Between them stands Luigi Chinetti, Jr., nicknamed Coco, who would go on to participate in the race three times in the 1970s.