Le Mans 24 hour road trip in a Ferrari GTC4 Lusso
Adam Towler and snapper Aston Parrott made good use of the 2019 Le Mans 24hr race, road-tripping to the iconic race in the ultimate long-distance GT
Blast. I knew I’d forget something packing in such a hurry. Clean pants? Check. Wash kit? Yes. Passport? The big one, that. Tick. Uploading the soundtrack from the movie Le Mans from CD to my phone? Ah… Yes, that was it…
Just those opening few notes of Michel Legrand’s 1971 soundtrack are enough to transport me back to being nine years old, sitting in front of the TV on a wet Sunday evening in my pyjamas, watching McQueen’s movie with Dad, the little Slate Grey 2-litre 911S bobbing its nose, whining and wailing as it cruises through deserted French villages and over narrow country bridges – a prelude to nearly two hours of shrieking 12-cylinder racing engines and heroic-looking blokes staring enigmatically into the middle distance. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck now just thinking about it.
Playing the soundtrack on the way down to the 24 Hours has become a tradition, see, and I had wanted to combine those first few bars with the scream of a 680bhp Italian V12, and the romantic idyll of a deserted French N-road stretching dogmatically straight to the horizon, on this, our first chance to really use a Ferrari GTC4 Lusso in the manner in which was surely intended. But I’m also keen to see what Le Mans is like in one of its weaker years, with Toyota the only factory team in the top class and virtually guaranteed a win unless it hits problems. Le Mans has had plenty of tough years before – 1975 and 1994 spring to mind – but how will it affect the atmosphere this time around, the turnout of the fans? What’s changed, too?
A rainy and congested M25 is an inauspicious start to our Le Mans adventure, but an inevitable overture to hopefully sunnier and less populated roads to come. First impressions on the Lusso? Hmm. It’s massive. Literally: nearly five metres in length, two metres wide and weighing almost two tons (1920kg). It splashes commandingly around London’s orbital like a great white quietly but sinisterly swimming in the slow lane of the local municipal pool.
I have an open mind when it comes to the Lusso. It’s a model that this magazine has done precious little with since its launch in 2017, but now, and for reasons I won’t bore you with, its glossy red key is in my pocket and it feels like that’s all that matters. As someone resoundingly sick of posh SUVs being presented as the only choice for the well-heeled searching for practicality, performance and prestige, deep down I’m desperate for the Lusso to ‘work’ on the requisite multiple levels. Even before the delights of the M20 I think I have my answer.
The Lusso gives me good vibes from the off. Its Daytona-style seats, richly upholstered in Bordeaux red leather with biscuit highlights, are as extravagant as they are immediately comfortable, yet the support for faster driving is there, too. The ride quality with Comfort selected on the manettino has a subtle pliancy that strikes just the right balance between outright comfort and dynamic control, with reasonable road roar and negligible wind noise a distant secondary accompaniment. We’re just one bag short of fitting all of Aston Parrott’s camera gear and both of our luggage in the leather-lined boot. In short, it’s a refined and relaxing place to be, and the premium sound system is mighty (and a snip at ‘just’ £3552, but then this is a car where Apple CarPlay is a £2400 option, not to mention the panoramic glass roof at £11,520).
I’m referring above to the audio set-up, of course, but even its impressive depth and clarity has nothing on the 6.3-litre naturally aspirated monster that lurks against the bulkhead, well back in the enormous engine bay. It may well be over 100bhp down on its relation in the 812 Superfast, but it revs to 8250rpm, and produces 80 per cent of its 514lb ft of torque by 1750rpm. Two things have already struck me: One, that when you click both steering-wheel paddles simultaneously to get neutral, you can then blip the throttle and the engine revs with an immediacy and lack of inertia that rivals a one-litre superbike; no idea how Ferrari can manage that with this displacement. And two, the engine feels so tightly strung, so animalistic with its 13.5:1 compression ratio, that the amount of engine braking when you lift the throttle almost feels like brake regeneration in an EV. Yet for all this latent energy, on a light throttle it’s barely audible – and that quiet sense of immense power kept in reserve is intoxicating.
We had a plan to partly shun the (expensive) autoroutes and take the ‘old way’ to Le Mans, but by the time we’re off the Channel Tunnel and past Rouen, the desire to just arrive at motorsport’s most famous city is too strong, and we glide down direct on the Lusso’s fancy adaptive cruise system. Despite some threatening skies, the rain has so far held off, as it still has by Friday morning, when we trundle over to the Classic British Welcome event.
Based in the village of Saint Saturnin, this car show has been running since 2001 and attracts over 1000 classic and performance cars each year. Over 6000 people will attend to enjoy the cars, refreshments and stalls. It’s free to enter, with vehicles being filtered on entry into ‘interesting’ and everything else, the latter parking in surrounding fields before the occupants take advantage of the park-and-ride service. The big Lusso gets waved straight into the supercar area and finds plenty of favour: it’s something we notice all the while we have the car. Perhaps it’s because it’s a rare sight, or a less shouty sort of Ferrari, but the Lusso has a stellar and usually positive presence. As for the show, it’s excellent: rows and rows of great ‘evo’ cars from all over Europe, and a friendly atmosphere of people enjoying themselves. It’s a good-time vibe that sticks for the duration of the weekend. Whether it’s just because I’m in the wrong (or right?) place at the right time, I can’t be sure, but I don’t really see much of the lager-lout behaviour, or for that matter, gendarmes in a stroppy mood. In fact, I don’t see one speed trap the whole weekend, which is odd.
Race day is cloudy and humid, but still dry, and some 252,500 people converge on Circuit de la Sarthe, packing onto the start-finish straight until not a single square foot of grey asphalt is visible, craning and jostling and sweating and gasping to catch a glimpse of the cars proudly, pristinely lined up in a row, like knights in formation before the inevitable carnage of battle bloodies them. The grandstands on both sides of the track are absolutely rammed; no sign that the lack of competition to Toyota has affected attendance. There is Jean Todt, FIA president; the two Jackie(y)s, Ickx and Oliver, celebrating their victory in the Gulf GT40 50 years ago; and Charlene, Princess of Monaco, who receives the French flag to start the race from four commandos who have abseiled from a huge helicopter hovering above. A pair of Rafale fighters from the Armee de l’Air whoosh overhead, followed by the Alpha Jets of the Patrouille de France, who nearly knock the flags off the stands, they’re so low. It’s pure razzamatazz, French style, and by the time the cars appear on the end of their formation lap, the atmosphere is électrique.
The initial thunder as the field roars past is enough to obliterate your hearing, a great cacophony of sound that reverberates around the top of the stands and distorts everything for minutes afterwards. Doubtless it’s bad for you, but what is motor racing without this? I feel the passion, along with the thousands in close proximity, and there’s nowhere else in the world quite like it.
The initial stages are a good portent of what’s to come. The Toyotas streak ahead and look to have little in the way of competition, as expected, while the GTE Pro battle is frantically close, lap after lap, with little to separate Corvette, Porsche and Ferrari. Artificially close? That’ll be the dreaded Balance of Performance (BoP), and already dark clouds of excuses and accusations are forming over the Aston Martin pit and hospitality area. I try not to think too deeply about it, because nothing puts me off a motor race more than the thought its contrived ending has been worked out in advance around a boardroom table. Surely there has to be a better way to go motor racing than this?
Our intention is to use the Lusso as our race transport, working our way around to different corners to watch the cars and soak up the atmosphere. Padding around in the Lusso is effortless, and it has quickly become a bizarre home from home, a familiar and entirely natural way of going about our business; not something I ever imagined I’d say about a £243,191 hyper-GT (make that a staggering £332,395 with options on this example). However, its thirst has also become very apparent, now we’re away from the constant light throttle of the autoroute. It’s a 91-litre tank, but as soon as the segments on the digital display move away from full they plummet alarmingly, and it rapidly gets to the stage where I can’t actually remember how many times I’ve filled it up. My credit card almost visibly glows red hot, an obvious reminder that I’m very much not in the Lusso-owning league.
The thing is – and as flippant as this sounds – I just don’t care. Why? Because I’m going to struggle to express just how special it is to have a roomy, luxurious four-seater with a V12 naturally aspirated supercar engine at your disposal. It feels brilliantly decadent. Sure, it doesn’t punch as hard low down as an equivalent smaller turbocharged motor; you have to wind it up, but the acceleration over the final 2000rpm is positively psychotic. And the noise… from the grating, buzzsaw growl lower down the rev range to a pure and savage howl over 6000rpm, the Lusso sounds extraordinary, and once experienced you just want to repeat it over and over. Clicking to Sport firms up the dampers, and with its quick steering, fine traction and good body control, the encouragement is to really drive it hard. Naturally, it never exactly shrinks around you, but it’s great fun all the same, its agility aided by the rear-wheel steering. And despite being four-wheel drive, if you’ve flicked the manettino to the right again to disable the ESC, it’ll leave two massive black lines of scorched rubber out of a junction. Or so I, ahem, hear…
I fork out some euros at the Hotel Arbor, situated alongside the kink on the Mulsanne, and we’re now trackside, just feet away from the action. When you can actually feel the force of the cars going by, and experience the formidable noise and heat, that’s when motor racing really grabs you. It’s the 911 RSR that enthrals, its high-pitched scream so purposeful after the dull, low-revving and patently restricted drone of the Ford GTs and Ferrari 488s.
It’s the same when we head out to Arnage corner at 1am, although it’s not quite as special as I remember it. Considerable development in creating camping space and more trackside viewing has meant the area has been opened up, trees felled, and the atmosphere perhaps diluted. It’s great fun, but perhaps not quite what it was.
Like many, I suspect, I come away from Le Mans this year with a pragmatic view. Even when the action on track isn’t particularly memorable, the Le Mans 24 Hours is still a must for your calendar, and with luck, the new Hypercar regulations will reinvigorate the sport in the coming years. As for the Lusso, I need to make (a lot) more space in my dream garage