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Max Girardo reflects on racing a Ferrari 550 Maranello Prodrive at Le Mans

Last weekend, our very own Max Girardo realised a lifelong dream when he raced the ex-Colin McRae Ferrari 550 Maranello Prodrive at Le Mans, as part of the burgeoning Endurance Racing Legends series. These are his reflections from what was an unforgettable experience…

“It’s one of, if not the greatest race in the world. The opportunity was there to do it with Care Racing, Prodrive and Ferrari. It’s a challenge I’ve always wanted to attempt.”

In 2004, the former World Rally Champion Colin McRae made his sports car debut and raced a Ferrari 550 Maranello Prodrive to an impressive GTS class podium finish in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. On the weekend of the French endurance classic 17 years later, I raced the very same car on the very same circuit in what ranks as one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced.

As you’ll have no doubt seen on social media over the weekend, the burgeoning Endurance Racing Legends series descended on the Circuit de la Sarthe to fill its slot on the support bill for the main event. Peter Auto did a superb job of curating a magnificent grid of 52 modern-era endurance racers.

From Porsche 996 GT3-Rs, Chevrolet Corvette Z06Rs and Ferrari F430 GTCs to an ex-Works Porsche 911 GT1, Dallara SP1 prototypes and not one but five Aston Martin DBR9s, including the car in which Darren Turner, Rickard Rydell and David Brabham won the GT class at Le Mans in 2007, it was a kaleidoscopic feast for the senses.

The Endurance Racing Legends were granted two short practice sessions on Thursday and two 45-minute races, on Friday and Saturday morning. After a cautious start, I was over the moon with my personal progress throughout the weekend.

“I’ve watched the grainy onboard footage of Colin haring around La Sarthe in this 550 more times than I care to remember. To drive the same car in his figurative tyre tracks was simply surreal.”

I’ve watched the grainy onboard footage of Colin haring around La Sarthe in our 550, chassis CRD03, more times than I care to remember. So to drive the same car in his figurative tyre tracks was simply surreal. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d wind up at one of the world’s most famous race circuits in such an important piece of motorsport history.

When we run the 550 I’m always surprised at how many people approach me who remember when Colin raced it at Le Mans. And last weekend was no exception – in fact I was overwhelmed with the amount of love and attention the car garnered. I managed to get some passes to get on the grid before the start of the 24-hour race, and even a number of modern drivers told me how cool they thought the car was.

Positioned next to us in the paddock was the Roschmann Collection’s Ferrari 550 Maranello Prodrive, which is chassis CRD08. When McRae joined Darren Turner and Rickard Rydell in our car at Le Mans in 2004, CRD08 was the Care Racing / Prodrive sister car, driven by Tomáš Enge, Peter Kox and Alain Menu. The car actually claimed pole position in the GTS class, though eventually finished fourth behind CRD03.

It was a wonderful sight to see the two beautiful Ferraris, numbers 65 and 66, back together at Le Mans for the first time in 17 years. The significance of the occasion was lost on very few people. And we’d defy anyone to say that these two V12s did not sing the sweetest song of arguably the entire weekend, modern GT cars included.

From a driving perspective, the 550 Maranello Prodrive is phenomenal. While it’s not a fundamentally difficult car to drive, there’s definitely an art to getting the most out of it. It’s a big car and you’re sat so low and so far back in the car, which reduces visibility. It’s physical, too – the steering is heavy in the slower corners, the brakes only work when you really stamp on the pedal and while upshifts from the manual sequential gearbox are flat, you need to heel and toe on the way back down.

Every minute behind the wheel is a learning process. That said, it’s visceral and raw and hot and loud. The exhaust exits right beside where you sit, and the noise from the six-litre V12 vibrates you to your core. Compared to the slightly sanitised modern GT cars, with their air-conditioning systems and paddle gearboxes, it’s so much more theatrical. It’s a bit like how today’s road-going supercars are all beginning to feel the same – technically extremely competent, but now we’re all looking for analogue involvement and emotion.

“The 550 Maranello Prodrive visceral and raw and hot and loud. The exhaust exits right beside where you sit, and the noise from the six-litre V12 vibrates you to your core.”

This was the first time I’ve driven the 550 at Le Mans. It’s not like you can hire this circuit for a track-day. Much like the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique, the organisers have to close the roads. And it’s so much more special, more of an occasion, as a result. Despite there being considerably fewer spectators at Le Mans this year, it was still fantastic to have small crowds positioned on the banking at Mulsanne Corner and before Arnage.

I was surprised at how bumpy the track was, though I guess that’s unsurprising given it’s formed largely of public roads. That you’re driving flat-out and nudging 300kph on what is usually a motorway, lines on the roads and cats eyes blinking back at you, feels a bit naughty. And the trees either side of the barriers feel very close, particularly on the stretch down towards Indianapolis.

My favourite part of the lap was the Porsche Curves – you carry so much speed and you really have to thread the car through the apexes like a needle. That said, there’s a case to be made for the straights – you’re screaming along in sixth gear, nudging the limiter at 7,500rpm, and you can really feel the aero working to make the car more stable. And then you play chicken with yourself in the braking areas.

The entire weekend was so much fun and a serious indicator of the appetite for and interest in these modern-era endurance cars. You only had to look on social media and the extraordinary amount of coverage the Endurance Racing Legends races garnered to understand quite how much these cars resonate with the younger generations of enthusiasts. I’m fairly confident that a support grid of 1950s sports-racing cars would not have captured the imagination of quite so many people around the world.

To drive the final 12-cylinder Ferrari to win at Le Mans and share the track with DBR9s, a Bentley Speed 8 and so many other great cars from the era was an utter privilege. Is this the future of our hobby? I wouldn’t bet against it!

Photos: Drew Gibson for Girardo & Co.

Did you know that we’re producing the definitive book on the Ferrari 550 Maranello Prodrive in conjunction with DK Engineering and on behalf of the car’s brainchild Frédéric Dor? You can find out more about the project, which is in the final stages of development before publication, by clicking here.

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