The history of 24 Hours of Le Mans cannot be told properly without Ferrari. And the spirit of the privateer team succeeding at Le Mans – a circuit and a race often dominated by factories – is also part of the allure of the grand spectacle of June’s midsummer endurance race classic.
It’s at this point we bring Giuseppe Risi and Risi Competizione into the picture, who blend the best of both the Ferrari and privateer entrant roles within the GTE-Pro class this year and who have been part of the fabric of the race, either personally or by team, for nearly 50 years.
Mr. Risi himself was drawn to Le Mans from his infancy, even though his parents were involved in the medical and educational fields. He tried to follow however he could.
“I tried as best as the TV coverage could allow at the time!” Risi told NBC Sports. “The racing coverage wasn’t as detailed. But I followed every bit of Le Mans in every way I could, through all the editorials, whether it was English, or French, or Italian, I’d collect all these magazines and go through them.
“I did this because I have such a passion for the product of automobile racing. And there happens to be a Ferrari part of that. I wasn’t reading into quite historical facts; I was into the sheer passion of what was going on.”
A chance encounter with the actor who caught the racing bug himself at Le Mans, and was so smitten he made a movie about it in Steve McQueen, laid the groundwork for the beginning of the story of Risi at Le Mans.
We leave it to Mr. Risi to pick up that story from there.
“This is in 1969… and there I was just on the side of the track, facing the pits, in practice,” Risi said. “At the time, one could be a lot closer to the track than today.
“It was a wide see-through fence. I’m standing there watching. On the other side there’s marshals. This person with a cap and sunglasses came about. I had both my hands raised to where he could see them.
“This person came up to me, and pointed to my watch. ‘What’s the time?’ he asked. So I turned my watch – it was a Seiko – and he pulled his sunglasses off so he could see the time. I said, ‘I speak English.’ So I told him what the time was.
“After he pulled his sunglasses off, it wasn’t really crowded yet … it was practice… but once people saw who it was, they ran and swarmed to him. Then he took off! That was my story of meeting Steve McQueen, as I’d seen him in the pits.”
The movie Le Mans premiered on June 23, 1971. Within the next decade, Risi would premiere himself at Le Mans, as well, in the early 1980s.
While Risi had set up a Formula 1 entry with Mexican driver Hector Rebaque in the late 1970s, his Le Mans bow came a couple years later as a constructor with the GRID prototype in 1982, 1983 and 1984.
It was as Risi was establishing his Ferrari presence in North America though, in Houston, that the seed was planted to return to Le Mans, and to eventually do so with his own team and with Ferrari.
“Initially, the thought of coming to Le Mans with your own name was quite far away,” he recalled. “I just wanted to compete and run a team, I was always involved with that. Whether it was managing or putting things together. That came about, I had some Spanish drivers, and we tried to get an entry in with some 2-liter British sports cars – called Chevrons. That didn’t quite gel.
“Life went on. But in the meantime I came back to Le Mans a few times, as a spectator, but the magic of Le Mans is so huge that it draws you. If you are an out and out passionate fan of racing, it must be on your list to do.”
It took until 1998 for that to occur properly. The venerable but incredible Ferrari 333 SP with its shrieking 4.0L V12 engine – Ferrari’s car for its return to top-flight prototype racing – had enjoyed a wealth of success in North America. It then came to Le Mans en masse that year, and Risi was one of several in the field.
“I came back and I knew the French importers for Ferrari, so I was able to come to their pit. I could see what they were doing,” Risi explained of how he came back to Le Mans and with Ferrari.
“I have always been so detail oriented. I’m not a mechanic, and I’m not an engineer, but I’ve been able to put together people that know and give them the freedom to develop and put the right ideas into mechanical components. I’ve always had very reliable cars.
“So when I went back in ’98 with my own team with the 333, that was really the ‘big boy’s world’ when you go back to take on everyone else. We won our first class win in prototype at Le Mans.”
That 1998 Le Mans race marked an evolution in the top tier class at the race. The GT1 class featured closed cockpit sports prototypes from Porsche, Toyota, Nissan, McLaren and Panoz among others, while the then-LMP1 category saw the open-top prototypes as the Ferrari was. The No. 12 Doyle-Risi Ferrari of Wayne Taylor, Eric van de Poele and Fermin Velez took the class win in eighth place overall.
“Allan McNish’s Porsche was the car that won overall,” Risi recalled. “One of the things that helped us though was the sheer reliability of the 333. We were the only team that didn’t change the gearbox! We won the class. But after that, the 333 was getting long in the tooth for homologation areas. So I left that alone for a little while.”
The time came to switch to GT racing a few years later. Risi returned to Le Mans with the 360 Modena GT in 2003, with two cars. But engine problems killed a potential successful result, despite leading the race.
Nearly a decade on from the first Risi entry in 1998, Risi re-emerged with the Ferrari 430 GT, where it provided the most consistent round of success at Le Mans. Starting in 2007, the team scored two more class wins (2008 and 2009 in GT2) and two additional podiums with the 430. Risi reveled in those successes because the GT class was really starting to re-emerge itself in a period of growth in terms of manufacturer involvement and great teams.
“We waited for the next model, the 430, after our 360 run… and the 430 was a great car right from the get go,” Risi said. “We had some of our biggest successes with the 430. Again, it was down to out and out preparation. The marriage between the 430 and Michelin tires, I have to attribute a lot of our success to Michelin tires. They seem to work well with Ferrari. Michelin gave such great tires. It worked well for us.”
There’s a funny sidebar here in the Michelin angle. The Italian American team, racing in the French endurance classic, had its tire engineer out of South Carolina in Robbie Holley. Holley, now Michelin’s Track Support and Operations Manager in IMSA, was Michelin’s designated tire engineer for the Risi Ferrari, and when he was moved onto another program, Risi was almost apoplectic!
“The person who was given to us was Robbie, and he was absolutely superb,” Risi recalled. “He worked very well with our engineer, Rick Mayer, and our driver at the time was Brazilian Jaime Melo. The three of them totally understood the dynamics of what the car was asking for.
“He listened to the interpretation between driver and engineer. When they brought the Porsche (LMP2) prototypes out, run by Penske, they wanted someone who knew his stuff. So he was moved! Matt Hanlon was a pupil of Robbie, but he kept an eye on us! But life would go on and Matt didn’t miss a beat in his time with us.
“When we came back in earnest with the 430, my cars ran on Michelins and nothing else. All my cars since 2007 have been Michelin, unless another category is a one-make tire. To this day, it’s a good product, they treat us well. I wouldn’t want to race on anything else, for my time in racing.”
Risi didn’t compete at Le Mans from 2011 through 2015 in the period with the F458 Italia, as what had been the GT2 class then became the new lead GT class now known as GTE-Pro. Outside of support with the Luxury Racing team, the wait grew for Risi to return.
But return they did last year with its 488 GTE, another line of dynamic cars. Risi very nearly toppled the four-car Ford Chip Ganassi Racing effort on its own, in a heroic effort done in spite of Ford’s onslaught of cars, people, and drivers. Second place was in some respects tough to swallow; in others, a huge achievement considering the gap since the team’s last Le Mans start six years earlier.
“The concept of the new car now is that Ferrari had the 430 to build on, and then the 458 was development of 430, and now the 488 is that of the 458. So it’s a good car.
“I’m looking forward to this year. Of course, Le Mans was good again last year. The race was it what is was. But since, we won Petit Le Mans last year. And this year, again, we should be right in the thick of it.”
Risi’s usual full-season pairing of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella have won Le Mans multiple times, but for AF Corse. Pierre Kaffer, who was part of Risi’s last winning lineup in 2009 with Melo and Mika Salo, joins Vilander and Fisichella in the team’s No. 82 Ferrari 488 GTE. This is the team’s 13th overall entry and has the three class wins and six podiums overall in the past 12 entries.
The trio was only ninth at the test day with a best time of 3:55.847, albeit only 1.146 off the test day-leading Corvette C7.R. Balance of Performance is a hot button issue in the class but it’s not something that should override the passion and soul of the race itself.
And ultimately that’s what keeps Risi coming back, as the lone single-car, privateer but Ferrari-supported effort in a 13-car class made up otherwise entirely of manufacturers. If they didn’t think they could do the job, with the Dave “Beaky” Sims and Rick Mayer-led operation, they wouldn’t be here.
“This is a place you go and you’re just taken over by this area,” Risi explains. “The people and intensity of Le Mans brings the whole magic, home.
“On the racing side, when it’s 8-plus miles and you know the car has to be reliable, you’re thinking of everything that goes into it. Guys have been chasing pieces and parts to prepare. You’re watching the cars go by and it’s been three or four hours, and you still have 20 more hours to go! You’re listening intently on the radio, waiting for the next time they pass.
“That is the magic of Le Mans. Anyone who’s passionate about Le Mans and motor racing, who loves it, has to go. To this day, all these Formula 1 drivers on their bucket list is to go to Le Mans.”
“Part of it is the racing, of course; that’s what it represents. But the people are incredible. It’s just such a big event. You see all these pockets of different nationalities. There’s the Dutch, the Germans, the Brits and so on and so forth. You see people in the pop tents, with a Rolls Royce parked outside! It’s incredible to witness. These guys can afford any hotel, but it’s a people get together. It truly is unique.
“Of course, it’s an expensive race to run – especially for a U.S. based team – but the satisfaction of getting your car to the end, or a podium, is a true achievement for the team. There is so much teamwork. Your team goes to the track Saturday morning, 6 a.m. or 7 a.m., so you don’t get held up in the traffic. And you have to go through the whole time. It’s not like we have a relief team to make the changes.
“It truly is an achievement for everyone that goes after this race. That’s what makes it such a magical place.”