Jeff Segal and Giacomo Mattioli did the unthinkable two weekends ago: they won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The GTE-Am class, in particular, using a five-year-old Ferrari 458 Italia. They were helped by two more drivers – Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler – and a pit lane’s worth of crew and engineers from the Scuderia Corsa team. And they made it look easy, taking the lead early on, holding it the rest of the race, and even pulling away from the field as the hours ticked by. Amazingly, there were no surprises – no engines blown, no cracked wings, no electrical gremlins. They ran clean, hard, and careful. At the end of the day, literally, they were able to improve upon their team’s third place finish from last year and do what the rest of us truly can’t imagine: win it all.
Scuderia Corsa team owner Giacomo Mattioli and driver Jeff Segal (left and second left) with drivers Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell (second right and right).
We sat down with Jeff and Giacomo shortly after their Le Mans victory to chat about their win and what made it possible. We talked about having lunch at the Ferrari factory, what it’s like to be passed by an LMP1 car, and why their team won despite so many in their class having a good, clean race.
Why do we get to talk to them? They’re kind of like family. The No. 62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia is sponsored by Amalgam and Motorstore.com, two companies that are part of the Motorsport Network, our parent company. So, you know, it’s like we won Le Mans too! In case you're unaware, Motorstore.com is the best place online to buy motorsports fan merchandise – including Scuderia Ferrari gear – and Amalgam is the purveyor of the world's finest scale model cars. Amalgam will be commemorating Scuderia Corsa's win in Le Mans with a one-off model of the winning 458 Italia, complete with replica battle scars and road grime.
You basically hold your breath the entire time and hope that it goes according to the plan.
Motor1: How does Scuderia Corsa work as a team?
Giacomo Mattioli: Scuderia Corsa was founded by myself and my partner in Silicon Valley in the end of 2012. And we wanted to structure a department that would offer to our Ferrari clientele a venue to go out on the race track and enjoy the capabilities of the Ferraris. And we set our goals pretty high; we wanted to do state of the art professional race car team. And we hired people from Europe and some from America and we developed an independent company that now runs four different programs: the Ferrari Challenge North America, Pirelli World Challenge, and then moving into endurance racing with GTD class and GT-LeMans class racing that obviously includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
M1: Jeff, what was the thing that you, or maybe the whole team, worried most was going to be an issue during the race, the thing that would slow you down or take the car out, and was that ever a factor or did something else pop up during the race?
Jeff Segal: The experience that all of us have in endurance racing is that any one problem or mistake by anyone at any stage, whether during the race or in the buildup of the race, can manifest itself in some sort of setback or ultimately even a failure in the race. So for 24 hours you do your very best to do your homework to prepare the car, to prepare the teams, to prepare the strategy and the driver, and then you basically hold your breath the entire time and hope that it goes according to the plan.
So I wouldn’t say that we had any one fear or anything in particular that we were nervous about other than just in 24 hours so much can happen – things that are in your control, actions by people, by drivers, by crew, by anybody affiliated with the team that could make or break you. Or things out of your control like getting hit by another car or unpredictable weather. So you’re never sure what the next challenge is going to be. But you just hope that you can respond to it as well or better than all the other teams.
GM: The big unknown that we did not really like was the weather. We knew that we had a strong car, we had a strong lineup, and we felt confident. But obviously if it’s throwing rain, everything kind of goes out of the window. So we were hoping the weather would get better and it did eventually, but we did start under the rain.
If it’s throwing rain, everything kind of goes out of the window.
M1: From a team owner’s perspective, what were your challenges during the race, Giacomo? What did you face or what fires were you trying to put out as a team owner?
GM: I think that I am pretty involved as a team owner. There are different kinds of team owners and I feel like I am pretty involved in it. I am on the radio and I think I zoned in well with the drivers, with the engineers, and with the crew. I like to read the situation. And I see most of the time if we start drifting in certain directions, then I try to jump in and help out as much as I can.
Sometimes the drivers or even the crew are maybe getting a little tired and sleepy. So you can always try to be positive and bring energy to inside the box. Other times the engineers like to have a confirmation of their theory, the strategy, and everybody is very anxious. So I am there to support everyone; that’s really what I do.
M1: Jeff, how many did you end up racing and which one was your longest?
JS: I want to say I was in the car three separate times. Each time was about the same, so you’d have something approaching three hours. That was all pretty consistent with our pre-race plan, so before the race the engineers will sit there with Giacomo – I think he’s being modest, he is very much involved – and sort of plot out the plan for the race. So who is in the car, when, and why – maybe there are certain strengths for some drivers and weaknesses of other drivers and you try to make the most effective pre-race plan. So everything went more or less according to plan and the beginning of the race is when we had some inclement weather, but that was more or less cleared by the second or third hour and from then on it was a very straight forward race.
But obviously you never know going into it. First, we had to make up the ground we lost by being quite conservative in the rain. And then as the night fell and for the rest of the race we were in the lead pack and pulling away. So by the end of the race we had pretty much pulled a one-lap lead on the entire field. So we wanted to extend that lead in the middle of the race and then control it and take care of the car at the end of the race.
There were a quite a few cars that had an uninterrupted race and obviously they didn’t win.
M1: Is there something you attribute that lead and the large margin to? Was it the car, was it the team, was it partly bad luck for your competitors?
JS: It definitely wasn’t was bad luck for our competitors. Everybody remarked after the race that normally if you have a trouble-free run in a 24-hour race like 24 hours of Le Mans, normally if you don’t have any issues that cause you to come to pit-lane for any extended period of time, you win. There were a quite a few cars that had an uninterrupted race and obviously they didn’t win.
So I think it was all those things – you can’t choose any one thing. The team did an incredible job; their stops were tremendous. The servicing of the cars, for example, changing the brakes and things like that, these are things that can really set you back if you are not careful. One small mistake and suddenly you lose a half hour in fixing things.
So steady performance by the drivers, a really good setup on the car, great pit work, and we were running like clockwork the entire time. But we were running quickly like clockwork, where some of the other cars were you know trouble free, but they just didn’t quite have the pace that we had.
M1: A couple of things I’ve always wanted to know about endurance racing is when you’re behind the wheel, are you hyper focused or does your mind ever wander, like when you’re on the straight and got a second to think?
JS: This is a loaded question…
M1: Maybe you don’t want to answer in front of Giacomo.
JS: No, it’s fine. Yes, I would say that the degree to which your mind can and sometimes does wander is frightening. I mean really genuinely frightening, and that’s part of the challenge, if you control that. But you need to be relaxed behind the wheel. You know, I’d liken it to golf a bit where if you’re still hyper-focused on doing it properly, chances are you’re going to mess up.
You need to find yourself in that zone where you’re focused enough that you’re not making mistakes but you are also relaxed enough that you know you’re just kind of doing it naturally. But particularly in a race like Le Mans, the stakes are so high, everybody wants it so badly, and as the race starts to get closer and closer to the end.
You know for me, near the end of the race you can start to have thoughts like, you know, wow, we might actually win this. And you can’t entertain thoughts like that too much. Because that is when you put yourself in the highest risk of making a really big mistake and letting everybody down.
GM: The drivers – Jeff, Bill, and Townsend – did a remarkable job. The pace they set was really remarkable. The reason is because they are very smart, they’re very smart drivers and they can see all the trouble ahead, which is massively important in a 24 hours.
The degree to which your mind can and sometimes does wander is frightening.
M1: What is harder at Le Mans when you’re racing with these other classes, is it stepping out to pass a slower competitor or being passed by a faster car like an LMP1?
JS: One hundred percent being passed by a faster car. And that’s what our team did a great job at. I would say most teams probably leave that to their drivers and our experience with a different type of racing in the U.S. has led to a different philosophy where we use the radio a lot more to communicate between pit and the cars and having spotters. So they’re watching cameras or watching the GPS locations of the other cars. They keep us posted where the faster Porsches and Audis are so that we don’t get caught off guard. And that’s something that everybody helps out with a little bit because it’s such a long race. When the dedicated spotter needs to have a bit of a break we end up with the team owners like Giacomo on the radio doing a bit of spotting and – and he did quite a good job as well.
So I think that’s where you have the highest risk of being surprised. When you see a slower car ahead you kind of have time to plot and plan and think through the scenarios. But with the faster cars, you could be driving minding your own business and all of a sudden there is a car next to you that you never knew was there.
M1: Speaking of the car itself, you guys ran the 458, but the 488 is out there now. So Giacomo, how come the team didn’t run the 488 car this year and will it be at Le Mans next year?
GM: Well, the 488 was not allowed in the pro-am this year. The pro-am and the WEC require that you use the car from the previous year. So 488 is not allowed in the pro-am. And yes, next year we will run a 488.
M1: Every time I’ve seen a 458 race, whether it’s at Le Mans or one of the Pirelli World Challenge races, it is the loudest car on the track. That wail is just incredible. What is that like inside the car?
JS: Your ears are definitely ringing. I mean I have driven a lot of really loud cars. I did a long couple of years with a manufacturer that raced rotary engine cars and there is nothing louder than that. I would say that the difference is that with the 458, the noise is very loud, but it’s also beautiful so you don’t mind listening to it for a couple of hours. It’s very intense, it’s a very visceral experience but nothing compares to it, so I am not complaining at all.
It’s very intense, it’s a very visceral experience but nothing compares to it, so I am not complaining at all.
M1: What’s the next big race that you want to take that you haven’t yet or the next one you’re most excited about? I am sure Le Mans was at the top but are there any others out there that you’re looking forward to next?
GM: We’re missing Daytona. I think Jeff is going to have to win Daytona for me otherwise I am going to take his watch away. So yeah, definitely the 24 Hours of Daytona is on top of the list. This year the team is doing quite well. We are leading in the GT Daytona Championship and we’re leading in the Pirelli World Challenge GTA Championship.
So we’re running a good streak after Le Mans. We are very happy and excited and actually thankful that we have the opportunity to do this as a job. A lot of people just dream about doing this and we actually do it as a job so we are very lucky. But yeah, the 24 Hours of Daytona would be the next one.
M1: How have you both been celebrating this win at Le Mans?
GM: I have been lucky. After Le Mans I flew to the Ferrari factory where they bought me lunch, which is pretty much the top you get from Ferrari. That’s a joke, but it’s not really a joke. So they bought me lunch, and I was very happy that everybody at the factory was very happy. Then there was a little bit of a controversy about the Ford and the pro class where the Ferrari came in second, but they were very happy about our success in the GTE-AM class and the other team in GTE-Pro. And now I am just relaxing. I am taking few days off with my family in Europe and unwinding for a couple of a days.
JS: Yeah, I am still waiting for my invitation to the Ferrari factory for lunch!