The 2024 running of the Le Mans 24 Hours is almost here. And for the first time this century, Ferrari heads into the race as the team to beat.

After the spectacular centenary edition a year ago, won by Ferrari AF Corse’s No. 51 499P, the 92nd running of the Le Mans 24 Hours is set up to be another one for the ages with 23 Hypercars (19 of which are factory entries), 23 LMGT3s and an LMP2 class with 16 ORECAs make for a well-balanced, high-quality entry.

In the top class, the battle for the overall win promises to be as fierce as ever. After the opening rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship produced three different winners in three races, the expectation is that we’re in for another drama-filled, wide-open contest.

For last year’s race winner Ferrari and its trio of 499Ps, a target has been placed firmly on its back. However, while the fabled Italian marque returns to La Sarthe with its chest out, the reality is that it is in desperate need of a change in fortunes after a frustrating start to the 2024 campaign.

In Qatar, the circuit proved a tough nut to crack and the pace simply wasn’t there. On home soil in Imola it was, but the rapid change in conditions during the race and an error on tire strategy in the rain proved costly.

Then at Spa Ferrari’s factory cars again looked finely poised to finish 1-2 before red flags came out and the race was (somewhat controversially) extended — gifting a lead to JOTA’s No. 12 Porsche which had pitted for fresh tires and fuel just before the race was neutralized.

Digging deeper, the No. 50 Ferrari trio of Nicklas Nielsen, Antonio Fuoco and Miguel Molina deserve a closer look, as a crew that is considered among the best in the field, despite being winless to this point. Since the start of last season, they have frequently been quickest in the Hypercar field, setting pole three times and leading multiple races, but a breakthrough victory has eluded them.

The race in Imola is a perfect example. There, Fuoco took pole in front of the tifosi and he and his teammates in the No. 50 car led at the four-hour mark before the rain arrived. Everything was going swimmingly before the decision by Ferrari’s strategists to leave both factory cars on slicks in the worsening conditions backfired. Yet again, they headed home without a set of winners’ trophies.

After that error — which Giuliano Salvi, the team’s sports car race and testing manager, took responsibility for post-race — Nielsen told RACER that the team banded together in a lengthy debrief. Heads didn’t drop and as a group, they made a concerted effort behind the scenes to learn from the mistakes and prevent similar scenarios from playing out in the future.

“We are a professional race team,” he explained. “We put all our frustration aside, looked at the facts and took decisions. We aren’t the only team that this has happened to. But what is most important for us is that we know we have the car to win. And we’ve been up front so much, I do believe there are better days coming.”

That brings us to Le Mans. Heading into the race this year, expectations within the team for the No. 50 crew are high. And after coming home fifth after sustaining radiator damage last year while the sister car of James Calado, Antonio Giovanazzi and Alessandro Pier Guidi finished on top, they’re carrying extra motivation.

Speaking with Nielsen and Fuoco ahead of Le Mans week, it is clear that there is a collective belief between them. In their minds, it’s a matter of when, not if they will take their first win.

“Last year the important result was for the team, that after 58 years Ferrari won Le Mans again. We wanted to win, but we work for Ferrari and we had to remember this,” Fuoco said. “We were disappointed because we felt we could have finished 1-2, but that’s part of racing.”

“Man, we’ve been so unlucky,” added Nielsen. “We have shown how fast the car is, in Imola, we went from last (after being disqualified from qualifying for being marginally underweight) to second and then the rain arrived.

“Then in Spa, it was the perfect scenario, we had everything in our hands, but it was taken away. So I hope that everything comes together in Le Mans and we can laugh about all this.”

Nielsen and his teammates also have more faith in the 499P than they did this time last year. With a year’s worth of data to work with, it’s a known quantity and the team is far more in tune with its intricacies. Last year it was reliable and blindingly fast, but often struggled to stay consistent over the course of a race.

This year the team is up against stiffer competition, yet remains confident because it is now operating with a more mature and refined package. The decision to hold off on bringing performance upgrades to the car until later in the year to bolster reliability, Nielsen believes was wise.

“We are going back to Le Mans with a different mentality,” he said. “We have a ‘luxury problem’ because us coming back last year after so many years away from the top class of Le Mans, we didn’t expect anything.

“Ferrari is of course here to win, but that’s always been easier said than done. The fact that in 24 hours last year, we didn’t have any major issues with the car and the No. 51 won was incredible. It really surprised me.

“And now we are more confident because we are so much stronger on tire management. We don’t eat the tires as fast as we did. Last year we almost never doubled tires — only if we had to.

“Now, look at Imola: I triple-stinted my first set and it wasn’t a question, I knew the car could do it. And in Spa, we were creative on strategy starting from the back. I doubled the first set and it was OK.

“It’s a balance between working on set up and learning how to manage the car as drivers.”

For any sports car driver, winning Le Mans is undoubtedly as special as it gets. It’s the pinnacle of this area of the sport after all. Nielsen, Fuoco and Molina are a world-class combination, but to reach the next level and write themselves into endurance racing folklore, they’ll need that first Le Mans win.

What would it mean to turn it all around and stand on the top step next week?

“It would be the nicest victory,” Nielsen said. “It would mean everything.”