Ferrari returns to prototype racing. At Sebring. Against Porsche. 'It doesn't get any better than this'

"It's about time!" Mario Andretti exclaimed. The legend among motor racing's living legends knows of which he speaks.

A full 50 years after the factory from Maranello made its last official start at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Ferrari is back, returning to the same international endurance racing stage where its exotic prototype machinery from the 1960s and early-1970s often earned more success for the brand than anything it achieved in Formula One.

Dressed in Ferrari's traditional colors of red and yellow, the sleek new Ferrari 499Ps will chase a debut win on Friday as the globetrotting FIA World Endurance Championship opens its season with a 1,000-mile contest of speed and stamina at the famed Sebring circuit in Florida. With its name added to the WEC grid, the niche world of sports car racing has received the grandest of spotlights.

"I mean, it's Ferrari," says the 82-year-old Andretti, who was signed by the late Enzo Ferrari and produced wins for the Scuderia in F1 and sports cars. "They're such a big asset to endurance racing. Ferrari officially coming back is huge, no question about it. Speaking for myself, I've had many incredible experiences in sports cars with Ferrari. Wherever they go in motor racing, Ferrari are always the top draw.

"I don't know any manufacturer on this planet that has a bigger fan base than Ferrari. I don't care where you go, you'll see people wearing the Ferrari shirts and hats, waving the Ferrari flags. It's a wonderful thing, and I expect to see all of this happen again in sports car racing."

Better still, Ferrari's formal resumption of its prototype racing activities brings a wicked racing rivalry back to life after a half-century pause.

Don't let "Ford v Ferrari" featuring Matt Damon and Christian Bale fool you. Years before and years after the Ford family spent a fortune to topple and retreat after beating Ferrari at Le Mans, there was Ferrari vs. Porsche.

At legendary places like Le Mans, Daytona, the Nürburgring and Sebring, the slugfest for overall victories between Ferrari and Porsche was sports car racing's version of the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, our Celtics vs. Lakers. Until, of course, Ferrari exited prototype racing after going head-to-head with Porsche one final time at Le Mans in 1973.

From there, the German automaker took command of endurance racing -- and became synonymous with dominating the opposition -- as Ferrari's name among factory prototype entrants faded into history.

Since Ferrari turned its full attention to F1, Porsche finished first at Le Mans an unparalleled 17 times with factory entries, customer cars, or Porsche-engined prototypes. The most recent triumph with the lightning-fast Porsche 919 Hybrid was delivered in 2017 before the brand shuttered its marquee program.

In what feels like a scripted move, Ferrari's grand comeback with the 499P has been timed to perfection. Porsche, set for dual factory racing programs in the WEC and IMSA's North American SportsCar Championship, is also making its return to factory prototype action in 2023 with its sublime new 963 model.

Having been relegated to prototype racing's dusty old history books, Ferrari finds itself in the unfamiliar role of trying to reclaim long-lost territory to its German foe.

"It's always rewarding to have the target on your back," said Hurley Haywood, the 74-year-old American who became Porsche racing royalty while winning more major endurance races than any driver. "And in Porsche's case, they've been the level that everybody had to rise up to and to beat them to prove themselves. That's something that I've seen in my entire career of racing, starting back in 1969. We were always the benchmark, and that's what Ferrari and all the other prototype manufacturers will have to reconcile themselves against."

The big Ferrari vs. Porsche showdown is scheduled for June at the 100th-anniversary running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but in a nod to history, Sebring serves as the perfect site for the 499Ps to launch a new endurance racing chapter for the brand.

Steeped in fame and lore, the Scuderia's last big factory prototype victory was authored in 1970 by the Italian-born and American-bred Andretti as an epic 12-hour duel between Ferrari's 512s and the Porsche 908 entered and driven by movie star Steve McQueen and Peter Revson, thrilling the thousands in attendance at the Floridian road course crafted from a World War II Army airfield.

Leading the field away from pole position, Andretti was in his finest uncatchable form for more than 11 hours until the transmission on his 512 Spyder surrendered and seemingly handed the win to Porsche. Pitting in the hope of having his Ferrari repaired, the car was diagnosed as terminal and in an inspired move, team manager Mauro Forghieri called the sister car into pit lane.

Now in a car that was down one lap and holding third place, Andretti was unleashed on the 5.2-mile circuit and went on to produce one of the greatest drives of his career. Which, as the 1978 F1 world champion shares, almost didn't happen.

"I think we were 12 or 13 laps in the lead with our Ferrari Spyder in 1970; we were dominating, and then the thing broke in that last hour," he said. "So I was ready to leave because I was running a sprint car race in Reading, Pennsylvania, the next day and I had my plane there and figured, 'Okay, I'm leaving a little bit early and that's good so I won't be in as big of a rush to get there.' Then Mauro Forghieri says, 'Mario, don't take your shirt off just yet, I want you to finish the race.'

"And I said, 'I don't know. I'm not sure how these guys would feel with me taking over their car. Ignazio [Giunti] and Nino [Vaccarella], they did all the work all day in the car,' and they were running third at the time. Porsche were now leading and one car retired and that left the Revson and McQueen Porsche out there in front. McQueen got a lot of attention for all this, but it was Revson who put the car where it was, who didn't get the credit he deserved.

"So I got the blessing from Ignazio and Nino, I got in the car and didn't fit very good; everyone's taller than me. And I went out there and I was driving like a man possessed. I think it's the first time ever that I went flat through Turn 1 and we unlapped ourselves and the rest is history. Ferrari deserved to win that race. It was incredibly satisfying. I have a big photo in my sports bar of us in victory lane and the euphoric smiles on all of the Ferrari mechanics says everything."

Regarded by many as the greatest 12 Hours of Sebring race on record, topping the finish to the 1970 event would be a lot to ask of the WEC on Friday. Nonetheless, Andretti's ready for the long-awaited start of something new to be written by the Scuderia and its ever-present protagonist.

"Ferrari against Porsche, Porsche against Ferrari, in long-distance racing," Andretti adds. "It doesn't get any better than this."