After SRO took a majority shareholding in WC Vision LLC, operators of Pirelli World Challenge, in May last year, a revamp of the Series, and its supporting package was begun immediately, and into 2019 those changes are front and centre, headed up by a rebranding along SRO corporate lines to Blancpain GT World Challenge America.
After 25 years at the hub of GT racing, Stephane Ratel has an established way of operating, and more often than not, that’s been a successful formula, as Stephane himself reflects below.
Whilst an expansion into the USA is no surprise, let’s leave it to the man himself to tell the story:
“America is a very mature and competitive market. I have been touring the USA for 10 years thinking that I need to do something with GT3 in America. I spoke to Jim France, I spoke to Randy Berner who was running IndyCar, I spoke to everybody!
“There was no possibility to come, with SRO, to raise the flag and say “we are doing another series.” It would never have worked. So the only way for us in America was to acquire an existing platform.
“The most relevant for us was the Pirelli World Challenge because, no prototypes, and they were running both of our classes – GT3 and GT4 (as GTS) – it was an easy fit. ”
But there were plenty of changes that you wanted to make?
“It’s obvious that we needed to make a lot of changes – the way the Championship was structured, the management, the shareholding where you had five team owners and ex-team owners owning the thing – there was a lot to do and there is still a lot to do.
“The starting point though was to listen to what the teams themselves wanted and the conclusions to that process were that they do not necessarily have the same opinions as the teams in Europe, in Asia and elsewhere.
“The structure is as it is because that is what the teams want, to understand that you have to look at the history, Pirelli World Challenge came from a Touring Car Series, standing start, single driver, sprint races. Almost by coincidence, they started running GT3 cars within those same structures which were a bit bizarre with GT3 cars.
“Before I got involved they came to the conclusion that the standing starts were, quite literally, a car crash with the GT cars!
“And again at that point, they had a moment of glory, alone in the GT3 market, but then suddenly IMSA decided to take GT3 and Boom! half of the grid went to IMSA! From 40, down to 20 something almost overnight.
“Then there was another issue, this time of market positioning because you still had manufacturers; Cadillac, some Porsche involvement, who were activating within Pirelli World Challenge so that meant that the private teams really had very little chance, privateers racing against factory teams directly.
“We had to make a decision. Me, immediately I would have said that GT3 has been a successful formula around the world via a simple format that is led by two drivers paying for the car to go racing.
“That’s quite simply how we get the grids that we do. Either you get somebody very well funded as an amateur who would like to drive with a Pro, to learn from them and do well in races because of their speed – or you have a bit of factory support or a well-funded team with a wealthy owner that wants to have full Pro racing or you have two drivers that want to spread the cost of sharing the car.
“Pro, Pro-Am, Am, it has worked everywhere.”
Presumably, that’s been a series of changes that you have been considering for some time?
“ Being only, initially, a minority partner until last May, I came with the idea that I wanted to make this change but the teams, and the owners had been operating in their own way for decades (30 years in 2019).
“That’s why we went through the transition mode towards a more regular GT3 format with 5 and 5 in 2018, their regular format and SprintX with two drivers for each car. It was a way to prove the concept to everyone involved.
“I knew though that we had to work on where to get more cars and the way to do that was to show the teams, both in GT3 and GT4, that the SprintX format was more attractive, to more potential customers than the traditional way. It was economically easier to fill their cars that way.
“Eventually, the GT3 teams were, all bar two, in favour of two drivers.”
You’ve made significant changes in the calendar too?
“We heard too that those teams and their customers were not interested in racing at Lime Rock (pictured top), or in Utah.
“It is worth looking at what we did in Asia. Before we went there GT Asia was going to too many places that their customers did not want to go. That is the first thing as a Championship organiser and promoter that you need to know. Where do your customers want to race!
“And of course you have to take into account that the smaller, perhaps less attractive tracks are those that offer the best package to get you to come! Financially for a promoter going to the nicer circuits is bad! You can help that along by investing with the track in the event of course but the inevitable decision was to concentrate very heavily on the tracks that the customers wanted to race at.
“That meant a reduction from 10 venues to seven after selecting the best circuits after sending our customers a questionnaire covering not just that aspect but race format etc. That process directly informed the decision making and planning.
“ For instance, with the distances that the customers travel for this series they wanted to drive for longer, that’s why we went for the 90-minute format.
“The result you see in the 2019 Championship is pretty much exactly what the teams told us they wanted, the same with the GT4 where we stay with one driver though there opinion was much more divided!
“There was a strong opinion that they wanted standalone events but the division between SprintX and Sprint was probably 60:40, and now whatever you do you are going to upset a significant part of the customer base.
“ But we had decided to go to standalone events so we had the track time available so we decided to give them all that they wanted, Sprint and SprintX Championships for the GT4 cars. So they got two Championships, 8 rounds each. That’s what they wanted.
“Then we looked at those that only want to race in the East, and in the West of the USA, so we put together a structure that allows that too, and I am aware that has been met with a lot of comment. You will see though, that they will be a success.
“For 25 years I have always tried to see these things from a clients perspective. If I was racing a GT4 and was living in, say, New York, do I really want to race at Sonoma over a weekend, getting a red-eye flight and coming back exhausted in the office on Monday morning.
“If you brought to me a Championship based around where I live, where I can get to each of the races with around a 1-2 hour flight, the same applies to the west coast too of course. I am sure that’s not true for all of our clients, but a big bulk of potential clients would be attracted to that format.”
Beyond that, you now have the California 8 Hours as the US arm of the Intercontinental GT Challenge?
“I think it’s a no-brainer, there is not a single big long-distance race on the west side of the US. It gives us an opportunity, it’s a great market for manufacturers. After cancelling it because there were not enough entries the first year (19), in 2018 we had 32. I can see that momentum continuing.”
With the 2019 season looming large all of that theory is about to be put to the test!