With the topic of Prototype convergence and its potential knock-on effects on the GTE-Pro/GTLM marketplace being followed in rapid succession by the massive global economic hit to the automotive sector from the COVID-19 crisis, there has been no shortage of twists and turns in the prevailing picture for international endurance racing.
Throughout it all, there has been much discussion of the likely need to recast the shape of top-class GT racing in the near future, and the announcement this week of the withdrawal of Porsche’s IMSA GTLM effort after this year has only added fuel to an already well-alight fire.
That decision leaves us, at present, with a 2021 season that, at best, sees three factory-backed GTE Pro teams in the WEC, and just two GTLM outfits in IMSA, and that’s without any further bad news emerging.
But what could, and should, change look like if it is to make a fundamental difference?
Would it look like the current GT3 cars, far from cut-price machines, with mild performance upgrades, confidential rubber etc (broadly similar to the current difference between the WEC’s GTE Pro and GTE Am classes)? Or would something of a wider division be the desired outcome?
And, in any case, is there really a marketplace available in the foreseeable future in this very different looking commercial environment, for factory, or at the very least full Pro, GT racing?
There is probably nobody better to ask those questions of than Stephane Ratel, a man who has seen high profile success, and failure, with a variety of GT classes in his quarter-century at the helm of national, continental and global GT racing products.
The interview that follows was actually undertaken a couple of weeks ago in the context of DSC’s GT1 Week, as part of our four-part retrospective, but Stephane’s input is no less relevant when the topic takes a sidestep into the debate into the current racing class structure.
So what lessons can we learn from the past?
“When a formula doesn’t work, it’s always very tempting to take another one that works. But you have to look at the reason why it works and why it doesn’t work. And the mistake people do is to believe that it has something to do with the technical regulations.
“After Audi announced that they were leaving DTM, for instance, I had a couple of teams calling and asking why we didn’t get involved. They said: ‘Don’t you think we could do a DTM-type thing?’
“No! You can’t do it. Because if the DTM would take GT3, Audi didn’t say that they’re leaving the DTM because they don’t like Touring Cars. They didn’t say they’re leaving the DTM because they don’t appreciate the marketing return. They just said that they will concentrate on electric cars and customer racing.”
And Stephane speaks with plenty of experience of trying to get commercial traction behind established events featuring Pro driven GT cars:
“You simply cannot achieve that in that way. I’m trying every year to do that, and it’s for a great event with great marketing return in the streets of Macau.
“And believe me, it’s been very, very difficult. Because the problem today is if you put one pro driver in the car, you need someone to pay for the pro driver in the car. You have a very limited number of pro drivers that can buy themselves in, or their family can support them with, the cost of them racing in a GT3 car.
“So basically it needs to be factory racing. It is the same for GTE at Le Mans, and the same thing for DTM. Because of the prestige, because of the marketing return, because of many reasons, this is factory racing. And factory racing in difficult times, is difficult for manufacturers to finance because they have other priorities.”
One solution often offered is to make the current breed of cars faster, more capable, more marketable to an all-pro, factory-backed product?
“So if you go down that road of using GT3 cars as the basis for a full factory competition, you will want to make these cars more exciting in some way. But then it becomes a lot more expensive. And I can give you an example that I learned by myself.
“At first it seemed very simple when we had success with GT3 and we had GT4 where we then accepted cars like the Audi R8 and the McLaren 570.
“Some people came and said, “look, these cars, they are 600 horsepower, and we run them at 450. It’s nonsense, we can very easily create GT4 plus.
“And I said, that’s a good idea. We could have, effectively, something between GT3 and GT4. So I presented this little project to the manufacturers, and they literally laughed at me.
“They said: ‘Stephane this is not possible because if I take my GT4 car and I put the normal power into the car I have to change everything. I have to change all the cooling, I have to change the gearbox, I have to change the transmission, the driveshaft and everything because it’s not the same car.’
“And if today, you would say we want to do a GT3 plus, and we tried, you know, the last year of the GT1 World Championship was with GT3 cars, which we initially proposed bigger aero and maybe more power.
“What do we do in the end? The only real difference was the sound, we changed the exhaust!
“Because apart from changing the exhaust because anything else would lead to a lot of complication and costs. So the idea of taking a GT3, and making it ‘more’ will result in a very heavy and expensive development. So not only will you have the cost and the cost of redeveloping these cars, which is not going to be neutral, but also you will have the problem of who’s paying to run them in a factory level environment.”
In summary then, if you are going to find a way to encourage factories, or at the very least full pro line-ups, back into full season (rather than standalone Blue Riband event) GT racing you first need to address the issues of cost, technological relevance and marketing return.
One thing is for sure this is NOT as simple a matter as unplugging GTE, and replacing it with GT3 whether enhanced or otherwise, all that does is to cut the current cake into smaller slices, particularly in IMSA where are few, if any, immediate prospects to fill the void in the Pro classes.
Convergence, in this case, does not solve the problem. The racing world is going to have to be rather smarter than that if sustainable top-level GT racing is going to be part of a multi-class near to medium-term future.
And with the task of those looking to try to unlock commercial investment in the sport having become significantly more difficult in recent months, we may very well be looking at a picture that sees GT racing across the world with a much more customer racing-based near future, with Pro-Am business models being much more realistic targets in these troubled times.