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he FIA GT1 World Championship ended in style at the Potrero de los Funes circuit in Argentina. The

circuit, built in a country that has just discovered one billion barrels of oil within its borders, with a booming economy, and very little by way of racing, is tailor made for the latest evolution of Stephane Ratel’s series. Love him or loathe him, it is

hard not to respect what Ratel has managed to achieve. He turned a Parisian house-warming party into a street race, and out of that came the Venturi Trophy, which developed into the BPR series, and then, in 1997, the FIA GT Championship.

When he was short of

competitors, he created the N-GT class, which became GT2, and is now GTE. Despite resistance from the manufacturers, he created the GT3 regulations, the category which is now a global phenomenon and, in its latest evolution, the Blancpain Series, is looking at over-subscribed grids. He runs championships in Britain, including the British GT and F3 projects, runs Formula Renault, Renault Clio Cup and has franchises in Dutch and Belgian series running another of his creations, GT4. Ratel, who counts Bernie

Ecclestone as his best business partner, was the first to go to China, hosting a street race in Zhuhai in 1994. He was the first to take his championship to Romania, with another street track around Nicolae Ceausescu’s grotesque palace. He was the first to go to Argentina and Mongolia, and aims to go to Russia and Beijing. In fact the Frenchman wants to host as many GT World Championship races as he can in emerging markets, rather than to continue to forage the European and Middle East markets. ‘The European circuits are

so booked by manufacturer incentives and club activities that all the circuits owners say motorsport is not worth it,’ says Ratel. ‘I was at this Moscow forum with the circuit owners and builders, and they were saying that for us, motorsport is a loss. ‘You are competing with

other activities at prices where you can no longer make it

While the so-called ‘first world’ flounders and fights for oil, the developing countries like Argentina offer a real opportunity for motorsport to prosper

profitable and you no longer have government support. All the races we do outside Europe are basically the governments buying entertainment for the people, and we bring the show. This is like any other sport, which is backed by the public, like the Olympic Games, and most of the grands prix are supported by government funds. In Europe we have no more incentives, so to finance it on your own is very difficult.’ Finances have always been

most motorsport promotion is about in Europe. ‘Then you have the other model, which is the FIA model, where you don’t have the entry fees because they go directly to the FIA. Then you have to rely on sponsorship, TV rights and promoter fees, and then it becomes a very difficult exercise because getting TV rights is difficult, your promoter fee is almost impossible, and sponsorship depends on

“The future is to keep few events in Europe with as many people in the grandstands as possible”

a question mark, not for Ratel, who invested his inheritance wisely when his parents were tragically killed while he was a teenager, but for his teams. His is the only World Championship to be held exclusively for private teams, and relies heavily on private investment from wealthy individuals. His long-term plan is for these investors to make a return, and he has a plan to do it. ‘You have two separate activities – the club business, with entry fees, and with these you pay circuits; then you make supplier deals with fuels, tyres and so on. You pay the circuit, the TV production and that is what

spectators, viewers on the track and on the television. ‘The first step is that you have

to create the product, and we did that. The second part was to convince promoters to take the show for free, or pay us to take the show and this is where the salesman bit comes in. ‘Then you hit the reality of

the market, and the reality is you need spectators and television viewers. If you have a lot of viewers, the company is going to want to pay for your product. If you have less than the average, you need to pay the difference.’ And that has been the problem – spectators have been thin on

the ground, as has the television audience. An online television platform is a method adopted by the American Le Mans Series, and by the GT World Championship, but it is not yet a substitute for television programming. Ratel has to fight back. ‘Either we stop, or we go back

and say we do it better. We have to identify where we went wrong. I have been traumatised by the 1997 and 1998 experience [when Porsche and Mercedes got into a spending war, and priced each other and the championship out of the market], and I am too cautious about manufacturers. So, let’s try to be less cautious and, without direct manufacturer involvement, get them more involved. ‘If they are involved in

customer programmes, we can see that they are getting closer and closer to GT3. Number one objective is to get closer to the brand. Number two, have a product that is even more extraordinary, and that is to follow the F1 model of more brands. And it is a possibility to have both. The extraordinary success of GT3 has brought in Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, McLaren, Aston, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Dodge, Corvette, Ford, Nissan and Alpina. ‘The future is to keep few

events in Europe with as many people in the grandstands as possible, and try to expand in basically the emerging markets. South America is a dream continent because it has a booming economy, and they have a true passion for motorsport. I have been digging in the desert for 10 years, and you have a fantastic arena, but you don’t have the feel. ‘We have ideas how it will

develop. We want it to look different. We have ideas for the championship to keep exclusivity, but the biggest exclusivity is the calendar. One thing we have been successful in is moving outside Europe and we need to accelerate that. It will be exclusive when it will have the majority of races outside Europe and teams coming from outside Europe to compete, and we have another idea, and that could be a big surprise.’ With Ratel, that could mean

anything, but it is a brave person who bets against him.

January 2012 • 91

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