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The Bernie Ecclestone of GT Racing? Not quite

A racing series as a safer alternative

GT racing bucks the trend in motorsport with its continual worldwide growth, and one man has overseen the vast majority of it: Stephane Ratel.

Through his SRO Motorsports Group, the Frenchman organises and promotes the Blancpain GT Series – Europe’s premier GT racing series – as well as several other championships and races around the world. These enjoy large grids, the support of numerous manufacturers and a cast of top-level drivers. 

This revival of GT racing has been a 25-year project for Ratel, but like a lot of the best stories, it wasn’t planned.

“As a student in California I used to buy and then reimport sportscars to Europe,” he recalls. “Through that I created a network of clients and friends, and one day I had the silly idea of organising a dinner in Paris with a cannonball run down to St Tropez. We were young, it was crazy, and when I was asked to do it again I said ‘it’s not a good idea, we should do it on a racetrack. It will be safer and it will avoid me ending up in jail one day’."

The Bernie Ecclestone of GT racing? Not quite 01

Early adventures
Ratel’s first championship was born: a one-make series with cars from a small French manufacturer called Venturi, starting in 1992. “It was an immediate success,” says Ratel. A year later, seven of his clients raced at the Le Mans 24 Hours, a commitment key to the return of GT cars to the famous race. “Then they said: ‘what do we do with our cars?’ and somebody had a Ferrari F40 and another one had a Porsche and I said: ‘let’s put them all together and go racing’ and that’s how we started.”

The series that formed can be traced through various guises to the current Blancpain GT Series. There were hiccups along the way, often involving the escalating costs that came when manufacturers competed directly against one another, but Ratel learned from this to devise the cost-effective GT3 and GT4 rules that form the basis for most of today’s GT racing.

“It’s been a 25-year effort with total commitment, passion and a vision that I always had, that the best-looking, best-sounding, most-prestigious cars in the world had to have a place at the pinnacle of motorsport,” he says. “We’re proving that thanks to the Balance of Performance. We allow many cars with varying characteristics to compete together and to have equal chances of winning. That factor has contributed to bringing the most prestigious brands together.”

The Bernie Ecclestone of GT racing? Not quite 02

A common goal
Ratel’s vision is one shared by Pirelli, which supplies an increasing number of GT races and championships all over the world. “The collaboration we have with Pirelli is essential, on two fronts,” he says. “The first one is technical, to balance equally and to run so many different cars. The second point it is that of all the tyre manufacturers, Pirelli has a unique image. It is by far the most glamorous tyre company. It’s really the perfect thing for GT racing. The association of Pirelli with GT racing is fundamental and it’s essential.”

There’s no doubting that Ratel has revived GT racing in Europe. Now the aim is continue expanding it globally. In North America there is a partnership with the Pirelli World Challenge, while the new Blancpain GT Series Asia is “expecting around 25 cars, which for a first season will be exceptional”. Then there’s the Intercontinental GT Challenge, which Ratel hopes will feature “five iconic races on five continents” with the planned revival of the Kyalami 9 Hours in South Africa next year. The work won’t stop in regional or national series however: “We have a great diversity, we have large grids, we have amazing competition,” he points out. “Now the next objective is to bring more spectators to the races and to grow our media footprint.”

One driver Ratel would love to have in his series is bike legend Valentino Rossi, who did a one-off at Monza back in 2012. His hero though is Alex Zanardi: “The first time he raced a GT was in 1995 at Donington and in the rain he almost won,” recalls the Blancpain GT Series supremo. “After his terrible accident, he came back and raced in GT again. He’s a fantastic individual and his achievements are so exceptional, in addition to being a great character.”

And that’s what the Blancpain GT Series is all about. Great achievements, by great drivers. Using, of course, the best possible tyres.

The Bernie Ecclestone of GT racing? Not quite 03
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