STÉPHANE RATEL, majority buyer of the Pirelli Apple Challenge, saunters through a filigree of adult Acura NSXs, Bentley Continentals, Ferrari 488s, Mercedes-AMG GTs, and Porsche 911s. The cars are aggressive in the GT chic at Watkins Glen. Ratel, admirable and dressed absolutely in black, is the best affecting amount in all-embracing sports-car racing. He’s actuality analytic for signs of bloom in the chic of motorsport he pioneered.
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This adventure originally appeared in the November, 2018 affair of R&T.
“The aboriginal third of the filigree should be happy, and the aback third is consistently complaining,” he says with a Gallic shrug. “But if alone the aboriginal row of the filigree is happy, afresh you accept a problem.”
It’s an abnormal barometer of a series’ temperature. But the abstruse to Ratel’s success is that he’s rarely followed accepted wisdom. To a degree, he’s prospered in motorsport absolutely because he knew annihilation about antagonism aback he started announcement contest himself.
“The aboriginal chase I abounding was the aboriginal chase I organized,” he says. “I’m an exotic-car guy. I loved—and I still love—the Ferraris and the Lambos and the Aston Martins, and I acquisition their architecture and complete extraordinary. I don’t arise from the antagonism world. But I accept abstruse forth the way. I’ve activated simple account to racing. And I formed my ass off aggravating to break afloat. That’s the adventure of my life.” He smiles and runs his easily through his continued hair.
Ratel, a youthful-looking 55, is a charismatic, catholic Frenchman with a carefully circumscribed salt-and-pepper bristles and a all-around angle on how to accomplish money in American motorsport.
Ratel’s SRO Motorsports Group has a attendance on bristles continents, active championships such as the Blancpain GT Alternation and high-profile contest including the Total 24 Hours of Spa and the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour. Yet SRO’s common ability is beneath the antecedent of Ratel’s ascendancy than it is a action of his avant-garde leadership.
He invented the GT3 chic of off-the-shelf chase cars, the agent active sports-car antagonism for the accomplished decade, and he created the GT4 formula, which has been alike added acknowledged than its added big-ticket earlier brother. Ratel afresh apparent a GT2 chic for supercars, due to admission abutting year. Adjoin angry opposition, he additionally affected the balance-of-performance and driver-rating concepts that are now accepted convenance internationally.
At the alpha of 2018, Ratel became the majority buyer of Pirelli Apple Challenge (PWC). His ambition is to accompany a all-around angle to the American production-based antagonism series. “The object,” he says, “is to put the ‘world’ in Pirelli Apple Challenge.” (He speaks chatty English with a French accent.)
Ratel was ceded authoritative absorption in achievement that he could baptize his bogie dust over a alternation that has continued struggled to acceleration aloft secondtier status. “I don’t anticipate he’s activity to beachcomber his abracadabra baton and accomplish aggregate better,” says Peter Cunningham, longtime PWC racer and boyhood shareholder. “But he’s affable with gas in Europe, and Asia is absolutely demography off. We accustomed him with accessible accoutrements and accessible eyes.”
RATEL WAS RAISED IN PARISIAN AFFLUENCE. By the time he was 20, he’d already endemic two Ferraris, and he collection a Lamborghini Countach while confined in the French military. He after advised all-embracing business at San Diego State University, area he advantaged a affection for surfing. He bound apparent that he could buy a gray-market Ferrari 512 BB in Southern California at bisected the amount he could advertise it for in France. Ratel addled one car, afresh two, afresh four, afresh six. Before long, he was ambidextrous in bluechip collectibles like 250-series Ferraris and Miura SVs.
“Of my accompany I fabricated clients, and of my admirers I fabricated friends,” he recalls. “So I met added and added affluent kids from grand, aloof families.” Afresh the bazaar bashed in the backward 1980s. All of Ratel’s money was angry up in cars cipher wanted. “I was in abysmal sh**, and I bare a job,” he says.
Ratel eventually confused aback to Paris. As a housewarming gesture, he organized a Cannonball-style run from Paris to Saint-Tropez. It was such a hit, he planned to do it afresh the afterward year—until he was abreast that accountability issues ability acreage him in jail. Instead, he absitively a racetrack would accommodate a safer ambiance for his friends. The ancestor of one of Ratel’s affluent buddies happened to be a administrator of Venturi, a low-volume, high-performance French manufacturer. Desperate for business, Venturi offered to body cars for a one-make alternation Ratel would promote.
“My abstraction was to actualize article fun that you could chase at a lower cost,” he says. “I came up with the ready-to-race concept. If we took affliction of all the cars—the preparation, the transportation, everything—it would amount less, and if we put admirer drivers together, carefully amateur, they were activity to accept fun.”
Ratel, who at this point had never alike been to a race, presented the abstraction to -to-be barter at a chichi auberge in St. Moritz. Thirty bodies placed orders. At a additional presentation in Paris, he awash twenty-some more. The aboriginal race, at the Bugatti Circuit at Le Mans in 1992, admiring 55 cars. The Venturi Gentlemen Drivers’ Trophy became the best alluring one-make alternation in Europe. “Besides the racing, bodies came for the amusing environment,” Ratel recalls. “We were partying like bedrock stars.”
At year’s end, several Venturi Trophy drivers told Ratel they capital to attempt in the big appearance at Le Mans. Coincidentally, the 24-hour chase was in the doldrums, acknowledgment to a rules amalgamation that acceptable annihilation but prototypes. Ratel approached the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which runs Le Mans, and appropriate that it reestablish a GT chic for cars like the Venturi.
The angle that GT cars, rather than added adult and big-ticket prototypes, should drive sports-car antagonism is Ratel’s idée fixe. “What are the best acknowledged car video games?” he asks. “GT games. What are on the awning of 60 percent of all the magazines? GT cars. They are the best prestigious, best-looking, best-sounding cars in the world. Period. If you put it to the abundant audience, it should be the bigger anatomy of antagonism in the world. I’m assertive of it.”
Ratel runs his easily through his bristles again, this time out of frustration. Because admitting his 25 years of advocating on account of GT cars, prototypes abide the divas of sports-car racing, which is why PWC plays additional dabble in the United States to IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. “I’ve approved abounding altered means to put GT at the top,” he says. “And I abide to try. Footfall by step, I’m authoritative it a all-around platform.”
Ratel launched his adventure in 1993, aback seven Venturis competed at Le Mans in the new GT class. At the end of the year, he answer his own GT-only race, which spawned the BPR All-around Ability Series. It was so acknowledged that it was subsumed by the FIA, briefly authoritative Ratel a protégé of Max Mosley and a business accomplice of Bernie Ecclestone.
Mosley is the ancestor of Antithesis of Performance, accepted popularly—or maybe that should be unpopularly—as BoP. (After DNF and DFL, BoP are the three best reviled belletrist in racing.) In 2004, Maserati capital to access its MC12 in FIA GT races. The absolute rules wouldn’t acquiesce the supercar to compete, and larboard unmodified, it would accept decimated the competition. So Mosley appropriate leveling the arena acreage by handicapping the Maserati with an agent restrictor, added weight, a aloft ride height, and a abate rear wing. Balancing performance, in added words. Instead of alteration the rules, BoP requires all cars to accommodated defined achievement targets, and adjustments can be fabricated on a race-by-race basis. Bodies weren’t accepting it, so Ratel alone financed a Ferrari to chase adjoin the MC12 and prove that BoP worked.
“It’s the alone way,” he says. “Because alfresco of Blueprint 1, you cannot sustain the amount of competition. Antagonism is infinite. It becomes a money war, and at the end of the day, it produces arid racing.”
BoP was the foundation of Ratel’s greatest innovation—GT3. After the success with Venturi, SRO angry to Lamborghini for a new one-make series. The Diablo in the Lamborghini Supertrophy was about a tarted-up alley car, but it was about as fast as—and abundant cheaper and added reliable than—the chase cars active in GT.
Ratel proposed a alternation featuring a new chic of GT cars acquired anon from artery cars. Aback manufacturers didn’t chaw on the idea, he alien nine Dodge Viper Antagonism Coupes from the States and encouraged European tuners to actualize added GT3 cars on their own. “There was a actual accessible rulebook,” he says. “Basically, we said, ‘You accompany us the car, and we will antithesis you.’”
Forty-four cars competed in the aboriginal race, at Silverstone in 2006. Roughly 1500 GT3 cars accept been congenital since. In the beginning, best were fielded by privateers and raced by amateurs. But manufacturers anon accomplished they could accomplish money affairs turnkey GT3 cars through their customer-racing departments. Several carmakers accept additionally invested in bringing top-line pro drivers to the class. “Customer antagonism with branch support—that’s the best abode to be in racing,” Ratel says. “You accept customers, but you accolade your best teams.”
Ratel saw allowance for advance in the United States. At the aforementioned time, Pirelli Apple Challenge was attractive to accession its game. Although the alternation anachronous to 1990, it had collapsed on adamantine times. The new owners contacted Ratel, who was awestruck by the focus on banal touring cars. “I never had heard of Apple Challenge,” he says. “I thought, What? Mix my admirable GT cars with Volvos? Never!”
Still, Ratel capital to aggrandize his brand to North America. So in 2016, he came in as a boyhood partner, and at the alpha of the 2018 season, he took ascendancy of the series. Although he’s larboard the absolute administration aggregation in place, he jets to the States periodically to fly the SRO flag.
At Watkins Glen, PWC is the headliner, rather than a abutment race. This is acceptable for the competitors, who get added clue time and bigger time slots than they do aback administration the weekend with the Verizon IndyCar Series. But the agenda is ablaze on alien cars. So while the paddock is full, there arise to be added mechanics abstraction on cars than advantageous barter trackside watching them. And therein lies the bedraggled little abstruse of sports-car racing.
“Gentleman drivers are the courage of sports-car antagonism and consistently accept been aback the Bentley Boys,” Ratel says. “The [people in the] grandstands don’t accomplish you a living. The absoluteness is that what pays the bills is the paddock—the competitors who pay their entries and the supplier deals that you accomplish out of these entries. Then, if you accept a acceptable show, you can alpha cerebration of the grandstands. But assemblage can’t be the centermost of the business.”
Attendees and television admirers are analytical to Blueprint 1, and IMSA caters to manufacturers. But in PWC, admiral and CEO Greg Gill says, “our focus is on chump racing.”
Next year, the alternation is activity to a shorter, less-expensive, added convenient seven-weekend agenda advised for entrants, rather than spectators. Aback PWC will be the capital attraction, there will be added clue time. By active a brace of 90-minute two-driver contest in its GT class, Apple Challenge will accommodate a aftertaste of the endurance-racing experience—IMSA’s focus—while advancement the sprint-race architecture for the added classes.
In a move aimed at abecedarian drivers, Ratel is additionally inaugurating a all-around GT2 chic based on roadgoing supercars that will be added able but easier to drive than GT3 cars, due to beneath downforce. As of September, cipher had about committed to a GT2 program. “I achievement some manufacturers will come. Otherwise I will attending like a fool,” Ratel says blithely. Privately, he’s assertive he won’t be larboard out to dry, and if he is, well, he’s arise aback from bigger calamities.
n 1999, while he was active the FIA GT series, the GT1 chic imploded aback costs coiled out of control. Added recently, much-ballyhooed SRO ability contest in Malaysia and Texas were canceled for abridgement of entries. Apple Challenge charcoal a assignment in progress, but Ratel insists he’s in it for the continued haul.
“He’s been up, and he’s been down,” Porsche Motorsport North America athletic Alwin Springer says with a booming laugh. “In racing, bodies arise and bodies go. Stéphane is a stayer.”
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