STÉPHANE RATEL, majority owner of the Pirelli World Challenge, saunters through a grid of sexy Acura NSXs, Bentley Continentals, Ferrari 488s, Mercedes-AMG GTs, and Porsche 911s. The cars are competing in the GT class at Watkins Glen. Ratel, stylish and dressed entirely in black, is the most influential figure in international sports-car racing. He’s here searching for signs of health in the class of motorsport he pioneered.
This story originally appeared in the November, 2018 issue of R&T.
“The first third of the grid should be happy, and the back third is always complaining,” he says with a Gallic shrug. “But if only the first row of the grid is happy, then you have a problem.”
It’s an unusual gauge of a series’ temperature. But the secret to Ratel’s success is that he’s rarely followed conventional wisdom. To a degree, he’s prospered in motorsport precisely because he knew nothing about racing when he started promoting events himself.
“The first race I attended was the first race 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 find their design and sound extraordinary. I don’t come from the racing world. But I have learned along the way. I’ve applied simple ideas to racing. And I worked my ass off trying to stay afloat. That’s the story of my life.” He smiles and runs his hands through his long hair.
Ratel, a youthful-looking 55, is a charismatic, cosmopolitan Frenchman with a closely cropped salt-and-pepper beard and a global perspective on how to make money in American motorsport.
Ratel’s SRO Motorsports Group has a presence on five continents, running championships such as the Blancpain GT Series and high-profile races including the Total 24 Hours of Spa and the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour. Yet SRO’s worldwide reach is less the source of Ratel’s clout than it is a function of his innovative leadership.
He invented the GT3 category of off-the-shelf race cars, the engine driving sports-car racing for the past decade, and he created the GT4 formula, which has been even more successful than its more expensive older brother. Ratel recently unveiled a GT2 class for supercars, due to debut next year. Against fierce opposition, he also popularized the balance-of-performance and driver-rating concepts that are now standard practice internationally.
At the start of 2018, Ratel became the majority owner of Pirelli World Challenge (PWC). His goal is to bring a global perspective to the American production-based racing series. “The object,” he says, “is to put the ‘world’ in Pirelli World Challenge.” (He speaks colloquial English with a French accent.)
Ratel was ceded controlling interest in hope that he could sprinkle his fairy dust over a series that has long struggled to rise above secondtier status. “I don’t think he’s going to wave his magic wand and make everything better,” says Peter Cunningham, longtime PWC racer and minority shareholder. “But he’s cooking with gas in Europe, and Asia is really taking off. We welcomed him with open arms and open eyes.”
RATEL WAS RAISED IN PARISIAN AFFLUENCE. By the time he was 20, he’d already owned two Ferraris, and he drove a Lamborghini Countach while serving in the French military. He later studied international business at San Diego State University, where he indulged a passion for surfing. He quickly discovered that he could buy a gray-market Ferrari 512 BB in Southern California at half the price he could sell it for in France. Ratel flipped one car, then two, then four, then six. Before long, he was dealing in bluechip collectibles like 250-series Ferraris and Miura SVs.
“Of my friends I made clients, and of my clients I made friends,” he recalls. “So I met more and more rich kids from grand, aristocratic families.” Then the market tanked in the late 1980s. All of Ratel’s money was tied up in cars nobody wanted. “I was in deep sh**, and I needed a job,” he says.
Ratel eventually moved back 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 again the following year—until he was informed that liability issues might land him in jail. Instead, he decided a racetrack would provide a safer environment for his friends. The father of one of Ratel’s wealthy buddies happened to be a director of Venturi, a low-volume, high-performance French manufacturer. Desperate for business, Venturi offered to build cars for a one-make series Ratel would promote.
“My idea was to create something fun that you could race at a lower cost,” he says. “I came up with the ready-to-race concept. If we took care of all the cars—the preparation, the transportation, everything—it would cost less, and if we put gentleman drivers together, strictly amateur, they were going to have fun.”
Ratel, who at this point had never even been to a race, presented the concept to prospective customers at a swanky hotel in St. Moritz. Thirty people placed orders. At a second presentation in Paris, he sold twenty-some more. The first race, at the Bugatti Circuit at Le Mans in 1992, attracted 55 cars. The Venturi Gentlemen Drivers’ Trophy became the most glamorous one-make series in Europe. “Besides the racing, people came for the social environment,” Ratel recalls. “We were partying like rock stars.”
At year’s end, several Venturi Trophy drivers told Ratel they wanted to compete in the big show at Le Mans. Coincidentally, the 24-hour race was in the doldrums, thanks to a rules package that permitted nothing but prototypes. Ratel approached the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which runs Le Mans, and suggested that it reestablish a GT class for cars like the Venturi.
The notion that GT cars, rather than more sophisticated and expensive prototypes, should drive sports-car racing is Ratel’s idée fixe. “What are the most successful car video games?” he asks. “GT games. What are on the cover of 60 percent of all the magazines? GT cars. They are the most prestigious, best-looking, best-sounding cars in the world. Period. If you put it to the great audience, it should be the biggest form of racing in the world. I’m convinced of it.”
Ratel runs his hands through his hair again, this time out of frustration. Because despite his 25 years of advocating on behalf of GT cars, prototypes remain the divas of sports-car racing, which is why PWC plays second fiddle in the United States to IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. “I’ve tried many different ways to put GT at the top,” he says. “And I continue to try. Step by step, I’m making it a global platform.”
Ratel launched his quest in 1993, when seven Venturis competed at Le Mans in the new GT class. At the end of the year, he promoted his own GT-only race, which spawned the BPR Global Endurance Series. It was so successful that it was subsumed by the FIA, briefly making Ratel a protégé of Max Mosley and a business partner of Bernie Ecclestone.
Mosley is the father of Balance of Performance, known popularly—or maybe that should be unpopularly—as BoP. (After DNF and DFL, BoP are the three most reviled letters in racing.) In 2004, Maserati wanted to enter its MC12 in FIA GT races. The existing rules wouldn’t allow the supercar to compete, and left unmodified, it would have decimated the competition. So Mosley suggested leveling the playing field by handicapping the Maserati with an engine restrictor, added weight, a raised ride height, and a smaller rear wing. Balancing performance, in other words. Instead of changing the rules, BoP requires all cars to meet specified performance targets, and adjustments can be made on a race-by-race basis. People weren’t getting it, so Ratel personally financed a Ferrari to race against the MC12 and prove that BoP worked.
“It’s the only way,” he says. “Because outside of Formula 1, you cannot sustain the cost of competition. Competition is infinite. It becomes a money war, and at the end of the day, it produces boring racing.”
BoP was the foundation of Ratel’s greatest innovation—GT3. After the success with Venturi, SRO turned to Lamborghini for a new one-make series. The Diablo in the Lamborghini Supertrophy was essentially a tarted-up road car, but it was nearly as fast as—and much cheaper and more reliable than—the race cars running in GT.
Ratel proposed a series featuring a new class of GT cars derived directly from street cars. When manufacturers didn’t bite on the idea, he imported nine Dodge Viper Competition Coupes from the States and encouraged European tuners to create other GT3 cars on their own. “There was a very open rulebook,” he says. “Basically, we said, ‘You bring us the car, and we will balance you.’”
Forty-four cars competed in the first race, at Silverstone in 2006. Roughly 1500 GT3 cars have been built since. In the beginning, most were fielded by privateers and raced by amateurs. But manufacturers soon realized they could make money selling turnkey GT3 cars through their customer-racing departments. Several carmakers have also invested in bringing top-line pro drivers to the class. “Customer racing with factory support—that’s the best place to be in racing,” Ratel says. “You have customers, but you reward your best teams.”
Ratel saw room for growth in the United States. At the same time, Pirelli World Challenge was looking to raise its game. Although the series dated to 1990, it had fallen on hard times. The new owners ed Ratel, who was nonsed by the focus on plebeian touring cars. “I never had heard of World Challenge,” he says. “I thought, What? Mix my beautiful GT cars with Volvos? Never!”
Still, Ratel wanted to expand his footprint to North America. So in 2016, he came in as a minority partner, and at the beginning of the 2018 season, he took control of the series. Although he’s left the existing management team in place, he jets to the States periodically to fly the SRO flag.
At Watkins Glen, PWC is the headliner, rather than a support race. This is good for the competitors, who get more track time and better time slots than they do when sharing the weekend with the Verizon IndyCar Series. But the schedule is light on exotic cars. So while the paddock is full, there appear to be more mechanics wrenching on cars than paying customers trackside watching them. And therein lies the dirty little secret of sports-car racing.
“Gentleman drivers are the backbone of sports-car racing and always have been since the Bentley Boys,” Ratel says. “The [people in the] grandstands don’t make you a living. The reality is that what pays the bills is the paddock—the competitors who pay their entries and the supplier deals that you make out of these entries. Then, if you have a good show, you can start thinking of the grandstands. But spectators can’t be the center of the business.”
Attendees and television viewers are critical to Formula 1, and IMSA caters to manufacturers. But in PWC, president and CEO Greg Gill says, “our focus is on customer racing.”
Next year, the series is going to a shorter, less-expensive, more user-friendly seven-weekend schedule designed for entrants, rather than spectators. Since PWC will be the main attraction, there will be more track time. By running a pair of 90-minute two-driver races in its GT class, World Challenge will provide a taste of the endurance-racing experience—IMSA’s focus—while maintaining the sprint-race format for the other classes.
In a move aimed at amateur drivers, Ratel is also inaugurating a global GT2 category based on roadgoing supercars that will be more powerful but easier to drive than GT3 cars, due to less downforce. As of September, nobody had publicly committed to a GT2 program. “I hope some manufacturers will come. Otherwise I will look like a fool,” Ratel says blithely. Privately, he’s convinced he won’t be left out to dry, and if he is, well, he’s come back from bigger calamities.
n 1999, while he was running the FIA GT series, the GT1 class imploded when costs spiraled out of control. More recently, much-ballyhooed SRO endurance races in Malaysia and Texas were canceled for lack of entries. World Challenge remains a work in progress, but Ratel insists he’s in it for the long haul.
“He’s been up, and he’s been down,” Porsche Motorsport North America stalwart Alwin Springer says with a booming laugh. “In racing, people come and people go. Stéphane is a stayer.”