25 Years of GT Racing: Stéphane Ratel and SRO Motorsports
On the world stage, GT racing has enjoyed as many ups as it has had downs over the years, but this class of racing arguably forms the core of what motor racing encompasses, that is, to take a recognisable Grand Touring car and to go racing with it. I acknowledge that this is an extremely simplistic view to take, and there will be those who point to their favourite form of the sport such as rallying, hill climbing, prototypes etc, this list goes on. But GT racing has (almost) always drawn crowds because the individual spectator can recognise their favourite brand or model on the track on Sunday, even if they cannot afford to buy that car on the following Monday morning.
GT racing clearly took a back seat through the 1980s when the Group C cars grabbed all the limelight. And while Group C gave us one of the most enjoyable and closely fought eras of motorsport in modern times, GT racing all but ground to a halt in the final years of the Group C decade. In fact, once the Group C cars had left the scene after the 1992 season, there was a huge vacuum in European motorsport. It was clear then, that the long-time mainstay of motorsport, that is the GT race car, was sorely missing from the grids of Europe.
The future of GT racing
Eager to launch a new GT series that was open to Gentlemen drivers, Stéphane Ratel stepped up to the plate with a new vision by offering this eager and wealthy group, a series in which to compete. Ratel started out with the Venturi Trophy which saw a one-make field of Venturi 400 Trophy race cars filling grids across Europe from 1992 to 1994. His plans received a real boost when a batch of seven Venturi LM500s ran in the 1993 Le Mans 24 Hours.
In 1994, the BPR partnership was formed, consisting of Jürgen Barth, Patrick Peter and Stéphane Ratel – the acronym consisting of the first letter of the three surnames. This series really took off with eight rounds taking place across Europe and included a round each in Japan and China. The racing got more serious and grids of up to 50 cars of all makes filled the grids and drivers include some high ranking international professionals. It is true to say that several of the top GT drivers today, started out in BPR in the mid ‘90s.
As the series gained traction across Europe, more and more manufacturers sat up and noticed, and these included Ferrari, McLaren, Lamborghini, Marcos and Morgan. The BPR Global GT Series (not a championship) was clearly instrumental in drawing GT racing back into the fold of European racing.
As from 1997, the FIA GT Championship took over what had been the BPR Global GT Series, and with the FIA’s muscle behind it, the championship grew enormously in stature. For the 1997 and 1998 seasons, Stéphane Ratel partnered with Bernie Ecclestone, during which time the BPR partnership was dissolved. Jürgen Barth assisted Stéphane Ratel in some aspects of the new championship, but Patrick Peter moved on to develop his own classic car racing series. During this time, the FIA GT Championship attracted some really big names, such as Mercedes-Benz, McLaren and Porsche, and the series once again blossomed well into the new millennium.
The 2010 season brought a big change, as gone was the FIA GT Championship, and in its place the FIA GT1 World Championship was created which was run from 2010 to 2012. This championship included the likes of Aston Martin, Maserati, Lamborghini, Corvette, Ford GT and Nissan. The 2013 year was a year between two chairs, as Ratel had created a new series for GT3 cars in 2011, the Blancpain Endurance Series, but with the GT1 cars still in the mix, it was all a bit confusing.
The Blancpain Endurance Series proved very popular and was making money which was just as well for the Stéphane Ratel Organisation (SRO), as they were still smarting following several years of big losses. The GT1 series had been based around one-hour sprint races, whereas the Blancpain Endurance Series offered the fans and the teams a welcome return to proper GT endurance racing.
Running through much of this period was the Spa 24 Hours, and this special race has been given its own section entitled, The World’s Biggest GT3 Race. The Spa circuit is special in anyone’s book, and the 24-hour race is right up there with the biggest and best events in the world. The Spa 24 is for Grand Touring cars, not prototypes, and so this event could be considered the crown in any series.