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The general idea this year is again to drive to as many races as possible and avoid having to be strip searched through British and American airports. So far, this plan has not gone well with trips to Brazil for the World Touring Cars, America for the Sebring 12 hours, and Barcelona for the Le Mans Series. However, things got back on track as Brooks nailed the hire car deal of the century, and we drove from Barcelona to the FIA GT test day at Paul Ricard immediately afterwards.

In that weekend, we learned a lot, and so did the ACO judging by its press release today which has further limited the performance of the diesel engines, and considers that it now has parity between diesel and petrol LMP1 cars. The diesels will have a smaller fuel flow system, the ACO has lopped off 5mm from the fuel flow regulator so that it pumps in fuel at the same rate as a petrol engine, and added an extra 30kg.

This, the ACO hopes, has solved what had become a large problem. The petrol teams say that they cannot afford to be six to seven seconds behind the diesels at Le Mans, and Aston Martin worked out that the ACO needs to reduce the power delivered through the rear wheels by 15%, whether through air restrictors alone, or through even lower boost pressure. If the ACO did not take action, the likes of Pescarolo and ORECA would not be around to fight next year.

“I know very well both sides so I know exactly the truth, and it is an absolute necessity that the ACO have to do a new balance before Le Mans,” said Hugues de Chaunac, owner of the ORECA team and builder of the SEAT diesel engines used in the World Touring Car Championship at Barcelona. “If at Le Mans we are between 5-6 s behind, ORECA will not be in LMP1 next year because I lose my partners. My sponsors agree to support us if we can be very close. We cannot beat [the diesel manufacturers], but we have to be close. My sponsors and me can accept, like in football, to be beaten 2-1 or 3-2, but to be beaten 6-0, or 7-0 forget it, I will disappear.”

Henri Pescarolo said the same thing, but there are problems between the diesel manufacturers too. Peugeot is upset about what it considers to be a front wing on the Audi, and other manufacturers and teams are also none too pleased at the design of the R15. Rumours abounded in Spain that Peugeot had threatened to pull out of Le Mans, though Peugeot team manager Serge Saulnier denied all knowledge of this.

The ACO has also to examine the effect of its bizarre new tyre change system. Apparently, this was to reduce costs, and if the overall effect was only that the teams used fewer tyres, then fair enough. Unfortunately, teams have the option of changing tyres at every stop, despite the time penalty of just two mechanics and one air gun allowed to work on a car at the same time. Many chose to do so, which in Barcelona led to what amounted to ten different versions of the Riverdance happening in the pit lane, full of fuel, at the same time.

Teams of mechanics ran in and out of garages to service cars, one air line ran round the entire car which only heightened the risk of getting caught in something, wheels were left in the pit lane, leaving drivers in neighbouring garages completely unsighted and raising the risk of hitting one of these heavy wheels exiting the pit lane. Sit in a racing car if ever you get the chance – your nearest view is at least fifteen feet ahead of the nose of the car.

Before, you used to have a man standing up next to a wheel in the pit lane, giving drivers behind the chance to gauge where obstacles where, and miss them. The ACO still hopes that the diesels will have a tough time double- stinting their tyres, but Saulnier reckons the key to winning Le Mans is to quadruple stint the rubber. This may well be gamesmanship – akin to announcing that your car can do 17 laps at Le Mans on a tank of fuel, but the ACO cannot afford to wait and see how well the diesels do on their rubber in Europe, at Spa on May 10. They have to make a performance balancing decision earlier than that, to gauge how effective it is at the Belgian race.

A shame, then, that they cancelled the test day.

From Barcelona, we drove to France, and into the Stephane Ratel show. The Frenchman stood up in front of the media, his teams, sponsors, tuners and the FIA, and for the first time made a very impressive and convincing presentation of his GT World Championship for privateers. No more was the prose punctuated by “we would like…”, or “we are hoping…”, or “we are negotiating…” No, this was a speech that was clear, precise, and effective.

There WILL be a World Championship. It WILL start in Argentina. Ratel has ten letters of intent from circuit promoters who have the funds. There IS a Nissan R35 and a Ford GT in the other room, ready to be unveiled. Hans Reiter WILL build a new Murcialago for the World Championship. The FIA has the contract ready to sign, Ratel HAS fulfilled all criteria, this IS happening.

Where are the cars, and where is the money? Well, with Nissan committing, Ford and Lamborghini seeing their cars prepared by private tuners, the ball is rolling. Ascari is interested but, as ever, Ratel has his eyes on the likes of Audi and, particularly, Ferrari. Ratel invested his own money to develop the Italtechnica-built Ferrari 550 ‘Millennio’, a disastrous programme but one which brought the name of Ferrari to the FIA GT Championship in 2000. Ferrari is now building the successor to the 430GT, ready for competition next year, and Ratel is hoping that in the design phase, the Italians will bear in mind that there WILL be a World Championship in 2010.

The races will be two one-hour events, after discussion with the promoters. If you want endurance, look to the Le Mans Series, no problem. If you want a television friendly format, look no further than the World Championship, with two starts, two races, and one podium at the end. To accept this, you have first to clear your mind of the concept that GT cars are solely endurance cars. This has been proven on the national racing scene for years, and Ratel is merely taking it to another level.

How successful have the national series been? How many people have turned out to watch, and how much television has he secured for the British and French championships? These are crucial to Ratel as he, and his teams, look to secure the funding. Does he know this? Of course he does. Can he fix it? He has managed to fix everything else against the odds, including a 1m Euro support package for his teams this year, in this economic climate and few reckoned on that happening, so why not? He persuaded Pirelli and Michelin to cancel their development of GT tyres for his championship, and instead put money into a central pot for the teams!

“It is not that we offer our teams money, it is linked to a tyre policy,” says Ratel. “We have taken the difficult decision to step out of the likes of Monza. Do we want to pay for Monza, these super expensive circuits, or do we down- grade our offer and have tracks which are maybe less appealing for drivers, but which offer better promotion and more people in the grandstands?

“My business is not to rent tracks for club racing, it is to create events. We have introduced a tyre rule which allows a small margin on the tyres. Do I keep that money for me? No, I distribute it to the teams. It is a tyre strategy which we adopted, and anyone could adopt it. It comes from us, but it could come from Michelin or Pirelli. The cost of the development tyre is far higher than a customer tyre, and you have in there a margin and you can use that margin to help your teams in a difficult year. Anyone could do that.”

Many years ago, I wrote that he was like a salmon, making a difficult and dangerous journey upstream to the nesting grounds. So far, he has negotiated many waterfalls, a strong current running against him, made deals with the pack of bears out to get him, and still shows no sign of slowing down despite the distance he has travelled.

Having come this far, defied such odds, can you still bet against him? Or look at it another way. When Maserati launched a new GT4 car in Paul Ricard, it confirmed that it is evaluating the GT1 World Championship, too.

Andrew Cotton, April 2009