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Eau Rouged….

There are many ways of getting kicks out of life. Sex is one, playing football with the kids is another. Getting spectacularly drunk in a Chinese restaurant with friends while eating two plates of crispy aromatic duck ranks highly too, as does standing at Eau Rouge with a beer in hand watching Tomas Enge murder a Lamborghini Murcielago’s gearbox at night during the Spa 24 hours.

The Spa event is a classic, made by the location as much as the competition. However, with only 12 GT1 cars entered this year, of which 11 took the start, and ten completed the first hour, the 2008 edition started badly. When Karl Wendlinger crashed into Mike Hezemans’s Corvette on Saturday night, it was time to go home and get some sleep as the two Maserati MC12s of the Vitaphone team serenely sailed to victory. There were moments during the race to liven it up again, but the racing was just about finished.

From 1030pm until Fabrizio Gollin’s Corvette caught fire at 11am Sunday morning, little of note happened. The Ferrari onslaught in GT2 was slightly diminished when Christian Montanari crashed the pole-sitting 430GT, the Porsches ran into gearbox problems with the IMSA and ProSpeed teams. Enge managed to block the pit lane too when the gearbox was, according to team manager Hans Reiter, “executed”.

Otherwise, it was useful to prove that the GT1 cars are still up to the task of completing 24 hours at pace despite the GT championship adopting two hour races. I have disagreed with Stephane Ratel on a few points over the last ten years, and admit that mostly, I have been wrong. However, his plans for a World Championship are, I reckon, fundamentally flawed.

The rules are now written in such a way that the manufacturers can make a business case out of building new cars. They have a wide customer base of more than 60 cars in GT2, as Ferrari and Porsche have both produced with the 997 and 430 models, and can adapt these cars further to GT1 specification and potentially sell another 1 or 2. Where, however, is the money coming from?

The teams are happy to race in this World Championship if it costs no more than a European season of racing, but that still means that they need to raise a European-size budget for a series which will have fewer than half of its races in this continent. Who will sponsor the cars for doing such a series? A global company interested in motorsport outside Formula One and MotoGP, is hard to find. A company with national interests so strong that it doesn’t mind being able to attend only four of ten races maximum is also difficult, particularly in today’s economic climate.

Announcing that he has six promoters to meet in Australia is all very well for Ratel, but the cost of transporting up to 24 cars from Europe to Australia, pay for freight, air tickets and up to 10,000 Euro per car, in a country which already has an Australian V8s, and a strengthening GT3 championship, makes no sense.

The story may be the same in Singapore, Russia, China, the US and anywhere else he might be looking. Ratel still has not found a sponsor for the championship, and his Canute-like insistence that the ‘World’ title will help everyone to find money simply is not the case. People with money spend it to make it back, with interest. Can there be such a business case for a new championship with new cars, no star drivers or manufacturers where the cars are the stars?

If GT3 is so successful, spectators can already see Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis and don’t need to see their local promoters spending millions to bring the World Championship and recouping that investment with high ticket prices. It would be cheaper and more rewarding to send the spectators to Spa to stand, beer in hand, watching Enge in the Murcielago. Or to watch Salo in the Ferrari as the Finn lifts on entry in sixth gear, then accelerates up the hill. It is a truly awesome sight that impressed the likes of the legendary Australian Craig Baird, who drove Spa for the first time during the 24 hours with the Juniper team.

Next year at Spa, we get our first look at the new GT1 cars when they are phased into the series with their own category. They will be slower than the existing GT1s, and so running them alongside the faster, more exciting cars is hardly likely to get the juices flowing, but they will be the future. The new GT2 cars will go the same speed but will be cheaper to run, and will run next year alongside the existing cars so I for one will be there at Eau Rouge once again to get my fix.

By September 2008 we will know whether or not the championship will have one tyre supplier or competition. The business case for the tyre companies has already been eroded by the limitations already introduced by the series and so my guess is that it will be sole tyre supplier. By October there will be a final set of GT1 and GT2 technical regulations which will serve the FIA and the ACO races in 2010 and manufacturers can make their decisions for the next five years. In November the provider of the standard ECU will be finalised a year ahead of the closing date for entries for the 2010 season. By December 2008, Ratel will have his calendar and will present it to the FIA World Council.

“Basically the regulations are a mix of the basic initial proposal which was for GT3 cars, divided into two,” says Ratel. “They are a combination of GT2 and GT3 regulations. From GT3 we have kept two elements. One is the weight of the cars because we think the easiest way to save development costs is to have a higher minimum weight. The second point is the engine. If you control the electronic and mechanical reference, the FIA believes that it can control the power.

“To avoid the vast disparity of performance with GT3 we intend to have two power to weight ratios. In GT1 this has been lowered from our initial proposal 1300kg for 650bhp. This is now 600bhp for 1250kg. Then you come down to 1200kg for 560bhp, which makes GT really accessible. GT2 is something like 500bhp for 1200kg, and 460bhp for 1150kg. Those are the two points from GT3. Then you have coming from GT2 the rest, which is basically the written technical regulations.”

So what of the future? Having disagreed with Ratel, I have to present an alternative. He resolutely does not accept the option of having token flyaway races to fulfil the criteria for a World Championship of three continents. His idea is in for a penny, in for a pound. He knows more than I do about who is willing to spend money and what they want for it, but I disagree with him. He says that he has invitations from many circuits around the world and it can work. My guess is that if it does work, it will be for only a year or two before the promoters go bankrupt due to poor gate returns and inadequate interest due to a lack of time to educate.

My opinion is that there has to be a period of bedding in the idea of a World Championship with steady growth rather than an all-or-nothing approach. There has to be a massive drive to establishing the Championship as a household entity through the print and television media, be it paid for content or a must-have product for the television companies. The Championship has to have instant recognition, have appeal to draw in big crowds and attract big sponsorship from companies who can make a business case for supporting it outside Europe when the time comes. It has to have television contracts with terrestrial channels all over Europe in key countries, and start to attract tens of thousands to each race.

Drivers need to be as well known as the brands of Ferrari and Maserati. Each Formula One Grand Prix is an event and Ratel needs to create his own event- filled season that drips glamour, sex and money before expanding. Crowds standing at Eau Rouge watching Enge, Kox and Lammers in the Lamborghini, or Kumpen in the Saleen for example, will know what I mean. There is a lot more work to be done to attract investment before Ratel should think about going global. The ‘World’ title is not enough.

Andrew Cotton, August 2008