Stephane "because I am worth it" Ratel
Pie man Squared
Stephane Ratel is a man with his fingers in so many pies he never has need of
gloves. The 40-year-old, regarded as the playboy of the BPR series in the 1990s,
now has a controlling role in the FIA GT Championship, the French and British GT
Championships, the Le Mans Endurance Series, has developed the Spa 24-
hours into one of the premier GT races in the world, and is one of the few men to
be blessed and trusted by both the FIA and the ACO in equal measure. One of the
few championships not to flourish under his guidance was the FIA Sports Car
Championship, which was terminally ill when he inherited it, and has since been
replaced by the LMES with infinitely more potential.
Hommez in da Hood
Ratel's growth in stature over the past ten years has been a very weird journey.
Ratel had already developed a relationship with French manufacturer Venturi after
organising an ad-hoc Cannonball Run from Paris to St Tropez to spice up a
house warming party. He and his equally flamboyant friends raced everything
from Lamborghinis to Ferraris through the streets, and it wasn't until a couple of
months later, and some press coverage, that he decided that any kind of repeat
on public roads would wind him up in jail.
Dreaming Dream Cars
Venturi contacted Ratel and offered to provide cars for the track for himself and
his friends to race in safety. His history with spectacular endurance cars, born in
1984 when he became the youngest member of Porsche Club France racing a
911SC and later a Carrera 2.7RS, was nourished. He, Jurgen Barth and Patrick
Peter, had a vision to start racing 'dream cars', everything from BMWs and
McLarens to Morgans and Venturis. The BPR organisation was formed and
enjoyed its first competitive year in 1994.
Ratel was considered the playboy of the three, having been born on the southern
French coast in Perpignan on July 23, 1963. The youngest by some margin, the
richest by some margin too, he had been brought up in Cambodia and France
before settling in his home country, in Paris, during his teenage and university
years. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows him that he developed a
love of skateboarding and surfing during his formative years.
Air Force One
In 1985 he started collecting and racing classic cars in club events, including a
Ferrari BB 512, Lamborghini Countach and a Porsche Carrera 3 litre RS. The
following year he served as a lieutenant in the French air force before heading off
to San Diego University to study International Business. He returned to Europe
with a job in London's fashion industry in 1989 and stayed for two years before his
move to Paris, and that now famous house-warming party.
The BPR series turned from a well-run, privately managed organisation firing off
50 cars at nearly every race in 1996, into the FIA GT Championship in 1997 at
which point something completely unexpected happened. Peter, the quiet,
thoughtful one of the three, tried to take the FIA to court and was eventually paid
off. He has since climbed into bed with the ACO and started the Le Mans historic
series as well as running the Tour Auto. Barth, Porsche's representative, did not
take the lead either and instead took a role in the SRO organisation. It was the
rich kid, the one with the bouffant who joked about his time in the London fashion
industry that "it is one of the few businesses in England where you can keep your
hair long and drive exotic cars!" who took over.
The man didn't look like he could manage a hairspray canister, let alone an
international championship. What was going on? It surely spelled the end.
Porsche, McLaren, BMW and Mercedes made the championship very huge, very
quickly, and all it took was for one slight problem (Porsche being unable to beat
Mercedes anywhere bar Le Mans and inconsistencies in rule interpretation by the
FIA), to bring the whole pack of cards tumbling down.
I Certainly was in the Right
Ratel looked a fool. The glory boy had succumbed to the lure and bright lights of
manufacturers and was shown to have done so publicly. Far from giving up, as a
rich-kid would be expected to do, he gathered up his forces, ploughed on with the
championship, announced some far-fetched fantasies about people
homologating their own cars, secured a three-year deal with television company
Eurosport, which did not have the greatest of reputations at the time, and blew
gently on the smouldering embers of his series. From GT1 and GT2, to just GT2,
to GT2 and N-GT, the championship looked to be in a downward spiral but events
of the past three years have proven the doubters wrong. From the smouldering
ashes of 1999 he has built up the biggest race events in Europe outside of
Formula One. Grids, TV and even spectators are all in evidence reversing the
trends experienced by others.
The success of the European Touring Car Championship, the Formula Renault
V6 Championship, the FIA GT and French GT Championships would have been
enough to restore his reputation, but there was more to come. As he celebrated
his 40th birthday, Ratel was also becoming embroiled in the Le Mans Endurance
Series, a new and better championship than the FIA Sports Car Championship
whose death he had presided over.
Have you got a Light, Mac?
The ACO blessed the LMES and have provided funds, missing from the
European Le Mans Series. The ELMS was ridiculed at the start, grew in stature,
and was killed off at precisely the wrong moment, just as teams were looking at
second and third years, sponsorship for the series had been secured, and
momentum was being established. A second year for ELMS would have yielded
what we are looking at for 2004 with the LMES.
Build it and They will Come
In November 2003, Ratel also opened negotiations to restore the British GT
Championship and intends on introducing similar regulations to that of his
French series. Ferrari, Saleen, Chrysler and Lister are all in the frame to join in
the national championships which are seen by some international teams as a
viable alternative to the FIA series. "I want to build GT racing," said Ratel to British
paper Motorsport News. "If you start with the national teams, then when they have
the budget they can come and do the international series. I want to build the
package and then the championship will grow."
Two races have been added to the FIA GT Championship schedule in Dubai and
China, which has a three-year deal. In 2005, more races outside Europe will be
incorporated. The rich kid with the hair is going global.