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The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get

Were you truly wafted here from Paradise?

Luton used to have such a nice airport. You used to be able to park opposite the terminal and walk across the road, check in, walk through a hole in the wall and there, in front of you, was the apron on which stood a plane. Passport control was a little fella sitting by a desk being extremely friendly and helpful if you accidentally forgot to lock your car and needed to pass back through security to make sure no one read the map in your glove box. Now, after the soon to be out-going American President, Paddington Bear, poked a large hornets’ nest with a stick then spent his second term running around in circles flailing his arms and screaming for help, those days are long past.

Today the airports are bigger and busier plus with the rise of budget airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet there are vast increases in passenger numbers and flights.  Now, from that little airport just off Junction 10 of the M1, you can fly to the US of A. This was an unheard of suggestion only ten years ago but thanks to Silverjet, you can fly to New York in a plane dedicated to business passengers. The flight to Transylvania predictably took off before sunrise, which provided moments of mirth at 5am on a spring morning, but the romance of international travel is slowly being strangled.

Landing at Milan Bergamo brought fresh disappointment, though still that sense of Italian joie de vivre. Years ago in Sicily, I drove past a policeman who was talking on his phone, drinking a coffee, and while he was driving slower than I was, he was still over the speed limit while looking for a packet of cigarettes. For the FIA GT Championship test session, the passport control officer was chatting on his mobile as two plane loads of travellers waited to pass through. He was joined, eventually, by another guard who turned out in immaculate uniform and waved nearly everyone through with barely a blink.

Yet, at the hire car desk, a sense of today’s timing hove into view. Having finally secured a car from Avis, we then had to catch a bus to collect it. This was stark contrast to the past, when the car would be parked in the perimeter hedge. That hedge is still there, but now borders an expanse of concrete on which busses are allowed to park. There were no busses there, nor was the bus for the hire car depot either for quite a while, though two lovers snogging outside the terminal pleased the ten year old friends on their first day of the holiday. The Italians are slow to change. “How was your Ferrari?” asked the Avis representative of the Fiat 16 I had for the day.

Stephane da Man.....
The timing of the media day could not have been worse, on the first weekend of the Formula One Grand Prix season and just two days before the opening round of the American Le Mans Series. Still, organiser and promoter Stephane Ratel is not one to do things conventionally. Now that he has gone down his route of a World Championship, independent of the desires of the manufacturers currently building GT cars, there is no turning back. “It is like every risk in business,” he says. “You are a success, or you are bankrupt. It is my championship, I will take the risk. My risk is to go global, worldwide and believe me, there are a lot of markets.”

His plan is to have a World Championship for privateers using new GT1 machinery. His logic is that no one is building new GT1 cars to the current regulations so someone has to write new ones. Might as well be him. For a man who counts Bernie Ecclestone as “the best business partner I ever had,” and who played host to Max Mosley and Jean-Claude Plassart in Le Mans earlier this year he reckons his credentials are up to scratch. “The general understanding is that there will be common GT rules,” says the ebullient Frenchman. “I have seen conference calls with the ACO agreeing on all the points, and now we have to stick with them.” So what of the ACO’s position that he needed to have the support of the manufacturers? “If I am able by December 2008 to present the calendars for the FIA GT2 European and FIA GT1 World Championships, then I am sure that will convince the manufacturers which are today criticising, to come in, because we will go to all their future markets and that is where the success will come from. If there is success. Once again, I can only try.”

But all the manufacturers are building cars to GT2 regulations, including Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, Dodge, Corvette…””Yes, and they will be in the FIA GT2 European Championship. That is it. What they want is not promotable and we clearly discussed it with the ACO and asked them; ‘do you want one class GT?’ and they said ‘no’. We have said many times that we cannot expect to promote on a world-wide basis and then turn up at Silverstone with the same grid that you will have in the British GT Championship. What they propose is the death of the FIA GT Championship, and I am not going to commit suicide.”

Entente Cordiale
Clearly, then, GT1 is going to be the top class. It is wanted by the FIA and the ACO, and Ratel believes that with his calendar, he can attract the manufacturers to race in developing markets. Yet there is still the question of money. How will private teams afford to go to San Luis in Argentina at the end of this year? They will be paid to go. Car, tickets, and a lump sum of not less than €10,000 per car were the figures reported in Italy. “The problem with transporting the Le Mans Series is that you have to transport 45 cars if you want to bring the whole show. That costs a fortune! If you take that where I want to be, with just 22 cars, or 24 maximum, then I am happy. You have the same amount of money and divide it between the teams and it is substantial. It is an attempt. If the ACO, through my guess of a World Championship, have four or five models that are running and well prepared, they will be happy to have them at Le Mans. If I fail, there will be one GT class. The GT1 class as it is, is dead. There are no new products coming. Either we do this new thing, or we fail together.”

Given this web site’s apparent new-found direction as bastions of ‘green’ racing, I thought it best to raise the issue with Ratel. The buzz at the Geneva motor show was all green, so how can the FIA GT Championship stipulate a top class with engines greater than 5.5 litres? “The biggest hypocrisy in the world is when you hear all of manufacturers producing cars at 1700 Euros, which will be sold by the million, and which are certainly not going to help the environment. You have to be realistic. You see in the same newspaper the eco-tax in London for the ladies driving their kids with the Range Rover, and in the same newspaper you read that they are producing millions of cars at Euro2000 per car.

“You tell me the view of the general public between a 5.0 litre Gallardo engine and a six litre Murcielago engine? You might as well stop GT racing because it is not environmentally friendly to race with four litres, five litres or six litres. It is eco-friendly to drive with a Fiat 500 which I do every day. Just look at the eco-tax in London. It is £25 whether you drive a Porsche 3.6 litre or you drive a Murcielago. It is the same thing. You need to drive a Fiat 500 my friend.”

GT4, GT5, GT6, GT7, GTzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Finally, I had to confess. In the Australian magazine Auto Action I had made Ratel one of my five villains of 2007 for his inexplicable introduction of GT4. We new have GT1, GT2, LMP1, LMP2, Le Mans Series, the American Le Mans Series and the Japanese Le Mans Series, GT3 and now GT4. What the hell is he doing?

“GT4 is not a failure. It is a club level series. We are in a sport where we don’t have many sponsors so we rely on private money and there is no shame in saying that. It has always been the same. The problem is that the potential in private money does not come immediately. You need a first step. Look at these little Astons. They drive, they enjoy, they learn, three years later they want to be in a GT3 or a GT2, and two years later they want to be in a GT2 or a GT1. Look at the progress. It is where I came from. If I told Rocky Augusta in St Moritz that we were going to do a prototype and race it at Daytona and everything, he would never have done it! We started with the Venturi Trophy, then he wanted to go to Le Mans, then he wanted to go on. Racing is a legal drug. It is a drug, for me, for you, as journalist, as promoter, as competitor. And if you go on heroin to start off, you are not going to do it. So what a dealer does is he starts you on marijuana, then you go on to something else and something else.”

Far out, man.

Andrew Cotton, March 2008