Stéphane Ratel conducted his annual SRO Motorsports Group press conference during the 2021 Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS finale at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya (8-10 October). Traditionally part of the TotalEnergies 24 Hours of Spa build-up, this year’s event took place later in the season to allow the full complement of calendars to be discussed.
Stéphane spoke about a variety of topics, such as the progress made during 2021, plans for the year ahead, and the future projects on which SRO Motorsports Group will focus its attention.
Australia joined Fanatec GT World Challenge Powered by AWS as the fourth continental series this year. How has the project developed?
This has been one of the ‘good news stories’ for 2021 and it has been achieved despite the obvious difficulties of Covid. It was an honour for SRO to be named co-organisers of Australian GT under the Fanatec GT World Challenge Australia Powered by AWS banner. Thanks to our Australian partners ARG we have seen promising grids, even with interstate travel restrictions having resulted in some events being cancelled, so I think we can be pleased with the early results.
SRO has also launched the Fanatec GT2 European Series this year. What is your assessment of the season and how do you see the championship evolving?
Honestly, the road was steeper than we first anticipated. Nevertheless, with 16 cars finishing the season and the exciting Brabham BT62 joining the grid, we have proven that the category has genuine potential. Driving in the series myself, I know that it’s a really good concept for true gentlemen drivers and that the price-to-performance ratio is correct. It was important to create a specific series for these cars and this type of driver. We hope to grow further next season and we are having conversations with new manufacturers about joining the field. It is worth remembering that we launched GT4 in 2007 and it became a real success in 2016. We do not anticipate GT2 taking this long, but we understand that patience is required.
Another project for 2021 has been the GT1 Sports Club, which launches this weekend at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. What was the inspiration behind this and, looking at the grid, can we say that it is a success?
It’s an old dream becoming reality and I’m excited to not only see it launch but to take part myself. The idea is that manufacturers are still producing unbelievable hyper sportscars designed specifically for the track. These would be the GT1 cars of today if the category had not vanished 10 years ago, but until now there was no opportunity for them to come together. We want to give the owners a chance to enjoy them in their natural environment and it’s also great promotion for Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS, as the cars will be displayed in the paddock and will have a short run before Sunday’s race. But above all this is a club: that’s the spirit in which it is being launched. There is no competitive element and it is not a traditional championship. The motivation is to showcase the technology in its natural setting.
This has also been the first year in which SRO has undertaken a full sustainability programme. How will this evolve?
We are really committed to the objective of being carbon neutral by 2023 and we now have an emission reduction plan in place. What we cannot reduce we will offset, and this cost will become part of the entry fee for teams. SRO has been very successful in bringing together great partners; if we want to keep them, we know that sustainability must be a central part of the company’s strategy.
Esports has also taken a big step forward in 2021 having initially become successful during last year’s Covid shutdown. How do you see this developing?
Firstly, I can tell you that I’ve been doing it myself! It’s a good way to prepare for my GT2 races and for the GT1 Sports Club this weekend (laughs). My last experience at Barcelona wasn’t ideal, so I’m glad to have the extra practice! Most importantly, our esports programme gives us visibility among a large community of global sim racers, which is the prime target of our championships. This year we also launched the Fanatec Esports GT Pro Series, which has been a big success and will continue in 2022. Going forward, I anticipate further integration between our sim community and real-world racing. This is what we will develop during the year ahead.
Le Vendôme 80 took place last month, setting off from Paris and travelling through the Loire Valley to the town of Vendôme. You participated in the rally; can you tell us about the idea behind it?
It was an extraordinary trip down memory lane, with around 50 exceptional cars produced during the eighties and participants dressed in the unique style of the decade. It is a different challenge for SRO and one that I am very happy we have undertaken. This was only the second such event and it proved to be a success. People like it and we can see that there is a market for it, so we will use the same concept for a series of events that run under the “Total Look Rallies” banner. The location and the time period will change, but the ethos will be the same.
Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli began its season at the TotalEnergies 24 Hours of Spa, with two more races to follow in the United States and South Africa. 2021 wasn’t easy with the travel restrictions between the continents. What is the status of the series as we look towards 2022?
Our priority is to maintain the races that we have and to return to them when possible. I can confirm that the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour will be back on the calendar in March 2022 subject to travel restrictions being eased by the time of the event, as is widely expected. We already know that Suzuka will not happen again next year, but we will stay focussed on what we have rather than trying to replace it. The good news is that the Indianapolis 8 Hour Powered by AWS has expanded from 22 cars in 2020 to more than 40 this year. That is simply fantastic growth and we can proudly say that this is the biggest GT-only race in America.
Speaking of America, it seems that 2021 has been a positive year for SRO across the Atlantic. Would you agree?
Yes, I think we can say that the excellent grid for Indy is directly tied to the progress made by SRO America. After a very difficult 2020, this had been a good comeback year for Fanatec GT World Challenge America Powered by AWS. Pirelli GT4 America has had another strong season and the TC America Series Powered by Skip Barber Racing School remains very important. The reintroduction of a single-driver GT America Powered by AWS with mixed machinery has been positive and the trip to Nashville went down very well with the paddock. SRO America has been our biggest investment in the past five years, so it is really gratifying to see it turning into a success.
The global Fanatec GT World Challenge Powered by AWS has also expanded this year.
That’s something that gives us great satisfaction. To go from two brands to seven in such a short space of time is fantastic and proves that this global project works. Initially, it was not easy to explain to manufacturers that they would put their name on something that is only in the hands of clients. But it’s a challenge between customer racing departments and the one that sells the most cars to the best teams will win. This year it has been very close between Mercedes-AMG and Lamborghini all around the world.
We are in Barcelona this weekend for the final round of Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS and the GT4 European Series, two of SRO’s longest-running championships. Are you happy with proceedings in Europe?
Yes, I believe we have maintained a high level. The Endurance Cup is extremely strong, even if the grid isn’t quite back to where it was in 2019. In the Sprint Cup we have our biggest grids since 2017, with up to 30 cars, so we can say that this is very healthy. As for the GT4 European Series, what an amazing comeback this has been, from 18 cars last year to more than 40 throughout 2021. Championnat de France FFSA GT remains exceptional and went through the pandemic unscathed, so there are clearly very strong foundations to our GT4 platform. We have seen FFSA Tourisme TC France launch this year and we are pleased that there is real interest in this category. Next weekend we conclude the Intelligent Money British GT Championship, which has suffered from the Covid situation but still remained strong. It has a good mix of GT3 and GT4 grids and is ready to bounce back.
We have seen the Am Cup disappear from Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS over the past two years. Is this an area that you are working on for 2022?
Absolutely, it has been a priority. In fact, we are awaiting feedback from the teams about a rethink of the driver categorisation, which we believe needs a complete overhaul. We have two categories – Platinum and Gold – covering the same drivers. Then there is a huge Silver class that runs from young professionals through to accomplished amateurs. They are two different kinds of driver, so that does not make sense. We propose the Gold class being for young drivers with a full single-seater career behind them while Silver should be for the best amateurs and some older competitors who have been downgraded. That was the aim from the beginning, but it drifted over time.
Would this require any changes to the class structure?
Yes, there would need to be some changes. We want to avoid the downgrading of Silver drivers to fit the Pro-Am class, which must remain for two Bronze drivers and a professional, by introducing a new class for a Gold or Platinum, a Silver, and a Bronze. This will be named the Gold Cup, bringing us back to the four categories we had before the Am class faded away. We are also considering mandating that each Pro car in the Sprint Cup runs at least one Gold or Silver driver, knowing that most current Gold drivers will be upgraded to Platinum in the SRO classification. This is already the case for most teams, so it would just be a case of making it official.
While the majority of series have been able to run full calendars this year, there were some postponements. How will these develop in 2022?
We missed Fanatec GT World Challenge Asia Powered by AWS again because the quarantines made it impossible for any series to operate across multiple territories in Asia. We are presenting a conservative 2022 calendar that begins around the summer, and we really hope that we can restart by then. Quarantines also contributed to the postponement of the FIA Motorsport Games. With travel restriction in place the grid would have been almost entirely European, perhaps with multiple cars from each. If we do that it’s just another race, so the decision was taken to postpone. All the work has already been completed and we are focussed on running next year at the same locations and on the same weekend as we had hoped to in 2021. It was a similar story for the FIA GT World Cup in Macau. We had 27 entries and were hopeful that the quarantine period would be reduced, but in fact it increased and that forced us to wait another year.
What is the status of the GT Experimental World Tour (GTX) that was first discussed in 2019?
It is making progress. The objective we are working towards is a new edition of Paris-Berlin, 122 years after it first ran 1901. GTX is about exposure, so the cars would be exhibited in seven cities along the way. Efficiency would be measured, both in terms of the car and the driving, and each day there would be two competitive stages. We would use small circuits at which noise is highly restricted, hillclimbs, rally stages and acceleration runs. The infrastructure would be fully electric and the ultimate goal would be to create a green environment. We have presented the idea to manufacturers and the first reactions have been positive but transforming that into an entry is different. Like everything SRO does the end goal is to create a customer racing environment, though to make it work we need the commitment of the manufacturers. To support this, we are looking to organise a prologue from Geneva to Monaco in summer 2022. Manufacturers would be invited to bring cars, but it would not be a competitive event: it would be about proving the concept.
Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of SRO’s involvement with GT racing. Are there plans to celebrate this milestone?
Time flies! We won’t stage a huge party like we did for the 25th anniversary in Paris, but the idea is still to do something special. We are planning an exceptional race that brings together cars from all the different series we have organised over the years. Working with Patrick Peter, the aim will be to have 60 cars on-track at Spa-Francorchamps, during the TotalEnergies 24 Hours of Spa build up. Can you imagine all of these cars joining the parade? The participants and others who have marked this period would also be invited to a special dinner and we will have a new edition of our GT Racing book that was first published in 2018.
That’s SRO’s heritage, but what are your goals for the years to come?
Firstly, to preserve the traditional form of racing that we have worked so hard to develop and which I firmly believe will continue to thrive. While 99% of road cars may use electric or hydrogen power, you will still have good old-fashioned engines going around race tracks. After all, horse racing and show jumping remain immensely popular more than a century after the arrival of the automobile. Alongside this we will move towards new technologies with the GTX Experimental, while also developing the FIA Motorsport Games, GT2 and our digital projects. These are the pillars that we will build upon.
GT World Challenge Asia
Fanatec GT World Challenge Asia Powered by AWS will return next season with a minimum five-round schedule that could ultimately increase to six events.
National and international restrictions have prevented SRO Motorsports Group from staging Asia’s biggest GT championship since 2019. However, the situation appears on course to improve sufficiently for events to take place safely by the middle of next year at the latest.
Nevertheless, the provisional calendar and potential additional round remain subject to travel restrictions lifting across most of the region.
The championship is scheduled to begin on July 15-17 at Suzuka, which forms the first half of a Japanese double header with Fuji. Both dates avoid Super GT clashes, making it easier for local GT3 teams and drivers to attend, while staging them over consecutive weekends for the first time reduces travel and logistical costs.
Next up it’s another mainstay of Asia’s calendar: Chang International Circuit in Thailand, which hosts rounds five and six on August 26-28. Cars and equipment subsequently head to Malaysia in time for Sepang three weeks later (September 16-18).
It’s hoped the season finale will, as ever, take place in China, although the venue and date remain TBC at this time. Nevertheless, both will be convenient for teams wishing to contest Macau’s prestigious standalone GT race, which traditionally takes place in mid-November.
A further two 60-minute races, held at Sepang, could be added to the schedule on May 20-22, while official pre-season testing at the same venue is also being evaluated. However, it’s unlikely a final decision will be made until further information is available early in the new year.
Regardless, Fanatec GT World Challenge Asia Powered by AWS will continue as a multi-class championship predominantly catering for GT3 and GT4 cars, while the requirement for each GT3 Pro-Am and Silver Cup crew to feature at least one Asian driver also remains unchanged.
Meanwhile, GT4 driver regulations presented in 2020 and 2021 will be introduced next year. The class’ traditional Am-Am crews benefit from a shorter minimum pitstop time than those in Silver-Am – a category first proposed two years ago. The same GT3 stipulation of each line-up featuring at least one Asian driver also applies to this sub class, while both Am-Am drivers must have been born or currently reside in Asia, Australia or New Zealand.
2022 will also be the first season to feature four Fanatec GT World Challenge Powered by AWS series on as many continents, all of which count towards a combined global Manufacturers’ Championship. Australia joined established series in Europe and America at the start of this year.
Provisional 2022 Fanatec GT World Challenge Asia Powered by AWS calendar
July 15-17 – Suzuka, Japan – 2x 1hr races
July 22-24 – Fuji, Japan – 2x 1hr races
August 26-28 – Chang, Thailand – 2x 1hr races
September 16-18 – Sepang, Malaysia – 2x 1hr races
October TBC – TBC, China – 2x 1hr races
Subject to confirmation
May 20-22 – Sepang, Malaysia – 2x 1hr races
Source. SRO Motorsports Group