Pirelli World Challenge has been in the headlines as of late, not just for its racing on the track but also for a series of initiatives made behind the scenes and in the competition department that now has many people taking notice, both in North America and abroad.
In one of the biggest industry moves of the year, WC Vision announced earlier this month that SRO Motorsports Group and its founder/CEO Stephane Ratel have become a shareholder of the company, with Ratel also being elected to WC Vision’s Board of Directors.
And just this week, it was revealed that PWC’s GTS class is set for significant changes beginning next year, which will see the integration of SRO’s emerging GT4 platform that will eventually become full GT4-spec, expected by the 2018 season.
That means in 18 months from now, PWC will be fully integrated into SRO’s global GT architecture of FIA GT3 and GT4 regulations, exclusively, in its two premier classes.
Compared to where the series was a mere five years ago, with largely home-grown GT and touring car machinery, the latest developments mark a paradigm shift not only in the sporting structure but its global vision for the future.
Bringing Ratel into the mix — the brainchild of the GT3 and GT4 platforms — puts PWC at a strategic advantage in the industry. It also gives SRO its much-desired first entry into the all-important North American market, which it had been attempting to break into for years.
The Frenchman, who spent his college years in San Diego importing European sports cars, has always held America close to his heart. Yet, other than a handful of rounds of the FIA GT Championship in the late-90s, Ratel has not had any sort of U.S. presence until now.
SRO’s new Intercontinental GT Challenge, which encompasses endurance races at Bathurst, Spa and Sepang, was due to host a round at Circuit of The Americas in March, alongside the PWC season-opener, but was canceled due to lack of entries.
Now with a financial interest in PWC — exact numbers have not been disclosed but he admitted he’s not a “backseat partner” — Ratel is expected to play a key role in the evolution of the series, which has quickly grown up from its club racing roots some 25 years ago.
One of the biggest assets Ratel can bring to the table is manufacturer support. His Blancpain GT Series sees direct involvement from a dozen different GT3 manufacturers, with more than half running factory or works-supported programs in the series.
While PWC already boasts a significant contingent of automakers on the grid, including manufacturer programs from Cadillac, Bentley and Nissan, SRO’s influence in the GT world can potentially help drive even more OEM content and activation.
From a technical standpoint, SRO has already has a strong presence in the paddock, with the series having adopted its Balance of Performance system for the GT and GTS classes, and PWC competition director Marcus Haselgrove working alongside SRO technical director Claude Surmount.
The same has been the case for the company’s two leaders, Ratel and WC Vision President/CEO Greg Gill, who were joined by the hip at last month’s season opener in COTA, in what served as a clue of what was to come.
Former marketing executive Gill, who took over the reigns of the series following a challenging 2015 season under previous leadership, has made significant headway with improving competitor and manufacturer relations in his short time running the series.
Unlike other CEOs in the motorsports world where egos can sometimes get in the way, Gill has taken about his job humbly, fully realizing the gains the series, as a whole, can benefit from by bringing in someone of Ratel’s caliber and expertise.
While SRO’s influence will not be seen overnight, a series of recent changes can potentially point to where PWC could be headed in the years to come.
The adoption of full GT4-spec machinery into its GTS class by 2018 could perhaps be one of the biggest moves, especially when looking at the situation on the global scale.
As GT3 costs continue to escalate, more teams and manufacturers have looked to GT4 as an affordable alternative. Grids have swelled in both the British GT Championship and GT4 European Series, which is now back under SRO control.
Manufacturers such as Aston Martin, Lotus, Ginetta and KTM are already on the grid with cars. McLaren recently announced plans to build a GT4 car, while work is underway on GT4-spec versions of the Ford Shelby GT350R and Chevrolet Camaro Z.28.
Audi is even looking to enter the market, potentially with a variant of its TT Cup car, as an expansion of its highly successful customer racing department which brought the first mass-produced GT3 car, the Audi R8 LMS.
In the matter of a few years, GT4 could become what GT3 was some five years ago, in offering a cost-effective option to race in the GT arena.
PWC’s new Sprint X Series, which launches next month at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, could also benefit from SRO’s influence.
While initially encompassing GTS and Cup class cars in addition to GT3 machinery, Sprint X largely mirrors the format currently seen in the Blancpain Sprint Cup, which saw a record 40 GT3 entries at its season opener at Misano earlier this month.
With six 60-minute races held over a total of three weekends at existing PWC events, this year’s pilot series could potentially pave the way for further growth in the GT3 and GT4 car market, as competitors look towards more affordable ways to go racing.
Then there’s also the global scene, with SRO’s Intercontinental GT Challenge, which Ratel has pledged to have a U.S. round in 2017, following this year’s false start at COTA. A five-round calendar, encompassing races on five continents, is planned for 2018.
Could WC Vision and/or PWC play a role in this arena? Gill has been quoted before in saying he wants to put the “World” back in World Challenge…
The landscape in sports car racing has undoubtedly changed in the last five years, and it will continue to evolve. But with a recent series of strategic moves made by WC Vision, PWC could end up being one of the biggest winners of them all.
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