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Behind the Title: Stephane Ratel, Pt. 1

A look at the rise of SRO founder and President Stephane Ratel…

Photo: Brecht Decancq

Photo: Brecht Decancq

He invented the GT1 and GT3 platforms, was a moving force behind the Pro-Am class structure and Balance of Performance and helped revive GT racing at a time when not many people believed in it. (En Français)

It’s impossible to list all of Stephane Ratel’s achievements in a single sentence, as the founder of the SRO Motorsports Group has been one of the most influential figures in the sports car racing world.

In the last two decades, Ratel has reinvented modern-day GT racing, with the launch of numerous successful championships, including the Blancpain Endurance Series, which holds its premier event, the Total 24 Hours of Spa, this weekend.

Ratel is the focus of the latest “Behind the Title” feature, which explores the rise of key executives within the sports car racing industry.

When did your passion for motorsport begin?

“As strange as it may seem, the first race that I went to, I organized it. [Motorsports] wasn’t in my family genes. Once my driver’s license was in my pocket, I drove a Golf GTI before getting a Porsche 911 SC purchased from Jacques Tropenat, who today is medical delegate for the FIA.

“At the time I was buying the car, I noticed photos of the Porsche on the circuit. I asked Jacques to take me to the Porsche Club of France, where I became the youngest member at the age of 19. I then drove without any ambition, just for fun!

“I then received the documentation of the Porsche 944 Cup but I didn’t have the means to race. Time passed and I went into the [French] army as an intelligence officer in a squadron of the Air Force and then to the United States to finish my studies in San Diego.”

It was there where you got the idea of working in the automotive industry?

“Arriving in California, I immediately discovered there was a market for European sports cars, which were imported into the U.S. and sold for 35 to 50 percent cheaper than in Europe. It was a small niche but a profitable one.

“At that time, I was a student and bringing those cars to Europe allowed me to win my first money, especially since we were in the late 80s, when there was a speculative bubble in sports cars and collector cars. The prices increased from boarding the container in Los Angeles and when I picked them up in Rotterdam or Antwerp.

“But the inevitable happened in the early 90s when the bubble burst and the market collapsed. I found myself with lots of cars that were worth much more and a lot of friends whom had become customers and clients.

“One of them had an address book even more beautiful than mine and with a group of friends, we had the idea of starting a Cannonball Run that would run from Paris to St. Tropez via St Etienne. There were about 20 cars and most of my clients at the time had made the trip. We organized a dinner in Paris at the end.

“I finished second at the wheel of a Ferrari Testarossa, arriving at the port of St. Tropez 80 seconds behind a Lamborghini Countach, which won the informal contest.

“Everyone was wowed by this initiative and wanted it to continue but one of my friends told me it was dangerous, not really legal and we better find ourselves on a circuit the next time.”

The adventure then began with Venturi?

“The father of a friend, seduced by the idea of circuit racing, suggested I talk to the people at Venturi, whom he had been in contact with and the company was in a time of crisis. I went to Coueron to meet the friendly Venturi team.

“At the time, no GT was really capable of motorsport, with the exception of Porsche. Venturi offered to create a special car for the “Gentlemen Drivers Trophy” again, a fairly unique concept I had in mind, having realized that many wealthy enough amateurs and sports car enthusiasts would be willing to race if they were offered a turn-key formula with powerful and beautiful GT cars.

“I then had the opportunity to present the project to Didier Primat, the owner of the Primwest brand and father of Harold, who races today in the Blancpain GT Series. He accepted the idea and created the Venturi Competition, which I headed up.

“In addition to the organizational and commercial part, I was also associated with the technical development of the Venturi 400 Trophy, going to the point of me being a test driver on numerous occasions.”

The concept took off?

“The initial goal was to sell 24, starting from a marketing presentation in January 1992 at the prestigious Palace Hotel in St. Moritz. It was actually my first public speech and 30 cars were ordered by the first evening. The 31st car was sold the next morning to someone who lived in Israel and had attended the presentation by chance.

“At the same time, Venturi’s objective was to go into Formula One, which was achieved by the recovering Larousse team, then powered by Lamborghini. A joint Venturi Larousse F1 and Venturi Trophy presentation was held at the auto museum in Pantin in the presence of a number of businessmen and people from the industry.

“This is where the unlikely meeting of the two worlds that created the magic of the “Gentlemen Drivers Trophy by Cartier” named after receiving the support of the prestigious jeweler. The same customer then contributed significantly into the revival of GT.

“In the end, more than 70 Venturi Trophy cars were sold. It was a real hit.”

Look for Part 2 of “Behind the Title” tomorrow… 

Laurent Mercier (@LaurentMercier2) is the Editor-in-Chief of Endurance-Info.com, the leading French-language source for the latest sports car racing news from around the world.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Bob

    July 22, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    Just being a racing fan, I’ve been thankful for Mr. Ratel for almost 20 years. Unfortunately, his work has a disconnect from the USA (until recent years). Very important man in GT racing. Was he involved in the FIA GT series? I drove to Sebring from Ohio just to see the FIA GT races. Loved his GT1 series.
    I never heard of a Venturi car. Just Googled them. Decent looking. I see about 6 different cars in that car’s design: M1, 348, F40, Supra…..2 others I can’t place my finger on.

  2. Anthony Thomas (@djfourmoney)

    July 22, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    I have been an ardent supporter of Mr. Ratel since his BPR series, which came after his Venturi series.

    Bob – You have drive the Venturi in one of the GT games, I believe it’s GT4.

    Like most European OEM’s they have F1 on the brain and it and other decisions bankrupt the company.

    Anyway his BPR series was the foundation for today’s various national and pan-European GT series.

    He didn’t have the impact in the US until recently because American refused to embrace GT racing; at least not since the mid to late 70’s.

    His connection with PWC has potential but IMSA finally allowing for full spec GT3 cars adds another element to the US story. GT3 cars are generally raced in an shorten endurance format (3 hours) or a sprint format (BSS = 1 hour, GT Open = 70 mins). Teams will cross pollinate similar to many teams running both the BES and BSS.

    This will increase GT3 sales in America. I expect the grids in PWC and IMSA GTD to grow quite a bit in size with more direct factory involvement.

    I look forward to the second part of this interview.

  3. Jason

    July 22, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    Ratel is the man! I love their online TV coverage too. John Watson is one of my favorites now. GT cars rock. Prototypes druel.

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