Racing In Europe - Where's It Going?

Stephane Ratel receives a 'right going over' in Autosport this week (October 26 issue): the magazine’s sportscar / GT reporter Gary Watkins didn’t cover the Laguna Seca ALMS race, which presumably left him ample time to delve into the future of the FIA GT Championship.

In some ways Stephane Ratel deserves a degree of sympathy: the split from the WTCC at the end of the 2005 season left him with a calendar to fill, problems over race lengths and a new TV deal to find.

But doesn’t ‘Mr. FIA GT’ bring some of the problems upon himself? If there’s one aspect of the FIA GT Championship that has been lacking since the end of the GT1 era, it’s a consistent vision of what the future should hold.

Month by month, the story in Autosport has swung from one temporary vision to another. If anyone had a collection of the magazine from the last two or three years, you might be able to assemble a pendulum of views expressed by Stephane Ratel, on where the series is heading at any one time.

Case in point: the magazine this week includes the tale that “a new class for amateur drivers should be introduced for next year’s FIA GT Championship, to help boost entries in the class”. But it wasn’t so long ago that the gentlemen were being eased out, and all pro line-ups were the in-thing.

Much of a two page spread this week revolves around where the Championship is heading in 2008, with Gary Watkins making the point that “Stephane Ratel is pressing on with plans for a World GT Championship in 2008 despite fierce resistance from his own teams”.

But wasn’t that the plan for 2007 – a World GT Championship? Instead we have five new circuits for 2007 (so five 2006 tracks dropped) and no sign of a trip to South America, because “the race promoters and I were not able to meet their (the teams’) financial requirements,” says Ratel. The teams apparently wanted all the extra costs of these events covered (extra costs compared to a European race).

So no World GT1 Championship in 2007, and to be frank, you’d have to believe that running such a thing in 2008 looks unlikely.

We’ll leave you to find out what Michael Bartels said in Autosport regarding the series’ visibility – but where is the sense in not trying to bring some continuity to the calendar year on year? Fans who went to half the tracks this year won’t be able to return next year.

Yet Michael Bartels points out that “we need big events with big crowds. That will attract the interest of manufacturers”.

Events become big events thanks to a number of features: a regular place in the calendar helps, while a concerted effort to entice fans through the gate (promotion) and making sure they enjoy the event and come back will help an event grow year on year. The Spa 24 Hours, which had a good starting point (it’s been run in one form or another for years) is one example (although the commentary for that race is sadly lacking), while Petit Le Mans saw a 53% increase in advance ticket sales this year.

Meanwhile, the FIA GT Championship has only three events taking place at the same time and place next year as this (Silverstone, Oschersleben and Spa).

If it becomes a World Championship in 2008, logically some of the 2007 events will have to be dropped – so what’s the point in promoting them anyway? A related issue is that it’s not satisfactory to suggest that once the manufacturers come, they’ll look after the promotion. The promotion of an event should be a guaranteed requirement, with each party concerned benefiting from increased crowd numbers.

It is frustrating, sitting in this chair, wondering what the grand plan is this week / month / year.

Meanwhile (and here comes a real rant), how about this for a tale of .. well, an absolute failure to keep the public happy, and to ensure they don’t come back. At the Le Mans Series race at Donington Park, some pals of one of the drivers sent him a text message two hours into the race to report that “we can’t follow what’s going on so we’re going home to watch it on TV.”

So will that group ever return as spectators? Ironically, Donington Park Radio carried the commentary (for those within a mile or two of the track) – but any first-timers wouldn’t have known that.

So dsc’s first rule for keeping fans happy at endurance races is to cover every event with live commentary by public address (a given anyway) – and also by sending it out over the web, a la ALMS Radio Web. It will build…

Final rant: how does Autosport explain a two-page spread on the future of the FIA GT Championship, but in the same issue the ALMS event from Laguna Seca receives just half a page of text? If your market is (was?) sportscar fans, they want news and in-depth race coverage, don’t they?

From Autosport's report: "The Ferrari 360 of Mika Salo and Rui Aguas took the race win." No it didn't! It was a 430, and Stephane Ortelli was driving with Salo!

Ironically, on the page (a whole page) opposite the Laguna Seca report is a ‘Congratulations’ spread recognising the achievements of Allan McNish and Dindo Capello in the ALMS this year. Unfortunately, the pair of them look as though they’ve been under a sun lamp for about 12 hours! Oh, and there are 11 pages of sportcar-related advertising in the magazine this week: are the advertisers being served by the race coverage?
Malcolm Cracknell


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