Reflecting on the first event of the Blancpain GT World Challenge America season at Circuit of The Americas – which also included the first Pirelli GT4 America rounds and opening of TC America’s season – SRO America President and CEO Greg Gill and SRO principal Stephane Ratel were pleased with what they saw and cautiously optimistic about the rest of the season ahead. Looking back at the on-track product at the closing race of 2018 at Watkins Glen, where a handful of GT3 cars took the start, it’s easy to see why.
“You can imagine when I came back from Watkins Glen last year, I was not sure I made the best investment in the world,” says Ratel, who last year added to his existing interest in WC Vision, the parent company of World Challenge, to take a controlling stake. “The event was really dull, the grids were extremely low, GT3 was on the edge of collapsing. Thanks to the teams, thanks to our customers, back to the manufacturers… we presented the plan and we listened to the customers, which was most important. We delivered the product which was a combination of our experience and what we heard from our paddock and it has worked.”
At COTA, the series had more than 20 GT3 entries, compared to 10 at the Glen at the end of 2018. Seven of those COTA entries are full Pro efforts committed to the season representing Porsche, Bentley, and Ferrari. Pro-Am and Am teams added entries from Acura, Mercedes-AMG and BMW. There are a few manufacturers missing from that list, including Audi, Nissan and Lamborghini, and Ratel notes the disparity in GT3 participation in the U.S. vs. Europe – more than 180 cars racing regularly vs. 30-something in the U.S. So, he says, there is certainly room for growth, although quite often the first event of the year attracts the largest entry. But as the series moves to a new, 90-minute format, unique to the North American version of Blancpain GT World Challenge, and word gets out about the product put on track at COTA, he hopes the series attracts more entries as the season goes on.
“We’re very pleased with the level of entries in all categories,” RAtel says. “But it’s a long season ahead and we’ll see how things develop. Now we need to deliver on the quality, and that’s what we’re really discussing with our teams. We really want to deliver a perfect event, so that everybody is happy, that there are no controversies. We had too many sporting controversies in the past. But I think if we deliver the event that we have to deliver and the customers are happy, they will continue with us and the grids can grow throughout the season.”
SRO spread the World Challenge name to all its GT3 Sprint series worldwide. And there is an international component to the competition as well; manufacturers can nominate drivers across the American, European and Asian series to garner points for them, creating a worldwide manufacturers championship. But while the 60-minute, two-driver SprintX format copied from those other series was initially incorporated into World Challenge GT, the American teams wanted more track time. SRO listened, and created the unique 90-minute format. That also serves to differentiate the GT3 series from GT4 and Touring Car, which were previously under one World Challenge umbrella. The push this season is to create a unique identity for each series.
“We’re particularly pleased with moving away from how people perceived the three series,” says Gill. “We never built it this way, but people perceived that there was a ladder system within our series: Touring Car, then GT4, then GT3. We really went out of our way to make it much more three boxes side by side. Certainly the pinnacle is GT3; it is the most expensive and most prestigious part of what we do. But GT4 now has an exciting format along with East and West series, and TC America allows us to compete in the Touring Car arena on the same weekends at key events. It can gain exposure and be its own identity vs. the stepchild or bottom-rung feeling it had before.”
“Now we have made three different products, which are different in communication, in branding, in everything,” adds Ratel. “We have the Blancpain GT World Challenge, we have the Pirelli GT4 America, and we have TC America. You won’t see a release where we talk about everything, We have three different products, and the leading product we have is the Blancpain GT World Challenge America and this is its special identity. It has more track time, it has longer races, and I think thats all what made the difference.”
Since that opening at COTA, Touring Car and Pirelli GT4 America Sprint had their own races at St. Petersburg. Before the next three-series weekend at Virginia International Raceway at the end of April, GT4 America West will have its second race of the year at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, accompanying the SRO’s Intercontinental GT Challenge California 8 Hour this weekend, and GT4 Sprint will race in front of the Indy car crowd at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. Each series also has its own format. Touring Car races, whether TCR and TCA or Touring Car groups, are 40-minute sprint races. GT4 America has four separate championships – SprintX national (60-minute, two-driver races), Sprint (50 minutes, single driver), and East and West championships, which also follow the SprintX format.
Of course, Blancpain GT World Challenge America, Pirelli GT4 America and TC America aren’t the only series in the U.S. where one can race a GT3, GT4 or TCR car. IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship features GT3 cars in its GT Daytona class; its Michelin Pilot Cup has categories for GT4 and TCR. So SRO America must differentiate its product not only with the sprint formats it follows, but also in the types of teams it wants in its championships.
“We’re customer racing,” emphasizes Ratel. “The manufacturers want to sell cars, and to me it’s clear that in the market between the one-make series such as the Ferrari Challenge and Porsche Cups and their price range, and IMSA, there is such a huge gap that there must be room in the market. The most striking thing was to look at the number of GT3 cars running in Europe – 180-something – and the number of cars running in America, 34. The market in size and wealth and interest is the same. We don’t intend to go immediately to 180 cars, but 90 GT3 cars within the next three years is an objective, and I think the manufacturers believe in it. Thats why especially Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes got behind it, pushing, and if we should succeed, I don’t see why we wouldn’t have big grids coming forward.”
COTA was a good indication that things are indeed moving forward. But the next full series show at VIR will likely tell the real story. How many teams that sampled the series for the first time at COTA return for a second round? How many new teams show up for VIR? How does GT4 America fare on the East Coast, and what does that indicate about the future of the national series and whether it maintains two different championships? The first race weekend of the new SRO America answered many questions; many more answers will be forthcoming as the season progresses.