The biggest news in the Pirelli World Challenge paddock at Long Beach last weekend was the confirmation that Stephane Ratel was named to the WC Vision and Pirelli World Challenge Board of Directors, as part of SRO Motorsports Group becoming a shareholder in WC Vision.
NBC Sports had the opportunity to catch up with Ratel and discuss his vision – no pun intended – for the future.
MST: I’m sure this has been a long time in the works. Now that it’s out, what are your immediate thoughts and reactions?
Stephane Ratel: “As I’ve said to a number of others, it was a long held ambition to do something in America, especially since I started with GT3 more than 10 years ago. Spoke to many people over the years about GT3. Some people I didn’t think would do it, did it. Pirelli World Challenge was a very step-by-step approach to fulfill potential of series, work with management and partners. I decided to go make this investment and to play an active role in trying to develop the series further.”
MST: Last year at St. Petersburg you were first introduced, and there’s obviously been a lot of evolution since then. Do you feel the series has improved?
Ratel: “The first evolution over the last couple years is that it is becoming a GT3-only series, which is important for SRO since we’re a global promoter for GT3 racing. The GTS category is also moving towards GT4. So it’s very much in line with what we’re doing. I see a real potential into expanding our business… similar to our model in Europe. It’s different here, but what makes success in Europe can be used to help promote and bring the Pirelli World Challenge forward.
“With Greg Gill, we have a very good relationship. He’s the right person for the job. It’s the right type of management, and hes’ good at talking with people. That’s exactly what we need.”
MST: Do you see the GTS class becoming GT4-spec only?
Ratel: “It’s just a contraction of interests merging the regulations. We’re not far off the pace. I’m sure the intention is to have one class. You’ve seen the new McLaren… we know a number of manufacturers are doing GT4 cars in next couple months. It’s logical that it might move that way.”
MST: How often will you be at PWC events?
Ratel: “I will be at every non-clashing event. I can’t be at Barber (next weekend) because I’m in Monza for Blancpain, but I’ll be back at Mosport and Lime Rock. I have to look after my investment now!”
MST: Balance of Performance is often a sore point but how do you feel the SRO BoP presence is helping PWC?
Ratel: “With SRO we have reached a critical mass, either with our own series in Europe, Blancpain GT, and then the work we do monitoring others, Australian GT, Pirelli World Challenge, there is a lot of monitoring for so many events. Claude (Surmont, SRO Technical Director) is almost on the road every weekend getting information.
“The problem most series have is only one series reference, so you miss balancing drivers and cars. No team will admit their driver isn’t up to it. So that creates a bit of confusion.
“The BoP made of so many cars, so many series, many of them are on Pirelli… so same cars, same tires, many different tracks and drivers, good performance on the car.
“I know before there was a lot of controversy in this paddock about BoP. I haven’t heard of it now. No one in the first three races have come to me and said this is not right.”
MST: In terms of scheduling, do you like PWC’s near-equal part with IndyCar, part standalone balance or would you like to see PWC move more towards standalones first?
Ratel: “This is something I very much like in this series. It’s a wonderful combination and I think it should remain like this.
“It wouldn’t be good to only be at IndyCar events, and having standalones is important… but so too is being at events as big as this one. I’m so impressed by Long Beach. I’ve never been. It’s such a huge event. I think for the teams, the drivers, to have events like this, and our timing… it’s much better this year (ahead of the IndyCar race).
“I would recommend if where we go, we get good times to compete. Look where you’ll get the best timing to compete.
“But it’s our job now to grow the standalones, with more promotion. The first one I’ve seen at COTA I was quite impressed. Good weather, good public, good event.”
The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.
To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.
“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.
“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?
“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.
“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”
The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.
The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.
Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.
“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”
The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.
With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).
“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.
“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”
On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.
Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.
His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.
Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.
“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.
“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.
“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”
But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.
“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.
“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.
“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”
Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.
“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.
“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”
Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.
“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.
“It’s pretty good.”
The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.
Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?
“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.
“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?