15 minutes of fame: Venturi; 1994 Montlhéry 1000Km
It began with a game for bored playboys and ended by bringing a French racing legend his final international victory. Gary Wwatkins tells the story.
No-one could have predicted that an unauthorised 'cannonball run' through France would lead to the final international victory of Henri Pescarolo's illustrious career. But when a group of Parisian rich kids jumped in their Ferraris to race down to St Tropez, they were setting in motion the wheels that would put a little French supercar builder on the front pages of French sports daily L'Equipe, courtesy of the four-time winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Venturi was barely known in France, let alone elsewhere in the world, when Stéphane Ratel, a wealthy 28-year-old who dabbled in the exotic car market, went knocking on its door to see if it would build him a one-make racer. His friends wanted to repeat the cannonball game, but Ratel, the 'organiser' wasn't quite so keen. "I was thinking that I was lucky I wasn't in jail," he recalls, "so I said that the next year I would organise a day on a racetrack."
One of Ratel's friends happened to work for the group of which Venturi was a part. Hence the trip to its factory down in Nantes near the Atlantic coast. With the sportscar market in the grip of recession, the company was keen to help out.
A turbocharger was slapped on the Renault V6 which powered its staple product, and the styling tweaked with a nod to the Ferrari F40. The result was put on display at The Palace Hotel in St Moritz in January 1992, with startling results. "It was amazing," recalls Ratel. "I sold 55 in one evening."
More than 70 cars were built for the inaugural Venturi Gentleman's Trophy and many of the drivers who took part, most of them new to racing, decided that they wanted to compete at a higher level. So Ratel went back to Nantes with his ideas before returning to St Moritz with a full-house GT1 racer, the 500LM. This time he sold seven cars, all of which turned up for the 1993 Le Mans 24 Hours.
"Then my clients said, 'Now what are we going to do with our cars?'," explains Ratel. The answer was simple: create a series for them.
After a pilot race at Paul Ricard in late 1993, Ratel linked up with Porsche's Jürgen Barth and Patrick Peter to create the BPR Organisation and the International GT Endurance Series. Peter had come on board because, after successfully reviving the Tour de France Auto, he now wanted to do the same for the 1000Km of Paris at Montlhéry.
Venturi had already claimed a first international victory when the series visited Dijon at the beginning of May, courtesy of Michel Ferté and Michel Neugarten in their Jacadi/Pilot Racing car, updated to 1994 600LM specification. Four weeks later, on a bumpy Montlhéry which incorporated the better part of the 1920s oval, a brand new 600 owned by former touring car driver Jean-Claude Basso swelled the Venturi ranks. He had invited living legend Pescarolo to share the car.
The five 600LMs entered all qualified in the top six, the only interloper being an F40. One by one the faster machinery hit trouble, while the experienced Pescarolo and Basso nursed their mount through a seven-and-a-half-hour marathon to win by a lap.
It was an unlikely victory for a car which many considered too fragile for this most inhospitable of racing environments. Pescarolo's cautious approach certainly played a part. "If we want to finish, we have to be very gentle," he said during the event. "You have to drive this race like Le Mans."
But 10 years on, he puts the victory down to the fact that Basso's car was brand-new. Ratel agrees. "The Venturi," he reckons, "aged very quickly."
A win for Pescarolo, an icon in France, made the headlines, not least because his victory came 25 years on from his triumph in the previous 1000Km at Montlhéry. Venturi did win again, at Spa in July, but by the end of the year the company had changed hands and Ratel had fallen out with its new owner. With McLaren on its way into GT racing with the F1 GTR, Venturi had enjoyed its day in the sun.