How GT3 conquered the world and tempted in vital manufacturers
While the very top of the sports cars pyramid scrabbles around insisting everything is fine, despite one of its three manufacturers pulling the plug, GT3 is flying – and has been for years.
The difference, and the key to the category’s stability, is the simple fact that manufacturers are not at its core. They’re important, but not its heart.
“GT3 is customer racing, with some manufacturers using it for marketing purposes in some regions,” says the man behind it all, Stéphane Ratel. “It has to remain that way and, as long as we control it, and I’m playing a bit of a ‘guardian of the temple’ role, we can have long-term success. When you rely on manufacturer involvement you are always fragile.”
GT3 essentially was born out of Ratel’s Lamborghini Super Trofeo, which was on the undercard to Ratel, Jürgen Barth and Patrick Peter’s FIA GT Championship in the late ’90s. “I could see that the performance difference was minimal,” he says, “but the cost difference was huge.”
Ironically, the car that eventually killed the GT1 category gave Ratel the belief that multiple cars, engines and layouts could be raced together. That car was the Maserati MC12, and the resultant and now dirty term ‘balance of performance’ entered the sporting world and saved the car from being banned – “We wanted to outlaw it but it was Maserati, it was Ferrari, it was Jean Todt; it was politically complicated.”
Some 45 models have since been homologated for competition by Ratel’s own SRO, having in 2006 persuaded the FIA to allow a third party to homologate cars rather than the manufacturers themselves. It has grown to be quite a collection, with
a backbone of big factory projects running through it.
It’s also changed the way the biggest car manufacturers go racing. “Apart from Porsche and Ferrari, most of the manufacturers didn’t even know what customer racing was or were completely against it. There was a time when former team boss Norbert Haug used to say ‘The only Mercedes that are raced are raced by Mercedes.’
“The magic of GT3 today is that it’s completely different from the old way manufacturers went racing. Now a motor sport boss goes to his board and can say, ‘We need £5m to develop a programme, and if I sell 20, 50, 100 cars I will pay back the money.’ They then have these cars running across the world, and the marketing department says ‘We’re interested in Australia’ and they’ll back an entry for the race. So you have marketing money coming from one manufacturer in Australia, or one manufacturer in America, or one in Europe, for a specific market and for a specific programme. It gives manufacturers total flexibility. They get a programme that they can reinforce where they want to do it.”
Factory involvement for Aston Martin goes further, but in the opposite direction: to the street. Racing plays a vital role, according to AMR head John Gaw. “We go racing for Aston Martin to win, and it’s important the car looks like a road car. It’s a good marketing tool. For Aston there are three core things: one is James Bond, one is being British, and the other is racing.
“The crossover between road and race cars is increasing. It has influenced Aston’s product line-up and there is crossover between our design teams discussing the best way to move the road cars forward and the best way to access performance on the race cars.”
Control, or more specifically SRO’s control, has been vital tor the category’s success, and that is something the manufacturers know and understand. “Fundamentally it’s still a balanced formula,” says Andy Williamson, who runs Aston Martin’s customer racing division. “You can invest your money wherever you like but it always comes back to balanced set-up.”
Ratel: “Everyone is welcome in GT3, so long as they respect the GT3 spirit and philosophy. If we let that slip and step away the category will collapse like many of the others.”
Aston Martin holds the honour of the first factory-produced homologated GT3 car, the DBRS9. Its successor is the current Vantage, homologated in 2012 and still winning championships today, and likely to continue until 2019 when its homologation expires. “That was always our commitment to the customers, we don’t want to force customers who want to race Aston Martins to part unnecessarily with the money when they can still race the current car and win,” says Williamson.
Gaw adds, “The Vantage’s total upgrade costs over seven years is going to be £25,000-30,000. So, it’s the most cost-effective car on the market.”
Come 2019, Aston Martin will be the last of the manufacturers to switch to the ‘next-generation’ GT3 machines, and drivers and teams will be forced to shell out for a new car to continue competing.
But, according to Ratel, GT3’s cost aren’t rising as quickly as GT3’s popularity. “The usual talk is ‘GT3 is now too expensive’, but it’s not true. People have a tendency to look at cars that were developed privately and not capable of completing a 24-hour race to now; you have to compare apple and apple. The Aston Martin DBRS9 was €300,000 in 2006. Ten years later and an Aston would be €400,000. Most of the cars sold are in the bracket of €360/370/390,000.”
The end result is a category with more manufacturers represented than any other; the Bathurst top 10 shoot-out had seven different marques battling it out, and packed grids. And now, as Ratel points out, manufacturers don’t even hesitate to build a GT3, it’s a given. And the fans have followed, to create a stable but growing worldwide beast.
“When you add every picture, all of the footage, TV coverage, streams, a very simple calculation is to look at your footprint. Facebook fans, when you look at series like Le Mans and WEC, DTM, IMSA, then you look at the fans when you total the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, 24 Hours of Spa, Blancpain, the Pirelli World Challenge, all the races and series where GT3 wins overall – it’s massive in many different markets. Look at the gates at Spa and Nürburgring and Bathurst. These are big events that get a lot of coverage. It’s no secret. It’ll probably get to the stage where all manufacturers bar Rolls-Royce will produce GT3 cars.”