It was doubly misfortunate that last week’s fourth round of the Michelin GT3 Le Mans Cup at Paul Ricard should find itself in direct competition with the Blancpain Sprint Cup qualifying race at the Hungaroring. Held after ELMS qualifying late on Saturday afternoon as the 34-car Blancpain field embarked on its one-hour thrash, the ACO’s new pretender to the king of the GT3 hill, with 13 cars in attendance (incidentally, three more than at Imola and the Red Bull Ring), was always going to be a tough sell for fans choosing which race to follow. But most of all, the shared time-slot encouraged unfavourable comparisons between the two, which miss the point entirely.
Where the Blancpain GT Series is largely a theatre for manufacturers and young professionals looking to make a name for themselves, the GT3 Le Mans Cup has set out its stall as a Pro-Am championship, putting it into competition with national series such as British GT and the International GT Open championship.
“It’s an equivalent of what we have in British GT but on a European scale,” says TF Sport boss Tom Ferrier, who runs Euan Hankey and Salih Yoluc. “It’s somewhere in the middle of them all in terms of the 2 hour races, whereas GT Open is two lots of 70 minutes, then British GT has an hour race format, two hour race formats and one three hour race as well.
— TF Sport (@OfficialTFSport) August 27, 2016
“It’s nice in that it’s catered for the amateur drivers slightly more than any of the other championships with the Bronze only doing the qualifying – all in all I’ve been really impressed with what they’ve done so far. They look after you well, it’s very professionally done in terms of everything from your fuel and catering ordering to all the PR bits they put behind it, like press conferences for the top three drivers which is a nice thing for your gentleman drivers to do.”
Ferrier isn’t the only one to be impressed. 24H Series regular Flick Haigh made her category debut alongside Joe Osborne in an Optimum Motorsport Audi and thoroughly enjoyed her first experience of short-format racing in GT3, finishing fourth.
“I haven’t really raced in anything comparable to it, so it’s difficult for me to say it’s much better than this or that, but I was impressed with it as a package,” she said. “It’s incredibly professional and very well-run considering it’s their first year, the briefings were great, the race went without a hiccup and the driving standards I was really impressed with as well – they don’t take any nonsense from anybody and penalties were given out if there were any issues, it was all very slick. They’ve obviously put a lot of thought into it and they’ve aimed it at the right market at the right time.”
— Joe Osborne (@osbornejoe) August 27, 2016
“It’s just an easy weekend, with SRO the whole signing on process takes literally hours and on a typical day you’re there from 7:30 in the morning until 6pm at night,” added Richard Abra, who finished sixth alongside Mark Poole in a Barwell Lamborghini. “The ACO have thought about that a bit better and understand in a Pro-Am series the gent is paying all the money, so they should get the championship designed around them.”
Of course, the ACO know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to organising championships and have plenty of experience to fall back on from running the WEC and ELMS, which many other start-up series lack. With a bumper €100,000 prize fund and the added bonus of an entry to the Le Mans 24 Hours in GTE-Am for the champion, there’s plenty of incentive to take part, so why have numbers been so low?
“I’ve got to say I was surprised because I don’t see what else offers what it offers in terms of prizes,” said Ferrier. “I don’t know if people were stood on the fence because of a few funny bits like having to share another team’s refuelling rig and being a support race, but it certainly didn’t put us off. It’s always been the case even from when I was racing, that to get to Le Mans you need an association with the ACO, so that’s definitely part of the draw for us and obviously the prize and the prize money is exceptional. I don’t think it will struggle for grids, I really don’t, I’m sure that it will flourish next year.”
Haigh agrees: “They have struggled with grid sizes this year, but that’s the same with any new championship because people would rather wait and see before committing to a full season and be racing against four cars all year. But they’ve got the prestigious package they run with, the media that they are starting to attract and the prize money, is very good – racing costs a lot of money so if you can get even a little bit of it back, it all helps.
“I can’t see it not attracting people because there was nothing to dislike about it – I really rated it and I’m sure it will go from strength to strength.”
As with any series still in its early stages, there is plenty of room for improvement. Making his debut in a GT3 car, WEC regular Ben Barker finished second in the Mentos Racing Porsche alongside Egidio Perfetti, but points out that if the series is to be a true proving ground for Le Mans aspirants, the calendar could do with a little more variation.
— Ben Barker (@BenBarkerMsport) August 28, 2016
“It’s a fun little championship that’s only going to get stronger, but as far as being a development series for Le Mans I think next year they should try to add some longer races,” he said. “They can’t do that with the ELMS because of the schedule, but if they were to go off the calendar slightly and maybe do one six-hour race, that would be good preparation for the person who is potentially going to do Le Mans. They need to develop the series a little bit and structure it in a way that is very much long distance orientated.”
One of the bigger sticking points is the need for the champion to buy a new car to take up their Le Mans entry – GT3 cars are not eligible – however Barker reasons that there are plenty of gentleman drivers with the financial means to do so if the opportunity arose.
“The cross-over isn’t the smoothest because you do need a new car,” he says. “But one of the biggest hurdles is getting an entry and there are guys out there who would jump at the opportunity, buy a new car and give it a crack – it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Ferrier has long dreamed of taking his team to La Sarthe and pledges that he will do everything possible to ensure that TF Sport will be on the grid if they can win the prize. Hankey and Yoluc recovered to finish third at Paul Ricard despite two drive-through penalties and currently sit ten points off race winners Aleksey Basov and Victor Shaitar – who won the GTE-Am class at Le Mans in 2015 – with two rounds to go.
“Everything is geared towards getting you ready, getting you in front of the right people and the prize is there, it’s just the car is that’s the difference obviously,” he said. “If we win the entry then we’ll be trying in any way possible to get there because it’s something you can’t turn down, but we’ve got to win the prize first! Le Mans is one of the biggest races on the planet and it’s always been a goal of mine, so to be on the grid for it would be wonderful.”
It’s been a difficult start to the GT3 Le Mans Cup, but with time, it’s hard not to envisage it growing. Don’t write it off just yet.