Insight: SRO/IGTC California 8 Hours grows, with potential for more
By Richard S. James | RACER magazine and RACER.com editor at large
After the second year of the California 8 Hour round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, SRO chief Stephane Ratel reflected on the growth and potential of the event at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. More entries and greater manufacturer participation were hallmarks of the second running last month, but both of those statistics and the spectator attendance indicate the event has far to go.
The California 8 Hours occupies a unique position among the other races in the Intercontinental GT Challenge: It has little history. The Total 24 Hours of Spa, the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hours and even, to an extent, the Suzuka 10 Hours have some legend behind them. There has effectively been no endurance racing on the West Coast of the U.S., and no real tradition of endurance GT racing outside of the GT classes in IMSA. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome.
“All the work I’ve done in my racing promotion career has taken time,” says Ratel. “I’ve learned that no success comes overnight, and you can definitely not, in a market as mature as the U.S. racing-wise, come and expect that it’s going to be huge the first year. Everything we do we need to build over time. Two years ago we didn’t even have enough entries and we had to cancel when we wanted to do it at COTA. The next year we did it with a relatively poor grid and this year we have a better grid.
“I have no doubt that the event itself fits in the context of a growing Intercontinental GT Challenge. We’re adding Kyalami [South Africa in 2019], an exciting race which has a lot of heritage, and we’re finally realizing the ambition of five races on five continents, which I believe is quite unique.”
The IGTC is customer racing, but manufacturer driven. The idea was that manufacturers would support teams on each continent to race on their behalf. But there are several teams that wish to race the whole series, such as Strakka Racing for AMG Mercedes, Audi Sport Team WRT and Team Land, Bentley Team M Sport and even American Tim Pappas’s Black Swan Racing. The California 8 Hours grid was a mix of those teams and locals such as SunEnergy1 for Mercedes AMG, Wright Motorsports for Porsche and K-PAX Racing for Bentley. Half the grid was comprised of American GT4 teams from Pirelli World Challenge (now known as Blancpain GT World Challenge), plus a couple of TCR Hyundais from Bryan Herta Autosport.
A respectable 32-car field – a long way from the 60-plus cars at Spa, but comparable to Suzuka and Bathurst. What the established races had that the California 8 Hours lacked was full manufacturer participation (McLaren, which had participated in previous rounds, had no representation) and a crowd of spectators.
“We had three manufacturers, now we have four and we hope next year we’re looking for six, seven, eight. I think that will make it one of the best global competitions that exists,” Ratel says. “So, on the success of the IGTC as a whole, I think this event has potential for growth. I think we can have more cars and what we definitely need is more activation and more spectators. That will take time. For the moment, people have no idea what the Intercontinental GT Challenge is.”
Next year the event moves from the fall – a very saturated time for events at Laguna Seca, and even more so next year with the addition of the IndyCar Series – to the end of March, where it becomes the second event on the IGTC calendar and moves much closer to two of the other big endurance events in the U.S., IMSA’s Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Whether that allows teams to play in more places in a single trip or not will be seen, but Ratel also explains that it allows teams to ship cars and equipment between most events by sea rather than by air.
The question remains, though: Does the California 8 Hours fit in with the other events, and can it gain the stature that they possess? The answer, according to several players, seems to be a qualified yes.
“I think it’s possible because it’s the only endurance race on the West Coast,” says Ratel. “Five hundred miles north and 500 miles south is probably the biggest market on Earth for premium car manufacturers. If we can convince them to activate, it can be a phenomenal event. Of course, the Suzuka 1000k, the 47th running. the Spa 24 Hours was the 70th edition. All those events have a lot of history and even Bathurst has been growing for a good number of years. I hope the fans will see the value and they will see that it’s a serious competition.”
It’s also easy to overlook the appeal Laguna Seca and Monterey have to racers worldwide. It might not have the fame (or Formula 1 presence) of Spa, but it’s still a destination track. French native Tristan Vautier, who raced all over the U.S. in IndyCar and its development series and now races in IMSA and sports car series worldwide, understands the track’s allure.
“When you talk about the USA, there are a few tracks that stick out – Watkins Glen, Sebring, Daytona, and I think WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca is one of those tracks,” says Vautier, who clinched the ICGT Pro driver’s title at Laguna Seca. “When you talk to people worldwide about America, Laguna Seca pops up very easily. [That California 8 Hours] is still a very young event, so there is some road to go before there is a lot of spectators showing up and it becomes something known on the schedule. But I really like what SRO is doing with the Intercontinental GT because the project is big and you can straight away see the engagement of the manufacturers.”
Without that engagement from the manufacturers, the ICGT doesn’t succeed. In the first year of the California 8 Hours, Audi’s desire to win was clear. In 2018, Mercedes AMG, Bentley and Porsche stepped up their games as well. Not only did they make sure they had good cars on the grid, but they brought top-notch sports car drivers in to drive them: Vautier, Raffaele Marciello, Jack Hawksworth and Maxi Buhk among the Mercedes AMG contingent; Steven Kane, Jules Gounon, Andy Soucek and Maxime Soulet for Bentley, along with Alvaro Parente and Bryan Sellers on the K-PAX squad; Dirk Werner, Romain Dumas, Frederic Makowiecki, Patrick Long and Jeroen Bleekemolen for Porsche; and Alex Riberas, Markus Winkelhock, Robin Frijns, Christopher Haase, Christopher Mies and Sheldon and Kelvin van der Linde on the Audi teams.
Audi Sport Team Land with Mies, Haase and Kelvin van der Linde won the 8 Hours and Audi took home the ICGT manufacturer’s championship. The firepower brought by the manufacturers is a good indication of the series’ place in their portfolio of racing activities.
“For AMG customer racing, it’s the highest priority,” says Stefan Wendl, head of customer racing for Mercedes-AMG Motorsport. “For us, the presentation of the IGTC and the overall concept is the perfect platform to integrate our international approach for the GT race series. We like the concept to pick up to four teams which are performing well in their regional markets and to give them a little support on the technical side with engineers, on parts and on the financial side, and to be ambassadors for Mercedes AMG.” The IGTC is also an opportunity for Mercedes-AMG customer racing to expand beyond its normal boundaries.
“For most of the events, we miss a little bit of the history which Bathurst and the 24 Hours of Spa, which were already in our performance support program, have. I see it as a great idea of SRO and Stephane Ratel and something we can build up. You’ll see in the other brands, our competitors are seeing the same things. And we make those race series and those races iconic. It will take some time, but as we see better fights on the racetrack, the more iconic they will be. It has great tracks and all the European drivers are keen to go to Suzuka or Bathurst or here at Laguna Seca. Now we are being approached by American drivers who want to drive at Spa and Suzuka, so this is exactly what we need.”
Haase is one of those drivers that enjoys going to Laguna Seca. It helps that he’s done well, scoring the pole both years and winning the most recent edition. But it’s more than that.
“The IGTC, it lives with races like this,” he says. “We’re racing all over the world and I think it’s very important to have unique racetracks, and Laguna Seca is such a unique racetrack. I am especially a friend to the U.S.; I like to be here, to race here, and I think this event, it’s good like it is, but I feel like it still has more potential, to make next year’s even bigger. I think there is potential for more cars and more spectators, because we have such great cars for eight hours. It’s eight hours like a sprint race and it’s for sure a good show.”
The 2019 running of the California 8 Hours is scheduled for March 31, all by itself on the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca calendar and the second race in the Intercontinental GT Challenge season. How that affects the atmosphere and the spectator turnout will be seen, but the trajectory of the event is certainly upward.
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