Bigger, bolder and, with one or two caveats, better.
The FIA Motorsport Games is back after a two-year COVID-enforced hiatus for a second edition with all guns blazing. This weekend at Paul Ricard and its environs a total of 72 nations represented by around 450 boys and girls, men and women will battle it out for gold, silver and bronze across 16 disciplines. You won’t hear anyone, at least not from the FIA, use the ‘O’-word, but that’s what they are, motorsport’s very own Olympics, complete with a glitzy opening ceremony in nearby Marseille and the all-important medals table.
The Marseille Games, as they are officially called in a nod to the Olympics, will provide proof that the concept works, according to the FIA and event promoter Stephane Ratel, who planted the seed of the all-encompassing national competition when he came up with the idea of the FIA GT Cup of Nations back in 2018. This weekend’s event, insists Ratel and the man in charge of the Games at the FIA, Frederic Bertrand, will be the launchpad to even greater things in two years’ time for the third running of what will become a biennial event.
“One day the Motorsport Games will become a must-do event,” says Ratel. “Its profile will grow and it will become an important date on the international motorsport calendar every two years. Everyone will want to do it and will want to represent their country.”
The FIA is a little more circumspect, Bertrand invoking a word often used in Olympic circles.
“We want these Games to create a legacy for the ASNs [the national sporting authorities who put together the teams],” says the FIA’s director of Formula E and innovative sport. “The exposure they will get by making their country proud just by participating is part of the legacy we want them to take home, so they can start programmes for the next edition. That’s really what we expect.”
More events, more countries and bigger national teams is the aim in 2024. The growth has already been dramatic since the inaugural Rome event in November 2019. Back then 49 nations took part in just six disciplines held entirely within the confines of the Vallelunga circuit.
Event promoter Stephane Ratel is confident that the event will grow
Photo by: Alexander Trienitz
It was a modest and workable kick-off for the concept of the Games, not so much in the number of nations it attracted – because that exceeded expectations – but in the range of events. The GT Cup, Touring Car for TCR machinery and Formula 4 single-seaters on the track were joined by Drifting, the Digital Cup in the virtual realm and Karting Slalom off it.
The expansion has largely been away from the race track to really make the Games a wide-ranging multi-discipline affair that is as accessible as possible to as many ASNs around the world. The additions include three rally events, which will take place on the roads of Sainte-Baume and a further two off-road events for the FIA’s Cross Car entry-level category. These are located at the Veynois autocross venue 200km (120 miles) to the north of Ricard. Three additional karting disciplines, Auto Slalom and one more on the race track proper, the GT Sprint, complete the roster this weekend.
It has created what Ratel calls a “monster of an event” that takes place at seven different sites, five at Ricard. It’s actually eight if you include the opening ceremony in the Vieux-Port area of Marseille, which took place yesterday (Wednesday) evening. It is, he says, “by far the biggest event the Stephane Ratel Organisation has ever put on”.
It could have been even bigger. The original plan for 2021 was for 18 disciplines, which shrunk to 17 by the time this year’s Games was announced. That was reduced to 16 with the cancellation of an Endurance event open to both LMP3 and GT3 machinery at the back end of September.
A lack of entries did for the sportscar enduro, which Ratel blames on the across-the-Games Pirelli tyre deal. All the significant LMP3 series in the world run on Michelin, which meant teams would be running on an unfamiliar tyre.
“We were hit by the fact that the teams had never run on the Pirelli,” he says. “I think if we had been on the Michelin we would have got a grid and had a successful event.”
The four remaining circuit disciplines have attracted mixed entries. The 24-car F4 Cup was oversubscribed, while the Touring Car event has hit 18 cars, two down on Vallelunga 2019. But the pair of disciplines for GT3 machinery have only brought in 13 entries apiece.
The amateur event now known simply as GT for one silver and one bronze-rated driver, which started life as the Nations Cup in Bahrain in 2018, will be nine cars down on Vallelunga. GT Sprint, a one-driver race aimed at professionals and open to platinum and gold-ranked drivers, is arguably – or should have been – the blue riband discipline of the Games this time.
The Formula 4 field is the strongest at the Games with 24 cars including Mercedes junior Andrea Kimi Antonelli for Italy
Photo by: SRO
Adding such an event to an already crowded GT3 calendar was always going to be a hard sell, but Ratel insists he isn’t overly disappointed. “We are going to have a very good podium, I can assure you,” he says.
That’s a reference to the six factory drivers on the entry from Mercedes, Audi, Porsche and Lamborghini, the likes of Dries Vanthoor, Daniel Juncadella and Mirko Bortolotti. Ratel admits that the manufacturers have stepped in to help several of the national teams to put together programmes for this particular event.
An examination of the entry lists raises inevitable questions about where the Games sits in the motorsport spectrum. The grassroots disciplines that are all set up on the arrive-and-drive principle — Karting Endurance, for example, uses a fleet of corporate karts — and therefore have a lower barrier to entry have attracted the best fields. That’s except for the category where the bar is set even lower, Esports. A total of 57 nations will fight it out for the medals in the virtual racing realm.
The Rally2 and Rally4 classes are even more badly subscribed than the track disciplines, with 12 and 10 cars respectively. It is probably no coincidence that the F4 Cup, the strongest proper racing category in terms of numbers, is also running to an arrive-and-drive format with the bespoke Abarth-powered KC MG-01 built for the Games by the Hong Kong-headquartered KCMG organisation.
Ratel admits that there have been challenges; he points out, for example, that GT was hit by some late withdrawals. There is also, say the organisers, a disconnect between the two GT grids. Bertrand thinks that the FIA and SRO didn’t get the message across that the idea was that a team could take part in both with the same car: the amateur two-driver races are done and dusted on Saturday and the pro event doesn’t begin until Sunday.
It is notable that only Spain has managed to put together a full team across all the events, though other ASNs announced an intent to do so. Included in that number is Motorsport UK, whose Team UK will compete in 10 disciplines.
“We took the view as one of the larger ASNs we would try to field a team across all the disciplines and if we couldn’t get there, to at least be in the majority,” says Motorsport UK boss Hugh Chambers. “We have got to 10 disciplines, and I am happy with that.”
Chambers points out that all the Team UK athletes – as they are inevitably called – are self-funded. There is no subsidy from the British ASN: “We had that discussion, but we decided very quickly that as a membership organisation it is not our role to be subsidising our competitors.
Chris Froggatt and Ian Loggie will represent the UK in GT Relay with RAM-run Mercedes
Photo by: MSG
“We did have conversations with potential partners about the Motorsport Games. We are all painfully aware of the economic situation at the moment and I think that made sponsors very cautious about being involved in something new, something that has yet to establish itself.”
Team Belgium, which will contest 14 disciplines, has taken a different approach with what is an extension of something known as the RACB National Team. Stoffel Vandoorne, Thierry Neuville and Bertrand Baguette are among its alumni. This year it is supporting the Rally4 campaign of Tom Rensonnet and he will represent his country in that category at the Games with regular co-driver Loic Dumont. Also on the RACB National Team in Touring Car is Gilles Magnus, now a factory TCR driver with Audi and back at the Games this time looking to improve on his second place at Vallelunga in 2019.
“We have had the concept of a national team for quite some time and we have managed to cover the disciplines which are within its scope,” says Xavier Schene, general manager of RACB Sport. “Our plan was also to cover the grassroots categories, which we could afford to do as the ASN. The cost of doing all the events would be very high, so then we had to convince people to participate in the other events.”
Ratel and Bertrand believe this model will be increasingly followed as the Games finds its feet and develops.
“Sponsorship is related to media coverage,” says Ratel. “I can tell you we have many ASNs asking for access to the TV feed, because they can get something broadcast in their country. I believe that in the next one or two editions, we will have real global coverage and that will bring in the sponsors.”
Ratel also suggests that in the future more manufacturers will want to become involved in the way that Audi, Porsche, Mercedes and Lamborghini have put their hands in their pockets to ensure they have a presence at the Games this time around.
“I can’t believe that in two years the British GT3 manufacturers won’t want a top driver in Sprint in the British team,” he argues. “I’d think an American manufacturer – and we know who is coming [Chevrolet and Ford are both developing new GT3 cars] – will want an American driver in one of their cars.
“Once the events are able to generate sponsorship, countries will be able to finance their teams. Then they will not just bring the people who want to participate and can afford it; they will want to bring the best in each category to the Games.”
As in 2019, WTCR racer Gilles Magnus will represent Belgium in the Touring Car discipline
Photo by: SRO
Bertrand believes that the growth of the Games will allow the national teams to tap into government-sanctioned funding programmes for which motorsport has been traditionally excluded.
“I am quite confident we will shortly see many ASNs being able to justify to local authorities in charge of sport that what they are doing under the umbrella of the FIA justifies some support so that they can represent the country in the best possible way,” he says.
Chambers isn’t so sure as a former commercial director of the British Olympic Association that Team UK will be getting funding from UK Sport or Sport England two, four or even six years down the line.
“Unless you are an Olympic sport, you don’t get UK Sport funding,” he explains. “I would find it difficult to imagine that they would come in and fund disciplines at the Motorsport Games. Motorsport is primarily not a heart and lungs sport seen to be about health and fitness, so opening up those channels of funding would be difficult.”
Ratel and the FIA are insistent that the Games can be much more than a largely amateur event, one that spreads the gospel of motorsport to nations with less heritage in the sport – the likes of Nepal, Mozambique and Vietnam are among the newcomers this time. They argue that high-cost events on the track and rally stages can sit alongside the grassroots disciplines.
“At the Olympics you have the superstars of athletics and people competing in lower-profile sports who only become famous because they win a medal,” says Ratel. “What we are doing is in the same spirit.”
More than 70 nations will battle it out to see who can top the medal table this weekend
Photo by: SRO
Just 13 nations – six with only silver-rated drivers – contest this new high-profile addition to the Games. But the one-hour, one-driver sprint for GT3 machinery has six factory stars from four manufacturers.
GT3s driven by one silver and one bronze-rated driver compete over three one-hour races. The first two determine the grid for the final on a points system. Seven manufacturers are represented across the slender 13-car field.
The global TCR category is again on the bill, with 18 countries represented in the two-race event. The medals are this time awarded on the basis of the result of the second 30-minute-plus-one-lap final. Gilles Magnus, second last time and fourth in this year’s World Touring Car Cup points and new TCR UK champion Chris Smiley fly the flag for Team Belgium and Team UK respectively.
Single-seaters maintain a necessary presence at the Games with Formula 4 and a strong grid of the grid of KC MG-01s run by Hitech. Andrea Kimi Antonelli, F4 champion in Germany and Italy this year, is the standout on the entry.
An event similar to the UK’s Auto Solo discipline, this is a new event on the bill for mixed-gender two-driver teams. Twenty-five nations — Peru, Vietnam and Uzbekistan included — will go against the clock aboard the Opel Corsa-e Rally.
This is another entry-level event: a four-hour, four-driver enduro in corporate machinery on Ricard’s kart track. It’s all very arrive-and-drive, which explains why Motorsport UK approached Club 100 to help select a team.
Historic motorsport has a place at the Games with this event for FIA Category 2 and 3 cars built between 1970 and 1981. The entry includes an Audi Quattro and a couple of Porsche 911SCs, one driven by former sportscar star Philippe Gache for Team France. Tim and Steve Jones compete in a Chrysler Sunbeam Ti for Team UK.
Historic rallycars from yesteryear will also be represented in the Motorsport Games
Photo by: MSG
The FIA’s four-wheel-drive feeder category has attracted a slim entry of 12 cars across six manufacturers. Brits Oliver Mellors and Ian Windress compete for Team UK aboard their regular Proton Iriz R5.
Only 10 cars are out on the stages for this front-wheel-drive category. Team Belgium’s Tom Rensonnet and Loic Dumont were class winners in Rally2 on this year’s Ypres World Rally Championship round aboard their Renault Clio.
Known as the Digital Cup at Vallelunga, this category has attracted the biggest entry for the competition on the Assetto Corsa Competizione platform. James Baldwin, fourth in Italy in 2019, returns to represent Team UK after a successful season in SRO’s GT World Challenge Europe Esports series.
A total of 30 nations are represented in Drifting, with reigning champion Dmitriy Illyuk returning to represent Ukraine in his Nissan 200SX.
There are senior events for the FIA’s entry-level off-road category for bike-engined buggies, which runs to a rallycross-type format. Daniel Rooke moves across from that world of rallycross with Team UK.
Juniors aged between 11 and 14 and seniors beyond that age range compete in separate events on Paul Ricard’s kart circuit in one-make OK machinery.
Mixed-gender teams of 14 and 15-year-olds drive around obstacles in 20kW electric karts.
All the action from the FIA Motorsport Games will be broadcast via Motorsport.TV.
A fleet of 20kW electric karts will be used for the karting slalom event
Photo by: SRO
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