In Profile: Stephane Ortelli’s Life Behind the Wheel
In a career spanning more than 25 years, there is little that Stephane Ortelli has not experienced. He has circled the globe driving a wide variety of machines – GTs, touring cars, prototypes – winning prestigious races and championships along the way.
The French-born Monegasque driver has particularly close links to the Blancpain GT Series. He was on the grid at the very first race in 2011, has competed during every season since, and was crowned champion in 2012.
Ortelli’s big break came in 1995 when he made a one-off appearance in the BPR Global GT Series. Handed a shot aboard a Porsche 911 GT2, he grasped the opportunity with both hands. Soon he was a works driver for the Stuttgart marque and, two years later, won the Le Mans 24 Hours in a Porsche.
He went on to race in the FIA GT Championship, taking back-to-back N-GT class titles, though his crowning moment came at the Spa 24 Hours in 2003. His victory in second-tier N-GT class equipment was, says Ortelli, “the best win of my life.”
And he is not done yet. His latest gig is with the Emil Frey Racing squad, who have partnered with Lexus to tackle the Blancpain GT Series. Showing no signs of slowing down, Ortelli is chasing yet another success story.
Growing Up in the Paddock
Ortelli has racing in his blood: his father, Jean, was a successful competitor in the popular French and European hillclimb championships during the seventies and eighties.
The young Ortelli grew up in race paddocks with the sons of Jean’s contemporaries, who included the fathers of Yvan Muller, Jean-Marc Gounon and Jean Alesi.
“I have been friends with Yvan Muller since 1978,” says Ortelli. “We were playing in the paddock together on our mini bikes!”
Like any kid watching his dad race, Ortelli idolised his father. In fact, his ambition was not to follow in Jean’s footsteps but to join his crew.
“I was always thinking that one day I would become a mechanic for my dad,” Ortelli recalls. “At this age I never thought he would retire and I wasn’t thinking about driving myself. But one day he had to stop and that’s when I went into go-karts.”
Unlike today’s youngsters, Ortelli did not have a career mapped out before him.
“I was 14 when I started. At the time I was thinking of going into rallying, not circuit racing. Coming from the south-east of France, okay we have Paul Ricard and the Monaco Grand Prix, but we also have a lot of rallying!”
It wasn’t until after he graduated from university that Ortelli enrolled at the legendary Volant Elf race school, “mainly because I wanted to improve my driving in case I decided to commit to rallying.”
As it turned out, rallying’s loss would be circuit racing’s gain.
Making the Breakthrough
Ortelli made an instant impression by winning the Volant Elf at Paul Ricard, the same circuit where he had taken his first go-kart victory.
“I was born in 1970, the same year Paul Ricard opened, so there is a special link for me when we go there with the Blancpain GT Series,” adds Ortelli.
Despite showing promise in single-seaters a lack of funding threatened to stall his career, but Ortelli found a new opportunity in the French touring car championship, alongside the likes of Yvan Muller, Eric Helary and Yannick Dalmas.
Next came an opportunity in the BPR Global GT Series during the 1995 season. There was a spot in Franz Konrad’s Porsche at the high-speed Montlhery track outside Paris, and Ortelli was the ideal man for the job.
“It was a very dangerous and difficult circuit,” he recalls. “The year before I had been quite strong in the touring car race and teams were looking at drivers who had been successful there.”
Still, he faced one final obstacle before getting on the grid.
“I needed to pay the insurance cost of the car,” he explains, “so my sister paid it for me. When I became a Porsche works driver I wanted to give her back the money, but she said, ‘No, Steph, I am part of your career.’ That's a very cool story about my sister.”
With the legendary Bob Wollek in the sister Porsche, Ortelli had an ideal source of information. He did enough at Montlhery to get noticed.
“So they said, ‘Okay, the next race is at Anderstorp, why don’t we take this little Frenchman with us?’ Three years later I won Le Mans with Porsche, so it's a crazy story! But it all started with Franz Konrad giving me a chance. It was just destiny.”
“My Favourite Success”
As a works Porsche driver, Ortelli was picking up wins across the globe. But his sweetest victory came at the Spa 24 Hours in 2003, competing in second-tier N-GT machinery.
“We had been on the overall podium in 2002, but in 2003 we never thought about winning,” he says.
Nevertheless, it would only take a little good fortune for this crack team to spring a surprise. Ortelli drove a Freisinger Motorsport Porsche 911 GT3 alongside Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb, with renowned engineer Norbert Singer also part of the effort.
Their greatest ally was the weather, as their GT3 was a nimbler machine than the premier class GT1s in wet conditions. With this being Spa, that was all but guaranteed.
“We had a good combination: a fast car in the rain, a very crazy strategy, and fantastic teammates. With Marc and Romain, we were always pushing the car to the limit,” Ortelli recalls.
The Freisinger-Porsche moved into the lead after staying out longer than the competition on slick tyres, allowing them to make a quick change to wets when the rain arrived. But the real moment of inspiration came during an extensive safety car period.
“Norbert Singer came on the radio and said: ‘Steph, I don’t want to see you back in the pits. Do what you want but try to stay out.’”
Somehow, Ortelli managed to remain on-track for almost three hours.
“I was going quite fast up to Les Combes, then switching off the engine and going all the way down to Pouhon,” he explains, adding that he also turned off the lights and used the clutch to restart in order to protect his car. “I was running for a couple of kilometres without using the engine, and for the rest of the lap I was in sixth gear.”
The Porsche held the lead and ran faultlessly for the remainder of the race, while its few remaining challengers hit problems. The second-tier machine eventually triumphed by eight laps, clinching a famous win.
“The most amazing time for me was Norbert Singer and Manfred Freisinger crying at the end of the race,” Ortelli recalls. “Norbert had 16 wins at Le Mans but he had never won Spa, and no one was expecting us to do it.
“This was my favourite success, the best win of my life.”
A New Challenge with Lexus
Now part of the Emil Frey Racing squad’s new Lexus RC F GT3 programme, Ortelli has set his sights on building success from the ground up.
“We think the car has a lot of potential and we want to put it on top,” he says. “We know how demanding this championship is and what kind of opposition we have to face, but this is a very good car that I think can be in a position to win races soon. It would be one of my biggest achievements, because this is the most demanding and the best GT series in the world.”
The desire to win is plain to see and, despite now being the elder statesman of the Pro class, Ortelli has lost none of his passion for the sport.
“I still love to drive a car to the limit,” he says. “I talk about this to Bernd Schneider and Yvan Muller – age doesn’t count. If you enjoy driving fast and you are happy with your ability, there is no reason to stop.
“Perhaps you lose a little something in speed,” he continues, “but experience counts. Now the younger drivers are asking me for advice, exactly like I was asking Bob Wollek many years ago.”
Ortelli has come a very long way from the kid in the paddock who dreamt of being a mechanic for his dad.
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