To those familiar with the highly controversial “ranking” system currently in place with endurance sportscar racing such as the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and TUDOR United SportsCar Championship (TUSC), this article is nothing new. However for those who don’t completely understand what all the controversy is or where it stems from, we thought it might be good to provide a briefing on just what the system is, and where it came from.
While “ProAm” racing is nothing new to sportscar racing, with “gentlemen” drivers populating (and funding) the sport since inception, the roots of today’s system as we know it can be traced back to 2009.
Following the economic crisis in the Fall of 2008, the 2009 professional sportscar scene endured one of its weakest car counts in modern history. With gentleman drivers choosing to hold tight on their budgets until they saw how the stock market evolved over the coming months, the normally healthy “ProAm” market all of a sudden took a turn. This was most prevalent in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), which suffered its smallest car count in series history.
In reaction, the series adopted the GT-Challenge (GTC) class in 2009, a spec-category built specifically for the well-established Porsche GT3 Cup car.
Concurrently, the nature of sportscar racing had dawned a new era… incredibly reliable cars. As long as endurance racing has existed, a big part of the challenge placed on drivers was wheeling the car in a measured fashion, balancing speed with very precise and delicate technique to preserve brakes, gearbox, etc. Over the years, however, the technology has become such that braking has become incredibly reliable, and with paddle-shift and sequential gearboxes the need to preserve a car when shifting has become a non-factor.
What does this result in? Less emphasis on a steady, calculated driver, and more emphasis on outright pace. In other words, it’s become a young man’s game. This inherently means that an older, gentleman driver is at their biggest disadvantage in the sport’s history. Combine this with an economic crisis pushing gentleman drivers out, and the ALMS had to make a dramatic move.
With this in mind, for the first time in sportscar history, the GTC category became a mandatory “ProAm” championship. Of the minimum two-driver pairing, only one could be a paid, professional driver. In theory, this was meant to even out the playing field for amateur drivers, as the series was hoping to encourage paying participants to feel welcome and un-threatened by professional pairings.
One year later, the series would expand the concept with the Prototype Challenge (PC) category, again mandating that amateur drivers be part of the driver lineup.
Transferring this to its current form in 2010, the newly-formed World Endurance Championship would take the next step by moving away from a vaguely labeled “amateur” versus “professional” driver ranking, and instead to a platinum/gold/silver/bronze status. Essentially any driver looking to get a license with the sanctioning FIA would be evaluated by series officials, and through a combination of achievements, age, profession, and general consensus on pace, would be issued a medal ranking. Creating the “GTE-AM” category intended for amateurs, the series mandated a maximum of one gold or platinum ranked driver, and well as enforcing the use of a silver and bronze for the remaining lineup.
Adopting this same ranking system in 2014, the newly formed TUDOR United SportsCar Championship (with many officials coming from the ALMS) would adopt the same medal ranking in to their own “ProAm” categories, again forcing a minimum of two silver drivers at all endurance events and at least one silver during sprint events.
In theory, especially for customer driven teams, the system makes sense. Categories such as TUSC’s GTD and PC class, or the WEC’s GTE-AM, simply cannot generate the sponsorship required on value alone, and in such they need funded drivers to close the gaps. By enforcing amateur rankings, a paying driver is far less likely to be intimidated of being beaten by other “pro-pro” lineups.
The problem is… the system is easy to game if you have the budget. In TUSC’s GTD class, it was common for top teams to search out a lesser known foreign driver (usually from Europe) who American officials were less familiar with… thereby ranking them silver, when a lot of times they had the pace to match some gold counterparts. Meanwhile, other drivers were being handed gold rankings for success in the U.S. on a relatively arbitrary basis, leaving some to feel as though their gold status was holding them back from gainful employment.
In other words, being a “fast silver” became the key piece in a team’s ability to win, and team’s were willing to pay for that… which completely defeated the purpose of a silver.
This leads to the controversy of today. Bottom line is, top teams think the ranking system should be done away with. Despite the WEC and TUSC making their best efforts to stick to consistent criteria, there’s an inherent discrepancy between which drivers are silver, which drivers are gold, and this has career altering consequences. The intention was to bring paying drivers in to the silver ranking, but if you look at many of the top teams, especially during endurance events, this isn’t always the case. Hence, many teams and drivers would just like to see it go away.
Meanwhile, many other customer-driven teams, teams who run a for-profit operation driven entirely by paying drivers running through their doors, doing away with a driver ranking system has the potential to hurt their sales. Even if the ranking system isn’t working in practicality, the sales practice for customer teams is still alive and well.
While World Stage Racing is not contending for one system over another, it’s a system that seems to have had its place during a challenging economic time, but has evolved in to a system that requires a serious overhaul or re-antiquation.