Following Barwell’s decision to replace former British GT champion Marco Attard with Phil Keen for the Blancpain Endurance Cup round at Silverstone, Racing.GT asks whether we are seeing a shift in the waters in Pro-Am.
From a competition standpoint, the move to swap Attard for Keen made perfect sense for Barwell. An experienced Silver, Keen has driven with the team in British GT for over a year, knows the Lamborghini Huracan GT3 and can always be relied on to deliver a strong turn of speed. Moreover, it was completely within the letter of the law and done with Attard’s full blessing – the 2014 British GT champion is set for a return at Spa.
But what are the wider ramifications for Pro-Am on the whole?
Pro-Am crews in the Blancpain Endurance Cup can be made up of two Silver drivers paired with a Bronze, or two Bronzes and a ‘Pro’, rated either Platinum or Gold. We saw a good example of how this trade-off works at Monza, where the Black Pearl Ferrari 458 started by Gold-rated Daniel Keilwitz held the overall race lead in the first hour before falling back to 11th overall and third in Pro-Am when Bronze-rated co-drivers Steve Parrow and Alexander Mattschull took over. A late charge by ex-F1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella helped get the AF Corse Ferrari 488 to second in class after taking over from Motoaki Ishikawa and Lorenzo Bontempelli (both Bronze), but he could not overcome the deficit to Kessel Racing’s ultra-consistent Silver-Silver-Bronze line-up of Alessandro Bonacini, Andrea Rizzoli and Michal Broniszewski. The Pro-Am class winners finished fifth overall, despite setting only the 13th fastest lap, almost seven tenths off Fisichella’s best.
Of course, it wasn’t a massive shock to see Ferrari sweep the Pro-Am podium at Monza, a traditional power circuit where good traction and straight-line speed can negate a gentleman driver’s cornering technique. However, the finishing order of the three Ferraris (with Silver-Silver-Bronze ahead of Platinum-Bronze-Bronze and Gold-Bronze-Bronze) was telling and demonstrated how two experienced Silvers and a Bronze could beat a car with greater ultimate pace, but unable to tap into it for much of the race.
In a press release issued before Silverstone, Barwell outlined their decision to change to a Silver-Silver-Bronze lineup in the clearest possible terms.
“Having experienced the extraordinarily high level of driver line-ups in the front-running Pro-Am cars at Monza’s first round last month, it became clear that a true Bronze-Bronze grade Amateur combination (along with a single Pro driver), however strong, would not be able to challenge for honours. We have therefore been forced to make this change in order to form the most competitive driver roster for this car going forward.”
In pairing Keen, a former winner of the Sunoco Challenge, with fellow professional Silver Marco Mapelli and Bronze-rated Leo Matchitski, Barwell formed one of the strongest lineups permitted under the rules, but team boss Mark Lemmer admits it’s a situation he’s not happy with.
“It’s completely against what we want; we’ve been arguing and we’ll continue to argue that Pro-Am is going in the wrong way because [exchanging Bronze drivers for quick Silvers] is not sustainable and it costs a fortune to do,” he said.
“Pro-Am is the cornerstone of GT3 racing, of course it’s fantastic to see the Pro classes so strong but they’re not the cornerstone of endurance racing, it’s the Ams like Marco [Atttard] and Leo. One thing that people are suggesting is that every Pro-Am car has two Ams in it and that’s something that needs consideration in future because that would make for a much more defined Pro-Am class. At the moment it’s too close to Pro.”
Lemmer added that he believes that part of the problem stems from driver gradings that are based on results, rather than performance, which has resulted in an abundance of eligible Silvers flooding the driver market.
“Silver is the broadest class of performance time, so if you say the delta from a top Pro to an average Bronze is for argument’s sake four seconds, then the average silver should be two seconds off, but now a Silver driver can be anywhere between a tenth or two off a top pro and two seconds off,” he continued. “The whole class has been distorted through the FIA Gradings and that’s because they are determined by results and not by performance. Results can be dependent on many things, the type of championships you’ve come up through, the team-mates you’ve had, the luck you’ve had, the budgets you’ve had behind you. This is a system that is in development and I think we’ve come to a point where it needs tweaking.”
This ‘supply’ is twinned with the demand for drivers who can provide the same technical acumen as Pros – many Silver drivers are already making a living from motorsport as coaches – or that can bring a budget. Tying down two fully-fledged Bronze drivers to foot the bill can often be a challenge, meaning that Silver-graded drivers, often youngsters fresh from single-seaters, can be a useful source of income.
Team Parker Racing Principal Stuart Parker believes that this will increasingly be the direction Pro-Am takes in future, shifting from a class for gentlemen to drive with professionals to something rather less clearly defined. His Pro-Am line-up is another Silver-Silver-Bronze crew, featuring Tom Onslow-Cole, Callum Macleod and Ian Loggie.
“Driver gradings are such a subjective topic, when is a Bronze no longer a Bronze, when is a Silver a Bronze, when is a Silver a Gold and when is a Gold a Silver? It’s very difficult,” he said. “There’s a good market for good Silvers out there at the moment, because GT racing is becoming more professional and with 57 GT cars, you’ve got to get everything right to win.
“You look at most of the Silver drivers on the grid and they’ll all have rich CVs; they might have had a few setbacks that stopped them going further, whether it be in single-seaters or other formulas, but they’ve got this grading and now they’re trying to maximise it to best effect. We made the choice early on that we were going to go Bronze-Silver-Silver and we stuck to our guns all the way through the winter. Is it right? I think yes, but at the end of the year we’ll tell.”
Motorbase Performance approached the problem from a different tact. After stepping down to Pro-Am from the Pro category, team principle Dave Bartrum decided to partner newly-categtorised Bronzes Ahmad al-Harthy and Devon Modell with Aston Martin factory driver Jonny Adam and was vindicated by taking a fourth and a second from the opening two rounds. It’s an approach that also paid dividends for Silverstone Pro-Am victors Black Falcon, with Miguel Toril running as a Bronze alongside Maro Engel (Platinum) and Oliver Morley (Bronze).
“The whole Blancpain Endurance Cup has raised, the quality of the grid and the drivers that are coming in have raised to another level – we were caught and passed in Monza by a Formula 1 driver!” said Bartrum, the only Aston Martin entrant in the championship. “If I could find an F1 driver that wants to come and drive for me and it all fits in nicely then great, but I’m happy with my line-up.
“We’re a conniving bunch us team bosses, we all try to move the goal posts within the rules to get what we need. At the end of the day, we’ve got to keep our customers happy and achieve results. If you take people racing and they’re paying good money to do it and they can’t get anywhere, they’ll just go away or go somewhere else. Once they give you the gradings, it’s up to the team to put the best lineup together that fits the budget, that’s the challenge.”