When the 2017 FIA driver gradings list was unveiled on Friday, it saw a number of high-profile Silvers upgraded to Gold, with a few familiar faces going the other way too. But what are the practical implications of the change, and how will it affect the GT racing landscape? James Newbold explores.
Canvass any sportscar racing paddock around the world for bugbears and one of two complaints are almost guaranteed to surface. First is BOP, and a close second, driver gradings, with the grey area over what constitutes a Silver-rated driver an acute source of frustration.
Originally designed to give Am drivers with day jobs outside of racing – who are the sport’s lifeblood – a chance to compete on a level playing field with Pro racers, the driver gradings system has been plagued by abuses as drivers receive a classification based on their career success, rather than outright speed.
This loophole allows teams to hire established Pros who have been downgraded from Gold to Silver, a grading mostly applied to up-and-coming young drivers still learning the ropes and bringing money to the table, or proficient semi-pro racers too good to be classed as a Bronze, such as Blancpain Endurance race-winner Rolf Iniechen and former GT Open champion Miguel Ramos.
As a case in point, Alex Job Racing’s Heart of Racing Porsche was in the mix at nearly every IMSA round in 2016 courtesy of its Silver-graded pairing of Mario Farnbacher and Alex Riberas, irrespective of how uncompetitive their 911 was rendered by BOP. When calls from rival teams to give the Porsche a performance break were ignored, due to the continued success of Farnbacher and Riberas using the same car, it sparked mass withdrawals in protest.
Newly reclassified ‘Super Silvers’ Damien Faulkner (40), a two-time Carrera Cup champion and ex-Champ Car racer Jan Heylen (36) were among the chief beneficiaries of the most recent list released last week and will surely find themselves in demand next year due to the heavy premium Pro-Am racing places on Silver drivers.
Driver rankings for 2017 are out. Some great fixes but almost as many regressions/misses. No fundamental improvement
— DHH Racing (@dhhracing) November 18, 2016
Anyone see the new Driver Ratings?!?! Hahahahahahahaha so bad.
— Ryan Eversley (@RyanEversley) November 18, 2016
For example, in the GTE class of the European Le Mans Series, teams must run one Pro-rated driver (Platinum/Gold) alongside a Silver and a Bronze. With four-hour races split between three drivers, the responsibility falls on the Silver to double-stint, so a good one can make the difference between victory and obscurity.
Proton Competition used a rotating pool of Silvers in their two cars this year, with Marco Seefried, Robert Renauer, Matteo Cairoli, David Jahn and Ben Barker all given their chance. Porsche junior Cairoli qualified on pole for his debut appearance at the Red Bull Ring, while Barker – who also raced a full season in the WEC GTE-Am class with Gulf Racing – took pole at Estoril.
Both drivers have been provisionally moved up from Silver to Gold by the latest round of changes, along with the experienced Seefried, WEC GTE-Am champion Rui Aguas, ELMS GTE champion Alex MacDowall and runner-up Rory Butcher. All changes are provisional, subject to appeal.
Barker, who was demoted to Silver for 2016, explained that he wasn’t surprised to be returned to Gold after leading Porsche factory driver Pat Long in the opening stint in Mexico and generally comparing well against Gulf team-mate Adam Carroll, but recognises that the driver market will now be a far more competitive place. Should Gulf return to the series next year, they will have to choose between Barker and Carroll for the one available ‘Pro’ slot and pair them with a new Silver.
“I’m 25, so if I’m going to go Gold then I’ve got to do it now and make it work,” he told Racing.GT in Bahrain. “It’s been a good season for me, I’ve suited this car really well and been able to take it to the factory guys at times, so I’ve shown that I’m capable.
“Obviously now the gradings have come out, I’m Gold, along with a load of other people that have been moved up, so a Gold drive has become a lot more competitive. I’ve done a good enough job this year to prove what I can do, so I’m fine with it. But if I was maybe 3-4 tenths off what I’ve been doing this year and still been put to Gold, then I’d be more bitter because I haven’t shown my true potential and I’d probably be left without anything for next year.”
Something fundamentally wrong when people are happy about getting downgraded
— lee mowle (@leemowle) November 18, 2016
Silver drivers also have a significant role to play in the Blancpain Endurance Cup Pro-Am class, where Silver-Silver-Bronze line-ups are pitched against Platinum/Gold-Bronze-Bronze.
The former proved to be the most effective approach in 2016, as Kessel Racing took the title by pairing Silvers Andrea Rizzoli and Alessandro Bonacini with rapid Bronze Michal Broniszewski. British outfits Barwell Motorsport (Phil Keen/Marco Mapelli/Leo Machitski) and Team Parker Racing (Tom Onslow-Cole/Callum Macleod/Ian Loggie) were among the many to pursue a similar tactic, but neither will be able to field an unchanged lineup next season as Keen, Mapelli, Onslow-Cole and Macleod have all been provisionally elevated from Silver to Gold.
After a partial GP3 campaign with Carlin in 2011, 28-year-old Macleod spent several years on the sidelines before getting the chance to return as a Silver. But with effectively half the number of seats open for Golds than are available for Silvers, he faces an anxious wait over winter.
“We couldn’t have had the line-up we had this year in Blancpain with myself, Tom and Ian, two Silvers and a Bronze, so it’s very limiting in that respect,” he said.
“Prior to this year I had virtually no GT experience at all and hadn’t raced at the top level at all since 2010, so I think the Silver grading was correct. Would I have had the opportunity to do Blancpain if I’d been rated Gold last year? I don’t know, probably not.
“For championships like Michelin Le Mans Cup or British GT, being Gold or Silver is no differently really, but in Blancpain it definitely limits your options, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
Making a success of the step up to Gold can be tough, with teams looking not just for raw speed, but strong technical feedback and the ability to lead a team on setup. Without that experience (or a little cash to smooth the way), plenty of young Gold-rated drivers such as GT Academy winner Mark Shulzhitskiy have been left in limbo. The Russian’s only top-flight appearance of 2016 came at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, and he’s not the only one at risk of being frozen out.
Looking forward to announcing my own racing plans in due course. It’s going to be a tough 2017 but I’m ready!
— Daniel Cammish (@DanCammish) November 22, 2016
Due to his strong record in the Porsche Carrera Cup, two-time British champion Dan Cammish is another to have been upgraded from Silver to Gold, despite having made only one appearance in Blancpain, finishing 24th with Konrad Motorsport at Silverstone last year. With his new driver rating likely to prevent that statistic from changing, the 27-year-old could eschew the Pro-Am route altogether and chase further opportunities in one-make Porsche racing.
“In an ideal world, somebody like myself who’s not had much proper GT experience would be allowed to remain Silver, but I’m fortunate that I’ve had a good sponsor for the last few years, so I haven’t had to use my Silver grading to leverage drives,” he said.
“I can understand why some people are a bit disappointed in it, but a lot of those guys have been milking the system for too long, they’re pretty much Pros racing all the time, so they can hardly be classed as Silver compared to people that are just starting out.”
Of course, moving from Silver to Gold doesn’t have to be a disaster. It was confirmed yesterday that Joe Osborne will contest the British GT4 class for Tolman Motorsport, while Phil Keen will return to British GT with Jon Minshaw at Barwell Motorsport, in addition to his Michelin Le Mans Cup programme with Lee Mowle in AMD Tuning’s newly-acquired Mercedes.
— Matt Salisbury (@MattJSalisbury) November 16, 2016
However, the full picture has yet to emerge. It’s still only November, which means there’s still plenty of time for the FIA to throw another curveball and change the status quo all over again. As one driver who will remain anonymous said this week, “GT racing is a f***ing nightmare!”