British GT announced in September that a new Silver/Am class would be introduced next year in an attempt to incentivise greater participation from up-and-coming Silver-graded drivers. But are the fish taking the bait? James Newbold explores.
There can be no escaping the fact that Britain’s top domestic GT championship has seen a worrying decline in GT3 entries over the past few years. Only 11 cars started the final race of the year at Donington Park, where not for the first time this season they were dwarfed by a GT4 class that featured representation from McLaren, Ginetta, Aston Martin, Porsche, Maserati, Lotus and Toyota.
Not among the brave 11 was the Optimum Motorsport Audi, which had been the lone Silver Cup entry for much of the season until drivers Ryan Ratcliffe and Will Moore pulled out of the championship.
Speaking to Racing.GT on the decline of the Silver Cup, Ratcliffe outlined his concept for a Pro-Am 1 championship within the existing British GT class structure, which has several clear parallels with the planned Silver/Am category.
In essence, the SRO’s idea is to create a platform for inexperienced Silvers to become established in GT3 alongside a Bronze-graded amateur. Together, they will compete for class honours, with a view to earning a fully paid drive in Pro-Am in the future.
However, whilst Ratcliffe has no arguments with the principle of Silver/Am, he is concerned that British GT has lost ground to other championships and will not be able to attract enough entries to make it worthwhile. Ratcliffe tested a Carrera Cup car with Joe Tandy Racing this week, but is looking to keep his hand in GTs with an outing in the Gulf 12 Hours scheduled for December alongside Joe Osborne and Flick Haigh.
— Ryan Ratcliffe (@RyanRatcliffe14) November 2, 2016
“I said that if they introduced it, I’d do it, but in my opinion now it’s too late,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of drivers that would have wanted to do it, but they’ve taken different routes now. You look at the people that have gone into the Porsche Carrera Cup this year, I think if there was somewhere for them to go in GT racing then they would have done that.
“Definitely I think it is a great thing for them to introduce and there’s a huge market for people to do it, but they should have seen that there was a market for it two or three years ago. If that category was there when I won the British GT4 championship in 2013, I probably would have gone into it straight away.
“I’ve had a couple of people ask me if I would do the championship next year, but I’ve said to them I’d have to see the entry list first because I don’t want to commit to something and find out there’s only two cars in it, which would just be a waste of time. For us to be the only Silver Cup car running around this year was a bit pointless really, but we’ve learned our lesson there.”
Another driver approached by Racing.GT who preferred to remain anonymous agreed that momentum is against GT3, with LMP3 and GT4 offering cost-effective alternate routes into endurance racing. This week, Ford became the latest manufacturer to launch a new GT4 car, which could join BMW’s M4 GT4 in the British championship in 2018.
Ladies and gentlemen, the 5.2-litre V8-powered @FordPerformance Mustang GT4 has landed!
— British GT (@BritishGT) November 3, 2016
“I certainly agree with the too little too late comment,” they said. “Look at the numbers of gents testing LMP3 cars with United Autosport [exclusive Onroak supplier to the UK] and also the amount of new GT4 cars appearing – pretty much every gent on the British GT grid has tested an LMP3 or a new GT4 car.”
It’s also worth considering that the increasingly prohibitive costs of competing in GT3 means there are predominantly two kinds of gentleman drivers entering the class.
“The issue is for drivers like me is that gents who will be staying in GT3 next year will either have a massive budget and are prepared to actually employ a true Pro, or they are gents who are looking for more a 50/50 budget split,” they continued.
“The result is it’s either the kids with big family budgets or the true Pros that have the seats. The old method of being quick and only having to bring a small budget does not exist anymore in GT3. I have more of a chance of getting a full professional drive in something like GT4.”
This perspective is echoed by Jack Bartholomew, who narrowly missed out on the GT4 title to Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson. While the Optimum Motorsport pair have already announced that they will be returning to defend their crown in 2017, Bartholomew was widely expected to make the step up to GT3 and tested with Beechdean at Snetterton. However, Racing.GT understands that will not now be the case.
— Jack Bartholomew (@JBRacing89) September 30, 2016
18-year-old Bartholomew argues that inexperienced Silver drivers could struggle to balance learning GT3s with coaching their amateur team-mate and that it could prove detrimental to their career in the long term.
“I think the setup works well if you’re a rich Am or a well-established Pro, but when you’re trying to make your way through, it’s challenging to know what’s best,” he said.
“You want to be at a level where you can go to an Am and say ‘this is what I’ve done, I can help you win races and bring you on’, but as a young driver who has still got a lot to learn and still progressing myself, especially then stepping up to GT3 and having to learn the car as well, it makes it hard.
“And it’s also finding the right Am,” he continued. “Once you’re being paid it doesn’t matter what the Am is like, you just plug away at it, but if you’re still trying to develop yourself as a driver and you don’t get the right results, then it doesn’t look very good and it’s hard to find other drives elsewhere.”
All that being said, it’s worth bearing in mind that these are still very early days. With 164 days until the first race at Oulton Park, there is still plenty of time for deals to be put together and for the entire complexion of the debate to turn on it’s head.
“I’m a bit sceptical on how many numbers, but it’s like any championship – they could have three next year and twelve the year after,” concedes Ratcliffe. “You never know with these things. Just look at Carrera Cup, last year they had four Pro cars and this year they had 12!
“In three months’ time they could turn around and say we’ve got 30 GT3 cars – it’s just one of those things where you’ve got to wait and see who enters. There are a lot of drivers out there and for guys like Graham and Mike, if they were to go into GT3 next year that would be the perfect platform for them.”