Special report: FIA's less-than-perfect driver ratings system for racers explained

Things are, in case you haven’t heard, tough all over. That’s especially true in motorsports. Virtually every series took a hit as a result of the 2008 recession, and a decade later, the search for suitable sponsorship — which rivals synthetic oil as the most critical lubricant needed for a race team — is more difficult than ever. In a sense, professional sports-car racing is self-lubricating. Gentlemen drivers — that’s the term, though there are multiple gentlewomen racers—often bring money in exchange for the opportunity to compete alongside drivers who get paid. At the very pinnacle — and that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours at Sebring — amateurs are not only allowed to compete, they are cultivated and coveted. In what other pro sport does that happen? No one gets to write a check and play in the Super Bowl. But a big enough check, and marginal proof of a minimum level of driving talent, and you can be part of the starting grid at Le Mans.

The FIA World Endurance Championship, the series that governs Le Mans, has long had a driver-rating system to rank drivers, with the intent of making certain Pro-Am classes are a proper mix of pros and amateurs. The ratings system has four levels: Platinum, for the most successful pro racers, followed by Gold, the other pro category. Amateurs are ranked as Silver or Bronze. In WEC, rules say that in the LMP2 prototype class, “a crew of two or three drivers must include at least one Silver or Bronze driver.” In the LMGTE Am production-based class, “a crew of two or three drivers must include at least one Bronze and one Bronze or Silver driver.” LMP1 is open, though Bronze drivers aren’t allowed. LMGTE Pro is completely open, so drivers are almost always pros. Bronze and Silver drivers typically pay to race. Gold and Platinum drivers get paid to race. Since the FIA doesn’t have access to drivers’ bank accounts, that remains a generalization. In North America, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s drivers are part of those FIA WEC rankings, and rule changes for the 2019 season make that more important than ever. More about that in a moment. Want to know where your favorite drivers rank? Log on to fia.com/fia-driver-categorisation and look them up. The list is 76 pages long, with about 50 drivers per page, from A (José Luis Abadin, Silver) to Z (Charles Zwolsman, Gold). That’s about 3,750 drivers (we didn’t realize there were that many, either).

At that same web address, you’ll also find a six-page explanation of how the FIA determines the ratings. In short: “Drivers will be evaluated initially on their record of achievements (age plus career record), then on their overall performance and average time during the races.” Age is indeed a factor: Turn 50, and a driver is reduced by one category (from Gold to Silver, for instance). Tom Kristensen, with a record nine wins at Le Mans, is a Platinum if there ever was one, but he turned 50 in 2017, and he consequently was rated as Gold for 2018. At 55, you are dropped one more category, and at 60, you are Bronze, period—even if you are, say, former Corvette Racing factory driver Andy Pilgrim, who has five podium finishes at Le Mans. But since Pilgrim is 62, he’s Bronze, and he’s among a handful of drivers who are still very fast but count as an amateur in Pro-Am classes—and are thus in demand. While the FIA has a long list of criteria for categorizing racers, there’s still a large subjective element. When the rankings are released each November, there’s often an outcry from some Silver drivers who are suddenly classified as Gold. If you are a fast Silver, that means you are still considered an amateur, and teams are always looking for the fastest amateurs they can find. When a Silver gets bumped up to Gold, he or she is swimming in a much larger, shark-infested pond. The FIA has an appeals process; just fill out more forms and send in 250 euros ($289), and it’ll look it over. 

So why is this so important for the IMSA WeatherTech series in 2019? Mostly because of a rule change in the prototype class. When Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series merged into the WeatherTech series in 2014, every attempt was made to balance the performance of the Daytona Prototypes from Grand-Am against the very different LMP2 cars from ALMS. Even as the Daytona Prototype evolved into the DPi model, and the P2 cars evolved as well, it has been difficult to match the two. So for 2019, IMSA makes the DPi the dominant prototype class, with the LMP2 cars becoming a Pro-Am class, joining the GT Daytona class, which is also Pro-Am.  Both classes will follow the same rules for its driver lineups. LMP2 and GTD teams will be required to use at least one Bronze- or Silver-rated driver for every regular-length race and will be allowed no more than one Platinum driver. In the four long endurance races—Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta—IMSA will, it says, “balance driver combinations for three-, four- and five-driver lineups with an emphasis on Bronze and Silver drivers. Maximum drive time for Gold and Platinum drivers will be limited.” Confusing? Yes. And, according to some drivers, flawed. Scott Pruett, who has five overall wins at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, one overall win at Sebring and a class win at Le Mans, would like to see some changes made, such as quarterly reviews that could move a driver up or down in the rankings as the season progresses—as it is, whatever you are in the November rankings, you are for the entire next season.  “I understand the framework, and I understand the need for it. But there have been times I’ve come to Daytona and—well, there have been drivers I don’t even consider to be a Bronze. They’re more like a Lead. They need to make sure these guys have the proper qualifications.”

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