Opinion: Driver ratings need to go

The FIA sanctioning body has released its driver ratings for the 2016 season, with several big names being demoted from Gold to Silver.

Alastair Staley

It’s been a hot topic in recent years and the controversial and often tedious debate of driver ratings re-entered the spotlight again this week, following the release of the FIA’s finalized 2016 list.

Regulated by the FIA but utilizing input from the ACO, IMSA, SRO and other global motorsports governing bodies, the driver ratings list is used in nearly every Pro-Am-enforced sports car racing championship in the world, and for good reason.

It separates the professional drivers from the amateurs, and is aimed to give gentlemen drivers a fair-as-possible chance of achieving success in the Pro-Am environment.

However, given some of the recent driver re-classifications, which have placed numerous top-level pros as amateurs, the exact system built to protect the gentlemen drivers is now working against them.

When the likes of five-time Grand-Am champion Scott Pruett — the winningest driver in IMSA history — gets reclassified from Gold to Silver status for 2016, it creates a loophole allowing teams to effectively field an all-pro lineup in a Pro-Am regulated class.

Pruett, who turned 55 in March, which triggered the downgraded rating per the rules, is just one of several drivers to have been reclassified lately, either by age or by request from the driver themselves.

Road racing veterans and former champions Ozz Negri and Boris Said were downgraded to Silver in 2015 and have been joined by other established pros such as Katherine Legge, Guy Cosmo and Gunnar Jeannette in gaining “amateur” status for next year.

Pruett downgraded to silver as FIA releases 2016 driver ratings

The FIA does not release explanations for individual re-classifications, but outside of driver hitting an age milestone (50, 55 or 60 years of age), drivers are often downgraded if they can prove they make their living outside of the sport.

The often subjective re-classification system had previously come under much criticism, particularly in the ALMS when IMSA ran its own ratings system, prior to the merger of a global list governed by the FIA.

But things haven’t gotten any better under the FIA’s control, with a number of drivers, such as Cosmo, Jeff Segal and Rui Aguas shifting back and forth between Gold and Silver status multiple times, even in the same year, due to petitioning for re-evaluations.

For proof of how convoluted the system has become, Roman Rusinov, who as a Gold-rated driver helped take G-Drive Racing to this year’s WEC LMP2 World Championship, has been downgraded to Silver status for 2016, yet Gary Hirsch, who won the 2015 ELMS P2 title with Greaves Motorsport as a Silver, has been upgraded to Gold.

The inconsistency in rating reclassifications has resulted in havoc within the driver market, with most drivers who were upgraded to Gold — oftentimes late in the off-season — not landing rides for the following year.

And it’s not for lack of talent. Sean Rayhall, a standout Prototype Challenge driver in 2014, was left without a drive for much of this year after being upgraded to Gold. The 20-year-old rising star resorted to crowdfunding campaigns in order to stay in the cockpit.

Despite someone like Pruett — who I rate as one of the top-20 sports car drivers in the world active today — now being a Silver for 2016, drivers like Rayhall continue to be stuck in the purgatorial state of Gold, and struggling to advance their careers.

This has to stop. The driver ratings system has cost some drivers their careers, just depending on which side of the coin you’re on, and it will continue, no matter the way you look at it, unless the system is eliminated.

Additionally, it will eventually drive more and more gentlemen drivers out of the sport, altogether, due to an increasing number of teams “gaming” the system with effectively all-pro lineups in Pro-Am-enforced classes.

It hasn’t happened yet, but imagine a LMP2 lineup at Le Mans or in the WEC hypothetically consisting of Negri, Sam Bird and Nicolas Lapierre. They’d blow the entire field away, in a class that by the rules, is supposed to feature at least one Am.

What kind of motivation would that give the likes of Ed Brown, Julien Canal or David Heinemeier Hansson — true gentlemen drivers who make their livings away from the sport — motivation to continue spending upwards of $4 million a year, only to get beaten by effectively an all-pro lineup?

Oftentimes, I wonder what sports car racing would look like today if the ratings system didn’t exist. And you only have to rewind the clock a few years, to the Grand-Am era, to see that Pro-Am racing strived without sanctioning body control.

Financial investor Emil Assentato, alongside an up-and-comer Segal, scored a pair of GT championships in 2010 and 2012, at a time when there were all-pro lineups in the class. In 2009, Dirk Werner and a then-considered amateur driver, Leh Keen, took the GT title.

How did they do it? They beat the pros, but at a time when there was a more-or-less a gentlemen agreement among GT entrants not to have a dynamite pro-pro lineup in the class.

The same worked in the FIA GT Championship in the early to mid 2000s, and was even effective in the early days of the ALMS, prior to the factory revolution in GT.

Could that same philosophy work in this day and age? Perhaps, because it’s ultimately the only solution that would ensure nobody’s gaming the system, because there would be no rules.

Privateer teams in the current Pro-Am-enforced classes such as IMSA PC and GTD will always need gentlemen drivers to fund their programs, so the enforcement would come naturally. Sure, there would be a few that could slip through the cracks, but aren’t we seeing that already?

As long as there’s always a ratings system, whether it’d be the current medallion-based system, or a simple “Pro” and “Am” classification, there will always be controversy, and it just dilutes the sport and makes it over-complicated for the fans.

Personally, I want to get back to what we’re all here for, and that’s to race.

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Article originally on SportsCar365.com