With an influx of new teams and drivers to the LMP2 ranks this year, some competitors in the FIA World Endurance Championship have voiced concerns over the direction driver lineups have been evolving in the Pro-Am enforced category.
Teams have argued that an increasing number of lineups this year have utilized questionable Silver-rated drivers, in a class that mandates at least one Bronze or Silver-rated pilot in each car.
“The WEC and FIA really need to work and understand that maybe six or seven guys will quit the championship [because of the two or three questionable silvers],” Onroak Automotive team principal Philippe Dumas told Sportscar365.
“I know it’s not easy, but let’s work on it together to find the best compromise to keep the cars on the grid and to make everyone happy.”
Dumas, who oversees both the Tequila Patron ESM and RGR Sport by Morand teams, has utilized what many would call legitimate gentlemen drivers in its Ligier JS P2 Nissans this year.
Chris Cumming (ESM), Ed Brown (ESM) and Ricardo Gonzalez (RGR Sport) all have full-time jobs away from racing.
“We’ve seen Silver drivers be even faster than the pros,” RGR Sport team owner/driver Gonzalez told Sportscar365. “When you have that situation it’s not fair and it makes it difficult for everybody else.
“It puts us in a tough position to justify all the expense and everything that’s going [into this program].”
The situation first came to light late last year, when GP2 ace Tom Dillmann joined the Signatech Alpine squad and helped take the team to its first class victory in Shanghai, in a dominant run.
With Dillmann having been upgraded to Gold for 2016, the Philippe Sinault-led team has gone with another open-wheel rising star in Gustavo Menezes as its designated Silver.
Menezes and his new-for-2016 co-drivers Nicolas Lapierre and Stephane Richelmi teamed for class victory in last weekend’s WEC Six Hours of Spa.
“Once a team started to look into young drivers, who are pretty much pro drivers, and that gives a result, then other teams do the same,” Gonzalez said.
“That’s the situation we’re in right now which I think could be hurtful for the series in the long run.”
But as Gonzalez noted, it’s not just Signatech’s lineup that’s in question.
LMP2 debutants Manor has utilized 2014 British F3 runner-up Matt Rao as its Silver, while reigning LMP2 World Champion Roman Rusinov, who earned the title as a Gold-rated driver, has been downgraded to Silver status for this year.
G-Drive Racing has scored poles in the opening two races of the season, thanks largely in part to Rusinov’s performance.
The current rules require the Bronze/Silver-rated driver to be one of the two drivers to qualify the car.
“We, as a team, know we can’t qualify on pole because the gap between the Silvers and the pros is too much so we don’t put any emphasis on it, which is a shame,” Strakka Racing’s Nick Leventis told Sportscar365.
“When Silvers are qualifying one-tenth off their Platinum, it doesn’t make sense. We can’t compete with that.
“If we can have the two fastest drivers qualifying the car, that would probably be more exciting, in my opinion.”
For Menezes, who has been one of the early revelations of the year, the 21-year-old Silver-rated American says the current system helps drivers like himself become established in the sport.
Menezes hasn’t hidden his desires of one day becoming a factory LMP1 driver and understands that this year is more-or-less a stepping stone to fulfilling his goal of becoming a full professional sports car racing driver.
“As you can see, there’s a lot of Silver drivers like me that people might call questionable,” Menezes said on this week’s Sportscar365 Double Stint Podcast.
“But at the same time, I think it’s giving an opportunity for young drivers like myself to dip our toes in the championship.
“And when the opportunity comes, we’d become Gold drivers and we stick to this career path.”
Signatech team boss Sinault, who has masterminded arguably one of the strongest lineups in the class this year, however, admits that the current system has caused some controversy.
“I am very humble about the driver categorization in LMP2 and I do not pretend to have the solution,” Sinault told Endurance-Info. “I think it reaches the limit for the year. The question to ask is: ‘What is a Silver?’
“To avoid problems, maybe we should eliminate this categorization in WEC.”
ESM’s Brown, the President and CEO of Patron Spirits Company, who has raced, and won in all-pro classes in IMSA competition, agrees.
“If everybody’s a big boy and you understand that as a Silver you might be racing against all-Platinums in a car… oh well. You made the decision to do that,” he told Sportscar365.
“I think it’s better if a person makes the decision than a series.”
ACO Sporting Director Vincent Beaumesnil said the decision on specific driver ratings is ultimately up to the FIA committee, made up of five people as well as series representatives.
“It’s a building process,” Beaumesnil told Sportscar365. “If you look at the [driver ratings] list, maybe you can discuss 10 or 15 names out of 3,000 drivers, which is not so bad.
“If we are in a situation that some drivers are playing bad games and are trying to influence [the system], this is another thing. But it will be in the hands of the commission.”
While drivers are locked into their ratings for the season, Beaumesnil said the WEC has constantly been evaluating its options for the future of the LMP2 class.
“You have several solutions: You keep it like it is, you can go further and impose more [restrictions] or you say no more driver grading in LMP2,” he said.
“This is something that will again be discussed in the next Sporting Working Group with all of the parties involved.
“Honestly, I don’t know what the result will be.”
Onroak’s Dumas, who is the LMP2 team representative in the Sporting Working Group, said he will put forth a proposal of his own later this month, although declining to go into detail on his theory.
“It’s important to have cars on track, it’s important to have the best grid, so let’s imagine something different that would bring everybody together,” he said.