The gentleman drivers of sportscar racing, and why gradings matter

Endurance racing has traditionally welcomed its fair share of amateur drivers at the big events, such as the Le Mans 24 Hours. But for them to stand a chance of competing on an even keel, a system of gradings was introduced that has become an accepted part of the landscape in sportscars

The gentleman drivers of sportscar racing, and why gradings matter

The gentleman racer, the enthusiastic amateur, the rich hobbyist, they all have their place in international sportscar racing. And always have.

Whisky heir Rob Walker, the future Formula 1 entrant, drove at least a couple of stints at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1939 wearing a pinstripe suit on Saturday evening. It was that time of the evening, don't you know. A gentleman should always be correctly attired at dinnertime, even if he is racing his Delahaye 135S in the world's greatest endurance event...

Seventy two years later, husband and wife David and Andrea Robertson celebrated their wedding anniversary with a podium finish in GTE Am at Le Mans aboard a Ford GT-R. David thought it only right that he gave his wife some flowers on their special day in 2011. He chose to do so in the pits during the race as his beloved got out of the car for him to take over.

Then there are the drivers who are just rich beyond belief, some courtesy of birth and some through hard graft or that one spark of a bright idea. That's not to forget those who have spent ill-gotten gains competing on the big stage in sportscar racing, and there have been plenty of those down the years.

There are somewhere in the region of 40 drivers in the field for Le Mans this weekend who should probably be classified as true amateurs. Their place has now been enshrined in the rules of international sportscar racing. Over the past 20 or so years, series organisers have laid down regulations stating who can and who can't drive in certain classes.

Its culminated in the FIA's system of driver categorisation, which is now widely used around the globe, including in the World Endurance Championship.

Robertson husband and wife team claimed GTE Am podium at Le Mans in 2011

Robertson husband and wife team claimed GTE Am podium at Le Mans in 2011

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The origins of grading

The idea of categorising drivers for endurance racing and laying down rules on what grade of drivers can share a car can be traced back to the Lamborghini one-make series run by GT racing prime mover Stephane Ratel in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was a simple A-B-C system that was improved upon and then came to greater attention with the rise of the GT3 category in the second half of the 2000s.

On the launch of the class in the FIA GT3 European Championship – a series aimed "primarily for private teams and non-professional drivers", said the sporting regulations – so-called "well-known drivers" were prevented from taking part.

Ex-Formula 1 drivers under the age of 55 were banned, along those who had finished in the top 10 of a major international single-seater series, including Champ Car, Formula 3000 and GP2. The same went for drivers who'd been in the top six of series such as British or Euro Formula 3, or Formula Renault 3.5. The idea of driver grading was taking shape.

It became recognised as the system we have today for the 2007 edition of the GT3 Euro series with the introduction of categories named after precious metals, platinum, gold, silver and bronze. The concept quickly gained traction.

Over in the Le Mans Series, something akin to driver grading came in for the LMP2 class as early as 2008. There was a gentlemen's agreement among the teams running the Porsche RS Spyder that they wouldn't field all-pro line-ups. It was brokered by series boss Patrick Peter, who was concerned that the arrival of a machine that was winning races outright ahead of the LMP1 cars in the American Le Mans Series would frighten off the opposition in class.

The ALMS also took the idea on board. It went for an A-B-C system for its LMPC and GTC classes circa 2010. The FIA soon took up the baton and started working with Ratel's eponymous SRO organisation on a common list to be used the world over.

Team Essex Porsche took second consecutive Le Mans LMP2 win in 2009 with Danes Casper Elgaard and Kristian Poulsen joined by French ace Emmanuel Collard

Team Essex Porsche took second consecutive Le Mans LMP2 win in 2009 with Danes Casper Elgaard and Kristian Poulsen joined by French ace Emmanuel Collard

Photo by: Motorsport Images

How shiny am I as a driver?

The FIA has a series of rules of rules and regulations concerning driver grading. It's neither simple nor succinct, but it is for the most part logical.

To be categorised as a platinum you have to satisfy any two criteria from a long list. Among them are the possession at any time in your career of the superlicence required to race in Formula 1 and a Le Mans victory in one of the professional classes.

A top-five championship placing in the WEC, the IndyCar Series, Formula E, Formula 2 (and Formula 3000 and GP2 before that) are also qualifying criteria. Ditto a top-three end-of-year points finish in Formula 3 (old and new), Formula Renault 3.5, Super Formula and the like. If you've been a factory driver at any time, that also gives you one of the two ticks that will make you a platinum.

There's a similar list for gold status, though drivers only have to fulfil one of the criteria.

A top-three in the points of what the FIA deems a "secondary international single-seater series" is enough to ensure gold status. Formula Renault is mentioned along with Indy Lights. If you've raced in F2, GP2, FIA F3, GP3 or Super Formula since 2012 and have finished on the podium three or more times in one season, then you're gold. Just like if you've won the British Touring Car Championship, for example.

It's worth pointing out that asterisks abound in the FIA regulations along with catch-all clauses talking about performance. The FIA reserves the right to make the final call on driver grading. The odd ringer does slip through the net, but the governing body's intention is to prevent that.

Any driver under 30 who doesn't meet any of the criteria in the highest two rankings is automatically silver, with only a few exceptions. If you've competed in what is termed "high-level karting" you get this rating as well. Bronze is more or less everyone else.

GTE Am lineups tend to pair a Bronze, Silver and Gold or Platinum

GTE Am lineups tend to pair a Bronze, Silver and Gold or Platinum

Photo by: Marc Fleury

The benefits of age

The age of a driver does affect his or her rating. For example, once you get to 60, you're automatically bronze no matter what you've done in your career. That will even go for Lewis Hamilton in 2045. You should also go down a grade on your 50th and 55th birthdays, though there are exceptions.

These rules have resulted in a new phenomenon in motor racing: drivers exaggerating their age rather than knocking a few years off. There was a well-known British driver, once a star of the BTCC, who hadn't come clean about his age for years. When driver gradings came along, whose little white lies veered in the other direction. He aged more than 10 years at the stroke of a pen!

It would probably be wrong to name him, but he hasn't hung up his helmet just yet. You'd probably have to sneak a look at his passport to know for sure how old he is.

There are also exceptions for inactivity. Ben Hanley, once a member of the Renault F1 team's young driver programme, took advantage of this to restart his car racing career after a five-year break. He was a sought-after silver when he made his comeback in sportscars with DragonSpeed in 2016, but was quickly uprated to gold.

Hanley restarted his career after a spell racing karts as an attractive silver in 2016

Hanley restarted his career after a spell racing karts as an attractive silver in 2016

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Who can do what?

Different series have different rules, but in the case of the WEC there are two classes that might broadly be termed pro-am. There's LMP2 and, you've guessed it, GTE Am.

LMP2 traditionally demanded one silver driver per line-up, though for this year in both the WEC and the sister European Le Mans Series there's what you can call a sub-class named Pro/Am. Here you need to have a bronze driver, though he or she can drive with two team-mates of any grading, platinum included.

GTE Am only allows one professional of either platinum or gold status and mandates a bronze. The typical make-up of a line-up in this class is gold-silver-bronze.

#29 Racing Team Nederland ORECA competes in the LMP2 Pro/Am division with supermarket chain owner Frits Van Eerd as the Bronze

#29 Racing Team Nederland ORECA competes in the LMP2 Pro/Am division with supermarket chain owner Frits Van Eerd as the Bronze

Photo by: Marc Fleury

Why does it matter?

A team could probably find 100 platinums and golds who'd all be within a couple of tenths of each other. The unfair advantage is there to be found in the choice of silver. In LMP2 everyone is on the look-out for what is sometimes dubbed a 'super-silver', though a better description might be a silver who is worth his (or her) weight in gold.

This year the Belgian WRT squad, which has entered the LMP2 arena full-time, went looking for such a driver. It settled on Frenchman Charles Milesi. A race winner in the Formula Renault Eurocup in 2018, his experience encompasses a year in Japanese F3 and some Super Formula, but his results weren't enough for him to be classified as a gold.

There have been some "surprising silvers" over the years. Tom Dillmann was a race winner in GP2 back in 2012, but his results didn't result in him being upgraded to gold. He didn't finish in the top five in the championship nor manage the three podiums in a season. The Signatech Alpine LMP2 squad called him up as their silver for the last two races of the 2016 WEC, helping the team to victory in Shanghai to the chagrin of much of the rest of the class field.

A decent bronze has less currency, at least in the WEC. It is the bronze driver who is usually funding the programme in LMP2 Pro/Am and GTE Am.

The pace of the silvers and bronzes is important because there are rules and regulations governing the time drivers must spend behind the wheel during the races that employ the driver categorisation system. At Le Mans both silvers and bronzes have do six hours of the race.

Back in 1984 the late 'John Winter', a wealthy wood merchant whose real name was Louis Krages, won Le Mans in 1985 sharing a Joest Porsche 956 with Klaus Ludwig and Paolo Barilla, yet he drove for less than an hour - and most of it behind the safety car. The days of the gent watching highly-paid team-mates trying to win him a trophy from the pits are a thing of the past.

'Winter' drove minimal laps to claim victory in 1985 alongside team-mates Ludwig and Barilla in Joest 956

'Winter' drove minimal laps to claim victory in 1985 alongside team-mates Ludwig and Barilla in Joest 956

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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