Why Driver Ratings Remain Murky Business for Sports Car Racing
A rating of platinum, the highest for accomplished pros, or gold designates a driver as a professional.
Silver and bronze are assigned to amateurs, the latter often being described as gentlemen drivers.
IMSA’s LMP2, LMP3 and GTD classes limit the number of platinum or gold drivers, i.e., professionals.
It’s a system that works well for those bringing the money—but not so well for those seeking driving seats.
So, you want to race a sports car in a recognized series?
First you need a driver rating. Then you will be reviewed annually by the FIA, which receives input from SRO Motorsports Group founder Stephane Ratel. In other words, your career is subject to a process that remains obscured in mystery.
A rating of platinum, the highest for accomplished pros, or gold designates a driver as a professional. Silver and bronze are assigned to amateurs, the latter often being described as gentlemen drivers. That’s where the clarity ends.
Why do series like IMSA rely on driver ratings? When there’s no manufacturer footing the bill, sports car racing is often funded by gentlemen drivers who buy the cars, pay for the teams and their co-drivers. Given the hefty sums involved, the gentlemen drivers want to race for victories on an equal footing with other teams.
“A lot of people want to get rid of them, but I don’t think they see what the outcome would be,” said Bill Riley, whose Riley Motorsports team is helping to field two cars in the Rolex 24 at Daytona for paying drivers. One is an LMP3 car entered for silver driver Gar Robinson and the other a GTD class Porsche 911 GT3 R entered with Kellymoss for bronze driver Alan Metni. “A lot of these drivers who are racing sports cars are paying the bills. And they want to be racing against their peers. That’s what the driver ratings does. The murkiness is between all the ranks, especially silver and gold and bronze and silver. That gets really murky.”
IMSA’s LMP2, LMP3 and GTD classes limit the number of platinum or gold drivers, i.e., professionals. It’s a system that works well for those bringing the money – but not so well for those seeking driving seats. Teams are limited by the rules on how many pros they can run based on whether the paying driver is a bronze or a silver.
But, at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, a fourth driver can be any rating – as long as the team can afford to pay, for example, a platinum driver. That’s how last year’s overall winning co-driver at the Rolex last year, Oliver Jarvis, ended up on the LMP2 team of PR1-Mathiasen, a favorite to win the class where Ben Keating is the bronze driver. But being a platinum-rated driver often means it’s hard to find work if you’re not a factory driver being placed on teams to enhance victory opportunities or if you’re not relatively young.
“How unusual is it where everybody wants to be the lowest rating possible,” said Johnny O’Connell, who recently became a bronze thanks to his 60th birthday. “It prevents a lot of guys from getting work. The best example in my mind is Joey Hand. Ford leaves and he’s left high and dry because he’s a platinum (without a factory contract).
“I haven’t raced in five years,” continued O’Connell, the overall Rolex 24 winner in 2001 with Corvette Racing who could not find rides once his GM contract ended—but his platinum rating continued. “I would like to think I would have been racing if I was a bronze. It’s a crazy competitive environment now and I have empathy for any young driver coming up and trying to make a career in sports cars right now.”
Age being one of the many caveats in the often-convoluted ratings system, O’Connell’s new bronze status immediately opened up an opportunity in the GT America series this year.
A fast silver driver is golden, so to speak, because they are in demand for teams looking for a driver to carry its less experienced drivers while meeting the entry requirements that limit the use of pro drivers.
Driver Stevan McAleer was in the running for a GTD championship in the WeatherTech Championship last year in the Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Team Korthoff as a silver-rated driver and ended up third in the points. His opportunity to continue with Korthoff ended this year after he was upgraded to gold.
“I was for sure back at Mercedes in GTD,” he said, “but with the condition that I remained a silver. As you get better, you get uprated and there’s less opportunity.” McAleer continues to race in IMSA’s support series and work as a driving instructor, but losing his WeatherTech ride meant a significant drop in his income.
It’s possible for a driver to pay to file an appeal of their rating, usually focused on getting a lower rating.
McAleer was told his appeal was denied based on his lap times during the 2022 season.
Platinum-rated Patrick Long would like to see a more consistent review process. A longtime factory driver for Porsche now retired from that role, Long filed to get a review on his platinum status in hopes of getting more opportunities to continue racing as an independent and was turned down without explanation. “Drivers deserve to know why their appeal is turned down,” he said.
Ben Keating is sports car racing’s most successful and best-known bronze driver. He will race a Corvette C8.R in the World Endurance Championship this year, where the GT3 class requires a bronze driver. Driving an Aston Martin Vantage AMR of TF Sport last year, Keating won the LM GT Am driver’s trophy in the WEC.
“If you’re going to have a pro-am class,” said Keating, “you’ve gotta have a way to identify who are the pros and who are the ams? There is no perfect system. I think the FIA, any series, gets a ton of heat over the driver ratings systems. Everybody talks about if the rules are like this or that, I don’t believe that. I believe the one they have right now is pretty doggone good. The reason I say that, there is no perfect system.”
As it is, the system creates a lot of animosity and backbiting in various racing series garages about who gets an unwanted upgrade and who is able to get a downgrade or stay in the often “golden” category of silver, best described as semi-pro, whether a driver earns a living in racing or not.
“There are a lot of people who think I should be upgraded to silver,” said Keating, who would not be eligible for his WEC ride this season with Corvette as a silver. “Yes, it’s based off of lap times, off of performance. There has to be a reasonable definition of the back class. Because I own a bunch of businesses, because I’m 51 years old, because I’m paying for all of the budget myself for the races I’m doing, because I don’t have any ambition to go pro, I am the perfect definition of a bronze driver.”
In the past, that definition enabled Keating to pick which quick silver driver he hires to co-drive in longer races—which invariably changes each year due to the ratings system—as well hiring one professional. Much of Keating’s success on a variety of teams in IMSA and in a variety of cars has come with a long-running relationship with Jeroen Bleekemolen, who is perennially quick but has managed to remain a gold instead of platinum driver.
The FIA publishes driving ratings at fia.com/fia-driver-categorisation for nearly 4,000 drivers. “The initial categorization,” reads the web page, “is based on the driver's age and career record, which may be adjusted in subsequent seasons according to the recorded race pace and results of the series that are using the categorization system.”
The murky part starts and ends with “may be adjusted in subsequent seasons.”
CLICK HERE TO SEE THE FIA DRIVER CATEGORIATION LIST FOR MORE THAN 4,000 DRIVERS.