As the SRO takes a controlling interest in Pirelli World Challenge and becomes more integrated into SRO’s global GT racing platform, the series is looking at the biggest format change in its three-decade history for 2019. The GT class for GT3 cars moves to 90-minute, two-driver races for all events, and the GTS class reverts to 50-minute sprint events exclusively. There will also be a 60-minute SprintX-format series for GT4 cars called GT4 Americas, which will have separate East and West Coast championships of five races each. The Touring Car classes — TCR, TC and TCA — remain mostly unchanged except for an expanded schedule.
While its roots may extend back to the Escort Endurance series, World Challenge has been primarily a sprint, single-driver race format until last year when SprintX, two-driver, 60-minute races were added for half the events. While SprintX has been well received by many teams, the general consensus is that the races weren’t long enough, with drivers sometimes only getting 25 minutes in the car during a race. That factor — and economics — are driving the move to seven weekends of two 90-minute races, which will include the new element of refueling.
“GT is going be a shared driver format going forward,” said Greg Gill, WC Vision president and CEO. “Where costs are today, you can’t run easily by yourself unless you have a tremendous amount of wherewithal to do that. This is an economics-driven decision by the teams. I think all of them would love an individual sprint format — they enjoy that. The pro racers, that was one of the things they loved about the series. But at the end of the day, the paddock has spoken — we’ve listened to our customers, we’re going to move forward.”
One of the arguments in favor of SprintX is that it allowed teams to add in a paying driver, or allowed two paying drivers to split the costs. For those that favor that approach, they’ll have that option with longer races in GT, or the 60-minute races in GT4 Americas. But GTS (pictured above) will be single-driver sprint races only, with separate trophies and podiums for Gold drivers (no Platinum drivers allowed) and Silver/Bronze-rated drivers.
“What will be interesting to watch now is for the single-driver sprint people who have such a passion about it, let’s see if it continues; because by the same token, [at Portland] this weekend we have over 35 GTS SprintX entries; and yet at Road America, 25 GTS single drivers, so you know we have to think about that,” Gill said. “It will be driven by the drivers themselves. If the single-driver format is the best thing in the world for GTS, then they too will have 30-plus cars. If it continues the way it is it may be 18- to 20-car fields. We’ll see, but we want to make sure we make that opportunity for them because it is such a big difference.”
The GT4 Americas series will also allow teams to avoid the cost of cross-country tows, as East and West will be separate championships so teams can concentrate on one or the other if they so choose. Some will be on Pirelli World Challenge weekends that include GT, GTS and Touring Car; others will be standalone events. The combined weekends could give drivers the opportunity to compete in four races on the same weekend in the same car.
The changes were received with reserved approval by the teams in the Portland paddock. Some were in favor of the changes and others expressed doubts, but it seems most are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“I don’t know that I can give a definitive answer on how I feel about it,” said Darren Law, who is the principal owner and program manager of Flying Lizard Racing, which currently fields several Audi R8 LMS GT4s in GTS, and also the program manager for K-PAX Racing, currently competing with a pair of Bentley Continental GT3s in GT. “There are a lot of changes and a lot of stuff we need to look at. We’re trying to analyze how much we save because we have less events, but we’re going to add people because we’re refueling, so there are a lot of different factors to look at.
“The things I feel are positive is having a 90-minute race makes a lot more sense for the two-driver program. It’s nice that they’ve moved it to seven events instead of 10 from a financial standpoint, but I have to think about all of my crew and all of my personnel.”
The move to 14 races over seven weekends for GT means that some current venues will not make the cut. Two that are fairly clear will not return, at least for GT, are the street races at St. Petersburg and Long Beach, although there is a chance that GTS could be featured in the long-running Southern California event. Tracks considered likely to return are COTA, Road America and Watkins Glen. GT4 Americas will have some stand-alone events at new venues, with one rumored to be The Thermal Club near Palm Springs, Calif.
Touring Car will have seven weekends as well, up from six this year, with much of the focus on the new TCR class (pictured above) that has proven popular. “Touring Car remains a sprint format; that’s our heritage and our DNA,” said Gill.
The 2019 Pirelli World Challenge schedule is expected to be announced at the SRO’s 24 Hours of Spa later this month.