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Mowlem’s National Racing Column: How Dangerous Is The Arms Race?

A look at how things have changed in the UK scene over the past two decades

As announced at the end of 2016, Johnny Mowlem brought to an end his 18-year professional sportscar career. Now with an eye on the future he has set up a motorsport mentoring and coaching agency, which guides his various clients down a path towards they themselves competing potentially at the highest levels in sportscars.

This has brought Johnny full circle, as he now gets an opportunity to coach and compete alongside some of his clients back at the grassroots level of the sport, some 20 plus years on from when he last raced in national level championships.

An awful lot has changed in the motorsport landscape, especially at regional and national level since the late 90s, so DSC felt it would be interesting to tap into Johnny’s perspective on the current state of the world of national motorsport, how the motorsport business model has shifted over the last decade with the advent of different classes of GT and prototype cars and just generally provide a platform to pick his brain throughout the season on various topical stories.

Here’s the first instalment:

Well it’s May, and I’m firmly back in the UK national racing scene on a regular basis for the first time since 1997. It’s been a refreshing experience, but also a very enlightening one. A lot has changed in recent years, but in some ways it feels like I’ve never been away, even to the point of being back writing columns for DSC once again!

Having said that I’m a lot older, and hopefully a tiny bit wiser, and certainly much less intense these days now that I don’t feel I have to constantly keep pushing my career 24/7, and so my intention with this platform that I have so kindly been offered, is to give my take on the motorsport world that I have inhabited for the last 25 years, and hopefully make it interesting and centre it around others in this beautiful sport that provides so many of us with so much enjoyment.

So far this year I’ve competed in Britcar British Endurance championship and GT Cup with Red River Sport clients Bonamy Grimes, and in the International GT Open with Ivor Dunbar. In my younger days both the former championships I don’t think even existed, and certainly there was no “official” Pro/Am class in the GT Open championship even when I raced there 10 years ago.

Let’s start with taking a look at the growth of the Pro/Am class in motorsport, something that has happened at every level of sportscar racing over the last 10 to 12 years.

Should we worry about the gentlemen driver?

Motorsport is cyclical, and at its core it’s centred around spending money to compete. Back when I first started, the landscape of the smaller national series’ like Britcar was very different. Often, the wealthy individuals, who now drive, would pay to own a racing team and fund projects as a hobby, sometimes with two cars, one for them to drive with a fellow gentleman or pro driver , and then a second car that would be driven by two fast pros, going for the victories.

With wealthy individuals now having the option to pay pro drivers to train them, and compete alongside them at a high level; it’s rapidly changed the business model

When the economic crisis began to hit in the late noughties, grids started dwindling as a result, and the driver grading system was introduced to try and encourage wealthy gentlemen drivers onto the grid, by giving them a structure under which they could actually win major races if they became good enough to beat fellow amateurs, as opposed to previously where they would most likely during their stints have been driving against professional drivers. This customer racing formula has revolutionised most of the sportscar racing world, from the Le Mans 24 hours downwards.

In years gone by there would perhaps only be a handful of good Gentlemen drivers racing at the top levels of sportscar racing, now there are hundreds, and for good reason.

With wealthy individuals now having the option to pay pro drivers to train them, and compete alongside them at a high level; it’s rapidly changed the business model. In the old days for an up-and-coming aspiring professional driver, it was all about finding the sponsorship to fund their attempts to make it to the top. Now it has become as important for them to find a gentleman driver that will fund their racing and allow them to race alongside him and allow their talents to shine, with a view to this hopefully attracting the attention of a manufacturer or professional privateer team.

This has bled down into the national levels of the sport, witness what you can see in Britcar and GT Cup, especially with what’s happening within teams such as the FF Corse Ferrari team.

The resulting market for GT4 and GT3 cars, not to mention the ubiquitous LMP3 market, has blossomed significantly in recent years, all of which has brought a lot more cars to various different grids, and afforded a lot more opportunities for both Gentlemen drivers, and aspiring young pros, to get out there racing, all of which I think is very positive.

However, like most things, it does have its downsides, in part because even at the lower levels of the sport, it’s all becoming far more serious than it used to be. It’s harder these days for the ‘weekend warriors’ to compete in these national series’. It has turned into a little bit of an “arms race”, not just with the race car itself, but often also in terms of getting the training and coaching and choosing a co pro-driver, making it more expensive and time consuming. It means that those with less money, but just as much passion, are often finding it harder and harder to remain competitive.

It’s got to the point where the front-end is looking far more professional and serious than it ever has before

In the ‘boom and bust’ universe of GT and sportscars, this can present a problem. While there will always be those with more money at the front, causing some others to drop out or look elsewhere to race, it’s got to the point where the front-end is looking far more professional and serious than it ever has before. Only time will tell you how sustainable this is.

All I will say on this point from a Red River Sport viewpoint, is that we are looking to train and coach our drivers on a journey to see exactly how far their talent can take them, and with this in mind both the Britcar and GT Cup championships very much tick that box in terms of providing a professionally run and yet friendly environment that allows our clients to gain valuable experience on a whole range of areas, from tyre management to race craft.

But that is what we very much view this as, a step on the ladder, for them to progress up from. We aren’t “pot hunting”, it’s a means to an end for us to provide our drivers with the best possible grounding, and so those hardcore, diehard competitors who compete year-in year-out in all the differing levels of national and regional championships should never be forgotten or undervalued, as they are the life blood of the national racing scene.

Keeping up with the Jones’

GT3 and GT4’s rise has led to more gentlemen drivers approaching motorsport with high aspirations and looking to win big races. This means there are more drivers out there, looking to do whatever it take to win, and therefore buy faster cars and employ better drivers to race with them.

It means that series’ like Britcar are more susceptible to grids littered with brand new GT machinery like Super Trofeo Lamborghinis and 488 GT3s. In some ways it’s a good thing, but it may well burst the bubble eventually when the cost rises too high. Looking at the price of the current crop of GT3 cars, you can easily spend hundreds of thousands on kit to race in a series like GT Cup, and still finish off the overall podium.

You need to be smart about your approach because of this, and not dive straight in at the deep end.

Making a career from coaching

The biggest benefit of the Pro/Am situation is that it has created careers for so many drivers who in the past might have faded away. There’s more opportunities for young drivers out there, who if they make the right connection with a senior racer, can forge a career, racing in some of the most high-profile series on the planet.

It’s a competitive market place as ever in the driver coaching universe, as you’d expect, but it’s healthy to have this many highly motivated drivers out there, actually earning a living and keeping interest alive in the sport.

For now there appears to be definite boom in driver coaching, especially at the national level. The only caveat is that often these young drivers need to be careful that they don’t lead their gentleman co-drivers down a path that they think will suit themselves best in terms of their own career aspirations.

Looking at the price of the current crop of GT3 cars, you can easily spend hundreds of thousands on kit to race in a series like GT Cup

I understand sometimes that could even be a subconscious factor, as it is a very tough slog that requires an huge amount of determination and some level of selfishness for a young driver to reach that magical point where a team will hire and pay you to drive. But in the long term it may serve them far better to put their gentleman drivers’ interests above their own.

What does the future hold?

All motorsport eras are cyclical, and it will be interesting to see where the sport goes in the next 5 years especially. Will the lower level, “friends & family” run race teams in the UK be left out in the cold, pushed out by those with higher budgets?

This can even happen in top series like the WEC or ELMS. For example the future of the WEC GTE Am class looks a little shaky, certainly in comparison to the blossoming factory GTE Pro category. Currently the highest level of Pro/Am racing in the world is arguably the LMP2 class in the WEC, which this year is blossoming. But this also runs the risk of becoming a victim of its own success and effectively pricing it’s stalwart gentlemen driver supporters out of the market.

How big these peaks and troughs become will all depend on how well each series or championship organiser manages their respective championships and takes care of their customers

Also, the fewer factory LMP1 cars there are on the grid, the less opportunities there are for young ex-single seater drivers to use the LMP2 class as a stepping stone towards a factory LMP1 drive. That will in turn will make them and their families/sponsors less likely to carry on paying money to race in an LMP2 class that is fast growing into telephone number budget sizes, to run a car for full-season of WEC, especially as it includes Le Mans.

But in there lies the crux of the matter in my opinion. The Le Mans 24 hours invokes such emotion in team owners, manufacturers, drivers and marketeers alike, that even though there will always be peaks and troughs, there will always be a market for people to want to race cars around the famous circuit.

How big these peaks and troughs become will all depend on how well each series or championship organiser manages their respective championships and takes care of their customers. Let’s not forget, every person out there on a grid, regardless of what grid it is, or whether they’re at the front or back, is still playing their part in making motorsport the business and sporting success that it is today.

The next few years are going to be interesting, that’s for sure!

Photos courtesy of Jakob Ebrey Photography