The Pirelli World Challenge resumed its 2017 season with the kickoff to its second half of competition this past weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, traditionally an important weekend for the series’ current season title battles and next year’s planning.
World Challenge has run an interesting 2017 season to date. The competition hasn’t been lacking in the headlining GT class; thus far there have been five different driver combinations from five different manufacturers (Ferrari, Mercedes-AMG, Cadillac, Porsche, Audi) that have won the five SprintX races, and a further two drivers and manufacturers (McLaren, Bentley) who’ve won in Sprint as well. GTS also saw six manufacturers win in as many weekends to open its season (Ford, KTM, SIN, Porsche, Panoz, Chevrolet).
Behind the scenes, as World Challenge has sought to establish itself as its own championship trying to emerge from a strong support series platform, there have been inevitable growing pains. The issue of track time – where PWC falls on race weekends it shares with other series – and explaining how good the competition has been has been difficult in some respects because of how complex the series format is in 2017 with three different GT championships: Sprint, SprintX and overall.
We caught up with Greg Gill, president/CEO of WC Vision (PWC’s series producers) and Marcus Haselgrove, WC Vision vice president, Competition, for a check-in on where things sit through the first half of the year as the series begins its stretch run to the end of 2017.
The competition aspect is certainly there within most if not all the series’ classes. As noted, both GT and GTS have seen a variety of winners at the start of the year, and the increased number of new cars in the Touring Car ranks has bolstered those classes’ presentation this year.
“BoP will always be a lighting rod and question mark. But it comes down to having world class teams, manufacturers and preparation, and sometimes the luck you get,” Gill told NBC Sports. “I like what was said by a returning GT team, who was here in the late 2000s. They’d run another series, then came back and said, ‘Man when we were here before, it was 3-5 fast guys. Now, everyone is.”
Haselgrove hailed the work of the people investment in TC to help bring those classes forward to pushing high-40s if not low-50s in terms of car counts in TC, TCA and TCB this year, most of them in the TC and TCA classes with TCB dwindling down in popularity. He also made a key point about where the TC classes fit into the overall PWC platform.
“The growth spurt comes there from the manufacturers,” Haselgrove told NBC Sports. “They’re already talking to Greg and I about next year because they’re here now. To me, TC will always be sustainable as it’s at the dealership level for many teams.”
With car count growth though has come the format adjustment for PWC weekends, and how they fit into the overall landscape, and that’s one of the challenges facing PWC moving forward in 2018 and beyond.
It’s worth noting in the past that GT and GTS were combined in on-track sessions before being separated out prior to 2015. That had the knock-on effect of kicking the TC classes out of IndyCar weekends, save for one or two, that year.
What’s happened this year is that the GT and GTS class sessions on IndyCar weekends have been hamstrung both for track time, and for good times, as there’s been a subtle change in the pecking order.
The joint IndyCar and PWC weekends are a hit for fans and for manufacturers; however, more often than not this year PWC sessions are primarily on a Thursday promoter test day, with only one or two sessions to follow each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That means earlier load-in days and travel time for PWC teams, which adds up quickly, and leaves them sitting around for long periods while IndyCar, the Mazda Road to Indy and occasionally the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup are on-track. PWC races have run after IndyCar sessions several times this year.
“Most definitely,” Gill responded when asked if PWC needing to improve the in-weekend schedule for its competitors was something that needs to be explored.
“That has to happen. We’ve come up with some tentative ideas between meetings with INDYCAR and track promoters. For our paddock, it definitely needs to be shortened to make it effective for people.
“We have a great partnership with INDYCAR in this modern era of World Challenge, but we also have to be mindful of the 125-plus drivers we have ourselves; and we can’t get that all done on an IndyCar weekend.”
Gill, who along with PWC plans to release the 2018 schedule at Circuit of The Americas in September, expects a similar number of events but not necessarily at the same dates they are this year.
“It should be 11 or 10 plus one like this year at similar venues; we’re leaning towards that,” Gill said. “The biggest issue we’re facing right now is how do we get this many people in and give them a good weekend race experience.
“I think you’ll see maybe a one or two event growth towards headliner events for us. We surveyed our GT owner group at Road America. They want to continue large scale events, be it with IndyCar, or other series, to continue that level of exposure for the manufacturer partners.”
With Mid-Ohio complete, PWC now heads to two more SprintX weekends with the ever-evolving management structure at the Utah Motorsports Campus and COTA, switched from March to September this year, before its Sprint finale in Sonoma with IndyCar.
Gill’s been happy with SprintX but admits some tweaks are needed for the emerging series, which has seen higher car counts than Sprint (mid-30s versus mid-20s) but also a bit of confusion over rules and regulations.
“So SprintX was something we’re very pleased with the success of, but we’ve already met with our teams to work to how we can make things better in the future,” Gill said. “We’d already made a change from their input on the tire changes for this year, deciding not to do it.
“The biggest thing we need to work on with it is how do we make it more clean and easier to follow? We have three different classes of drivers, three different classes of cars, split within a 60-minute race, and that creates its own set of headaches.
“What was reported last year this time was this is a more economical way of going racing if they only want to race Sprint or SprintX, or share a ride. In that regard, that was a success. We’ve seen a growth in the paddock.”
SprintX was born out of the partnership with the SRO, where its Balance of Performance classifications have come into the paddock. A key point to note is PWC’s GT is running on last year’s specification of Pirelli tires, which as Haselgrove explained has helped simplify the BoP process.
“One of the other things I’m a big purveyor of this for a customer class – is that we’re on the same tire,” he said. “All of them last year got a good setup. This year, the cars aren’t moving much; they’re all improving a small amount.
“If you stay running the same tire multiple years it’s different versus every time you have a big change in tires or rule package, then you have to get everybody back as close to zero delta as possible. So they’re very happy with that, especially the teams selling to customers; they already know where they are with the car this year.”
Gill said the SRO has been less visible on-site for PWC races this year because 2016 was Stephane Ratel’s group’s primarily fact-finding mission year.
“It’s been two years now that we’ve been involved with them. We started referencing the SRO BoP three years ago,” Gill said. “Between the two organizations, I think it’s been increased communication, more predictability… and the other area is that there’s been less engagement this year because they’ve been over before, they know what’s going on, and Marcus already works well with Claude (Surmont, SRO Technical Director).
“The big thing we need to work on in that regard is making sure to maintain the close relationship with our manufacturers here, and that we continue to build on the confidence and connection we have them with.
“We could lose that if we try to do too much internationally too far. As an example, just because of time zone differences alone, we know say 17 hours ahead in Asia, they can’t immediately respond to an email. Marcus and his team are intimately involved with them and we’ll keep that connection going.”
Some of the bigger success points for the series thus far in 2017 have been the behind-the-scenes changes.
In moving from SCCA to USAC as a sanctioning body, improving visual optics where cleaner World Challenge apparel has premiered, adding three class managers in Rob Morgan (GT), Jack Baldwin (GTS) and Jim Jordan (TC), and changing timing & scoring partners to TSL, there have been improvements we’re not necessarily writing or talking about because it’s done internally.
In layman’s terms, you never want to know how the sausage is being made, but the ingredients have changed in the sausage-making process this year for PWC to improve where it sits as it grows.
“There are things we’ve done this year that are big but not particularly newsworthy because they don’t show up that way, but are critical for the continued growth of the series,” he said.
“We’d received the largest customer complaint about our previous sanctioning partner that said we were ‘clubby’ – which they didn’t mean as an indictment against the SCCA, but did refer to it as a mentality of casualness or not taking things as seriously. It was the wrong impression to give off and it certainly wasn’t our intention to do so.
“Our USAC transition has gone way ahead of expectation in helping things go smoother. USAC is a very transparent partner. I’m also happy to say we’ve continued a good relationship with the SCCA, and will continue to work with them on Track Night in America and some of their other initiatives.”
Other question marks remain for 2018 and beyond, notably its race broadcast format with the CBS Sports Network package now in its third year in 2017 and with a handful of meant-to-be-live TV shows actually having aired on a couple-hour delay, with no live stream. That will be a topic that arises later this year as the series progresses.
But all told, the plan remains full speed ahead for PWC as it works towards crowning its champions for 2017 and as the series that was the first to bring several popular sports car platforms to the United States looks to showcase that to a bigger audience, while also working to maintain its successful business, manufacturer and commercial relationships.
“We’re ahead of where we were a year ago. We’re pleased with that,” Gill said. “The increased grids are good to see, but they’re an indication of all the effort of all who’ve worked behind the scenes.”