Class Warfare: GTD PRO, GTD Cars Race Together Yet Separately

By John Oreovicz

IMSA Wire Service

Competing in a multi-class sports car race like the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is challenging enough for a driver. Now imagine two of those classes featuring identical cars, with basically one key difference between them: FIA Driver Categorization, an annually adjusted ranking system that classifies drivers as Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum based on driver age and career record.

You don’t have to imagine that scenario because it already exists in the WeatherTech Championship. The Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) and GTD PRO classes utilize the exact same cars built to the international FIA GT3 standard and standardized Michelin tires. GTD mandates at least one “amateur” driver with an FIA Silver or Bronze rating, whereas driver selection is open in GTD PRO. Entries in the pro category often benefit from car manufacturer support, in the form of engineering resources and factory-affiliated Gold- and Platinum-rated drivers.

What makes the situation even more complicated for everyone is the interaction between the two classes. For starters, the full GT grid is combined and set by lap time, not class, so if a GTD driver qualifies better than a GTD PRO driver, the GTD driver starts the race in front.

For last weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Cadillac, the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 GTD PRO entry was the fastest overall GT qualifier. The next three quickest cars were from the GTD class, though the No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 that laid down the top GTD lap was moved back in the starting grid for running unapproved sensors in qualifying.

The No. 14 Lexus went on to win the GTD PRO race. The Winward Mercedes, driven by Russell Ward, Philip Ellis and Indy Dontje, recovered from the penalty to lead all GT contenders for a brief period mid-race and eventually win in GTD. But by the end of the 12 hours, the top nine in GTD PRO finished ahead of the GTD winner.

It’s not always that simple, and occasionally, a GTD entry will emerge as the overall winner of the GT classes race. The mixture of the two classes – especially when the Bronze- and Silver-rated drivers are in the cars – creates elements of strategy and challenge.

“It’s tougher in the long races, no doubt,” said Bryan Sellers, who co-drives the No. 1 Paul Miller Racing BMW M4 GT3 with Madison Snow. “A lot of times it sorts itself out a little better in the sprint races. But in the long races where there’s a constant mix of traffic and pit stops and cycling, there is quite a bit of outside class racing. There are certain scenarios where you want a different class car in between you (and a car in your class), and then certain scenarios where you want that car in front of you.”

Sellers and Snow won the GTD championship in the PMR BMW last year. This year, they are competing in GTD PRO because Snow’s FIA driver grading was uprated to Gold – in large part due to his 2023 IMSA GTD title.

Having been on both sides of the coin, so to speak, Snow realizes how important it is to learn the tendencies of other drivers and treat them with respect on the track. That means being cognizant of how the two class races are playing out and recognizing when to be aggressive and when to lay back.

“If you get in the middle of the other class battle, you don’t want to get them (mad),” said Snow. “You’re not battling them. If they’re racing somebody ahead of you, they’re going to want to get by you a lot quicker, and with less patience than somebody in your own class. If you’re racing somebody in a different class, you don’t think they should be holding you up, so you’re going to have less patience to have them in the middle of you. You’ve got to think who’s in the car, and I guess there are advantages and disadvantages to both.”

Cream Usually Rises to the Top

Antonio Garcia of Corvette Racing by Pratt Miller Motorsports is one of the most experienced GT drivers in IMSA, with multiple pro category championships. The Spaniard believes that on most occasions, the theoretical superiority of the drivers and teams in the pro class will prevail.

“Being able to have a good guy qualifying and following up with another good guy, it kind of splits the classes like it should,” Garcia said. “Unless it’s a caution, they (GTD) don’t follow us (GTD PRO) into the pits, and we don’t follow them into the pits. We do our own thing even when we have the same strategy.

“But at times, when all of GTD PRO is behind the last GTD, that creates a little bit of tension that you can see at the end of the race,” he added. “It doesn’t make a difference when the pro guys are in there, but for some reason, when the Am guys are in there, all the GTD PRO maniacs are behind them and they don’t want them to be there. They are doing their own race and when they get mixed with us, they don’t want us there. Sometimes it doesn’t really merge together.”

Silver-rated Ward understands the frustration occasionally shown by the higher-graded drivers in GTD PRO.

“If the guy behind me is really all over it and he’s slowing us both down, I’ll typically let him by, because it’s a long race,” Ward said. “You want to be consistent and have a good average throughout the race. If you’re too busy because you’re looking in your mirrors because some guy just really wants to get by, especially if he’s not in the same class as you, most of the time I’d let him by. But if it seems like he can never really get a moment and I can drive my ideal line, then I won’t let him by, I’ll defend.”

This is the third year that GTD and GTD PRO have mandated identical GT3 cars, and while there are occasional grumbles, the system seems to be working well.

“Especially to win in GTD PRO, you have to be at your 100 percent; you can’t really miss anything,” noted Garcia. “So far, I think the approach IMSA took of separating or having two GT classes is the right way to do it.”