Pirelli World Challenge aiming to reboot in 2016

New CEO of the Pirelli World Challenge Greg Gill sees the coming season as a chance to continue cultivating the deep fields and tough competition, but also eliminate the gray areas.

From the outside, the Pirelli World Challenge has appeared to be in fine health for the past three seasons. An almost preposterous diversity of machinery had been spread over grid numbers that required separate races for the various classes.

That may have cost us the opportunity to watch the alarming rate at which a Cadillac could close on a Fiat 500, for example, but seemed not to hurt the fanbase at all, nor the interest in the GT and Touring Car categories.

But all was not well behind the scenes. Although the PWC is far better than Formula 1 and IndyCar at “controlling the message” to the media and public, the past 12 months saw underlying discontent among some competitors spill into vocalized frustrations.

Last September, Scott Bove, hitherto boss of PWC’s controlling parent WC Vision, stood down and former VP and general manager Greg Gill was installed as his replacement.

Motorsport.com sat down with Gill to discuss how the revised staff line-up at PWC has already turned negatives into positives for 2016.

Let’s ask first, what do you feel needs least attention during the changeover? What do you think Pirelli World Challenge has been getting right in recent years?

The marketing aspects of the business and the television package… those kind of things, people typically tend to give us high marks, although there are always areas you can improve. I’d say the quality of our racing and how we present it is what has attracted these major increases in grid numbers over the past two to three seasons.

So the main areas to address have been…?

The changes that were made by vote in September were to get the focus back on competition and technology. Those were the areas where questions were being asked. Among our competitors there seemed to be a higher than usual number of racing’s typical complaint - “that wasn’t fair.”

There was a notion that if you knew the right person, you could get a rule change or Balance of Performance change made – lack of consistency, favoritism, call it what you will.

Obviously you can get this paranoia from anyone who loses out thanks to BoP, but when the teams and manufacturers approach you as a group and ask for more consistency in the applying of rules, then you really have to listen.

Your choice of director of operations in the competition department, David Caldwell, comes from GM. Was it that “big OEM” experience that appealed, in terms of improving World Challenge’s level of professionalism?

Actually, I think David was appealing to us and us to him because he was approaching it as an entrepreneur and someone with a lot of experience of being on the other side of the fence – he knows what manufacturers seek from a governing body. Plus we saw the consistency of the GM Racing program and that spoke to us as fulfilling one of our needs as an organization.

The result is that the competition department is now empowered, and autonomous, and they can make their own decisions. Marcus Haselgrove has proven to be an excellent competition director for us since the end of 2014. His staff numbers have increased, the rulebook has been streamlined and the rules will be applied more consistently and with transparency. We saw that as absolutely essential going forward.

From the outside, the partnership with the Blancpain GT series makes sense in a lot of regards – a rising tide floats all boats, etc. – and GT3-class racing is still booming, it seems. But do you have any worries over direct comparisons by racing on the same bill at COTA?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of decades, you’ll know Stephane Ratel has set the standard in terms of GT racing. He’s extremely dedicated to this branch of the sport, and something of a visionary in terms of knowing what will work.

So we first became serious about talking with Stephane’s SRO organization [Blancpain’s parent company] because of the Baku World Challenge. That seemed like a great opportunity to work together but then it was canceled.

However, the dialog continued and last March in St. Petersburg, we met with Stephane to discuss what other joint venture might work for both organizations. Well, our competition director Marcus Haselgrove and SRO’s technical director, Claude Surmont, had already been comparing notes and sharing data.

Meanwhile, manufacturers who were in both series would sometimes argue, “Well in PWC we can do this, in SRO we can do that,” and so on. Commonality and a partnership started to seem like a very natural thing to do.

After Stephane visited us and we went to see SRO in action at Misano, he suggested some rational ways of working together that made common sense. And you know, its one of those natural partnerships where you think, ‘Why didn’t we do this sooner?’

What did you learn from seeing how Blancpain Series does things?

I liked the fact it had a sense of prestige about it, the kind that makes a paddock desirable to OEMs and teams. They want their top-end sponsors and partners to see them in that environment. I liked the paddock layout, how they did tech, how they handled scrutineering, how they did hospitality. To me, it was world class.

It’s going to be an interesting and quite direct comparison at Circuit of The Americas in March.

Well, yes, but SRO is bringing just their Endurance Series to this country, not the Sprint series, so they will remain quite distinct. I wouldn’t envision taking a Sprint series to Europe, either, although there are aspects of their Sprint Series that I like.

In turn though, I’m very excited that we’ve had almost a dozen of our teams ask Marcus for directions in who to speak to at the SRO to take part in the endurance race. Of the starting grid in their six-hour race, maybe up to half of them will come from the States. That’s wonderful.

But the winners in all this, beyond the two series and their partners, are the fans. GT fans at COTA will get to see two very different style races from their favorite type of racecar.

On the one side you have that partnership, but as IMSA United SportsCar Championship adopts GT3 cars for their GT Daytona class this year, is there a rivalry brewing there to lure the best privateer teams in the US?

Absolutely no rivalry, I believe that both Scott Atherton and I respect each other and, when the changes came in our business in the fall, one of the first phone calls I made was to Scott. I made it clear that we had endeavored to avoid a dates clash with theirs.

Again, there’s that very clear difference between our sprint race format, and IMSA’s endurance format. You know, IMSA could go the sprint racing format but choose not to and we have no intention of going in the endurance direction. So although the cars are the same, and we have common manufacturers and common sponsors, the end product is totally different… as is the business structure.

Driver discipline – or rather, indiscipline – was obviously a hot topic after the Long Beach race and then vastly improved. Why was there a problem in the first place, and has it been solved for good? Did you have to bash heads together?

In answer to the first part of your question, nature abhors a vacuum and we had inadvertently created one. We didn’t keep pace with the drivers and their expectations as they came into the series from the outside and set a new standard in terms of expectations.

It wasn’t a mistake so much as an oversight as the overall standard of driving goes up. A driver of the quality and experienced background of, say, Kevin Estre is going to have a level of expectation of stewards and management of the series. That’s where we needed to improve urgently, so once we identified what needed to be done and how to remedy it, we acted mid-season.

Then at the Road America race, we brought in Dorsey Schroeder and what a different level of respect we have seen since. To have Dorsey as race director, and the stewards was a great combination. I think that bodes very well because immediately there was a change to what drivers could expect in terms of consistency. And from Road America onward, I’d say the conduct concerns stopped.

Longer term, if the Pirelli World Challenge is regarded as an end in itself, as your GT champion Johnny O’Connell mentioned recently, is there a formal enough ladder to reach it? Where are WC drivers coming from, who’s being targeted?

Right now, I think it’s organic. In the last four years, we’ve had three to four drivers who have worked their way up from the Touring Car classes and are now driving in GTS or GT. But we don’t have the equivalent of the Mazda Road To Indy because we are customer-driven. Inherent with that is that some customers are going to have the wherewithal to say, “I have a professional license, I’m being coached and now I’m going to become a GTA driver.”

Another example would be Michael Cooper moving up from GTS with Chevrolet to GT with Cadillac. James Wilson, originally started in club racing, and recognized the benefit of Pro racing in PWC, TCB. He gained enormous exposure for both himself and Mazda. He’s been very strategic.

Shea Holbrook is another who will tell you outright – “I want to be a GT driver” but she’s being pragmatic about it, knows she’s got to make her way forward, has acquired the skills to do so, but now needs all the pieces to come together to make it happen.

Our aim is to continue to make ourselves attractive to that genre of racer, teams and manufacturers, so they’re drawn in and wish to stay. I believe our changes for 2016 will help achieve that.

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