Supercars, Super Licences and Special Dispensations
Last week, Supercars back marker team Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport announced two new drivers. Neither qualified for a the Confederation of Australian Motorsport’s new Super Licence required to compete in Supercars. The first, 16 year old Alex Rullo, was given special dispensation and a provisional super licence. 23 year old Matt Chahda was rejected. This has been a contentious issue, and is worth examining in detail.
First, what is a super licence, and how do you get one? It's essentially the same idea as the FIA Super Licence needed to race in Formula 1. Drivers are awarded a number of points for results in junior categories, and must accrue 25 in five years. It came about when Kurt Kostecki was drafted in at Charlie Schwerkolt Racing to replace an injured Lee Holdsworth. Kostecki’s performance was sub-par at best. His worst action was when he slowed down on the racing line to let Mark Winterbottom past during qualifying. This prompted calls for minimum driver standards in Supercars. Aside from controversy surrounding favourable treatment of the CAMS-managed Australian Formula 4 Championship, it was well-received. Supercars is a professional category, so admission into the championship should be dependent on talent, not just money.
As it stands, the most talented development series drivers qualify for Super Licences. Drivers such as Jack LeBrocq, Garry Jacobson, James Golding, Paul Dumbrell and Matt Campbell would all be acceptable, but are unavailable. Worse, LDM needs drivers with sponsorship, further limiting their options.
Their solution for the first car was to promote their own Development Series driver Alex Rullo. Rullo is 16 years old, making him the youngest driver to compete in Supercars since Paul Dumbrell. Last year, in the development series, he finished 17th. Not a great result, especially considering he was in one of the new generation cars, but still good for a 16 year old. It's also worth remembering that LDM does not have the resources of Prodrive, Garry Rogers Motorsport and Brad Jones Racing’s DVS teams, or even independent DVS teams like Matt Stone Racing and Matthew White Motorsport. There's no doubt he's a good driver, he was second in his rookie season in the Khumo V8 Touring Car Series in 2015, the year he won the CAMS Future Star award. The question is whether or not he is ready?
The answer is probably no. 17th simply isn't enough to earn a super licence. Aaron Russell managed better in the DVS and he performed terribly in the main series. But Rullo is on a provisional licence. Essentially it's a one round at a time licence that lasts until his 17th birthday in June. His performance will be reviewed by CAMS after every round, and his licence is subject to the outcome of these reviews. Once he turns 17, he may be granted a full super licence, be required to continue on a round to round provisional licence, or have his licence revoked.
Rullo being issued with a provisional licence is a divisive issue. Some people believe that there should be no dispensations, you either qualify or you don't, and Rullo doesn't. Others believe his terms of entry are reasonable. Given the myriad factors at play, CAMS should reserve the right to make exceptions. A driver could miss rounds due to, damage caused by another driver, injury, or a lack of funding, for example.What's been lacking is a clear explanation of what justifies a special dispensation.
For the second car, they found 23 year old Matt Chahda. Few people approve of Chahda in the main series, and thankfully, neither did CAMS. Chahda is older than Rullo, but grossly incompetent as a driver. Running in his own DVS operation he finished 20th, with a best result of 11th. That in itself is not good enough for the main series. Worse, he was disqualified from Sandown for an incident he caused in race two. Coming in to turn one, he made contact with Adam Marjoram, then hit the kerb with enough force to become airborne, taking out another three cars. He was charged with reckless driving, and along with the disqualification, was given a five place grid penalty at Bathurst.
With all the damage he's done, he must have come to LDM with a blank cheque. Why else would they take risk on Chahda?
Why, when Chris Pither is available? He had pole position at Queensland Raceway and has Ice Break backing. He's a solid rather than spectacular driver, but at least he already has a licence and can bring the car home in one piece.
Supercars CEO James Warburton, already an unpopular character among the fans, believed that CAMS had made the wrong decision over Chahda. He understood that super licences were necessary for safety, but argued that both drivers requiring dispensation was justification for a review of the super licence system. He also thought that the 16 week lead time for the super licence introduction was too short.
On both points he is wrong. No new driver appointments had been made when super licences were first announced, there was plenty of time to find an appropriate driver. More importantly, the fact that both drivers needed special dispensation shows that super licences work not that they don't. Under the old rules, Chahda would have been allowed to race, despite clearly not being good enough. As for Rullo, the conditions of his entry are entirely appropriate for a driver of his age and experience. Without the super licensing system, he would have been allowed straight in.
Earlier this week, it was announced that Chahda will drive for LDM in the newly-renamed Super2 series. This is more sensible, but it was still unwise for any team to take him on. The second seat remains vacant, and Andre Heimgartner remains hopeful of retaining it. The fact that a talented young driver like Heimgartner can't get a drive shows how hard the small teams have it.
Rullo had his rookie test day at Winton yesterday, and crashed at turn 4. That may not bode well for him when his licence is reviewed at Adelaide.
CAMS has absolutely made the right decision here. Super licences were introduced for a reason, and they have worked in this instance. Some refinements are needed, but overall they are clearly working. James Warburton, in future, should avoid speaking publicly about things he doesn't understand and work instead to improve the financial health of the sport so that this doesn't happen again.