GT champion James Calado targeting Hypercar future with Ferrari

Sports Car News

2021 WEC GTE PRO champion James Calado seemed set for F1 at once upon a time but now, as he tells Damien Smith, life couldn't be better winning titles for Ferrari with one eye on its Hypercar future

CALADO JAMES (GBR), AF CORSE, FERRARI 488 GTE EVO, PORTRAIT during the 8 Hours of Bahrain, 6th round of the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, FIA WEC, on the Bahrain International Circuit, from November 4 to 6, 2021 in Sakhir, Bahrain - Photo François Flamand / DPPI

James Calado is looking ahead to a potential Hypercar future, whilst relishing winning titles in Ferrari GTs right now

François Flamand / DPPI

Le Mans 24 Hours winner and World Endurance Champion, all within a few months, and for the second time on both counts. Life right now isn’t bad for AF Corse Ferrari GTE Pro star James Calado, especially as he’s just become a father for a second time too. But has he been able to celebrate his recent racing successes, given the delay to confirmation of his WEC title in the wake of the controversial Bahrain season closer?

“Yeah, last night – I’m hanging right now!” he laughs as we chat in the paddock at Mugello for Ferrari’s annual season-closing Finali Mondiali. “Last night me, Ale [his team-mate Alessandro Pier Guidi] and some of the younger boys went out.” And why not? It’s been a fantastic season for AF Corse and Britain’s Calado, who is well established as one of the world’s fastest and most effective GT endurance drivers.

“Ferrari is developing the Hypercar now, that’s why I’m going to the Maranello simulator” James Calado

But he’s still only 32, and there could – and should – be plenty more heading his way. We’re talking, of course, about the comeback of the decade: Ferrari’s return to the top class of Le Mans and sports car racing with an all-new LMH Hypercar contender in 2023. Next year, Calado will defend his GTE Pro title in WEC, and then…

“Ferrari is developing the Hypercar now, that’s why I’m going to the simulator in Maranello tomorrow to do some Hypercar stuff,” he says. “But nothing is decided in terms of driver line-up. It’s down to Antonello [Coletta, head of Ferrari Activa Sportive GT] and all the guys to decide. My ambition is to drive a Hypercar and win Le Mans and a championship outright. That’s the dream. As long as we keep performing maybe we have a chance. Maybe we don’t! I don’t know, we’ll see.”

His caution is understandable. Calado is on the cusp of a career-defining opportunity, and given his seven years as an AF Corse GT driver, the success he has enjoyed and the obvious ability he possesses that would have catapulted him into Formula 1 with a fairer wind, it would be a major shock if he wasn’t included in the Ferrari LMH line-up. But he’s quite right: assume nothing.

92 Estre Kevin (fra), Jani Neel (che), Christensen Michael (dnk), Porsche GT Team, Porsche 911 RSR - 19, action 51 Pier Guidi Alessandro (ita), Calado James (gbr), AF Corse, Ferrari 488 GTE Evo, action during the 8 Hours of Bahrain, 6th round of the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, FIA WEC, on the Bahrain International Circuit, from November 4 to 6, 2021 in Sakhir, Bahrain - Photo Joao Filipe / DPPI

The fight has been fierce between Ferrari and Porsche in WEC this year, with the Scuderia winning out

Joao Filipe / DPPI

“Every year I feel I learn more and more, you never stop learning,” he says with humility. “I feel like I’ve got good experience in WEC generally and I’m very close to all the guys at Ferrari. So let’s see.”

Little has been released about the Ferrari LMH so far. He must be close to the programme… “Not really, no,” he bats back. “We are concentrating on GT at the moment because that’s what I’m driving, that’s what I need to win in. The focus is still on GT for next year and then we’ll see further along the line what they decide to do. That’s all I can really say because that’s all I know.”

Fair enough. It was worth a try! Anticipation is already building for Ferrari’s first factory attempt to win Le Mans in 50 years – but even if Calado does know more, we can’t expect him to spill the beans. So let’s talk instead about the recent Bahrain double-header, which proved so tempestuous between arch rivals Ferrari and Porsche, but which brought a happy ending – at least for the team in red.

From the archive

“It was a stressful two weeks and so much went on prior to the races,” says Calado. “Before the Bahrain 6 Hours we took a massive hit in Balance of Performance, which was totally unexpected. We expected more power going into that race, but they took away power. That was tough and it meant a lot of the attention from the guys in the team went away. They were always in the stewards’ office talking to the FIA. We were slow because of that for the 6 Hours and Porsche was just way faster on the straights, with more power.”

Kevin Estre and Neel Jani claimed a comfortable win in their Manthey-run #92 911 RSR-19, with the sister car of Gianmaria Bruni and Richard Lietz completing an easy 1-2. Calado and Pier Guidi’s GTE 488 Evo could only trail home a distant third, 35 seconds behind – and they’d lost their points lead too ahead of the Bahrain 8 Hours that followed a week later. In the middle of the two races, more BoP changes churned up further angst and fury.

“We got half of the power back before the second race, which Ferrari protested because still on paper it wasn’t enough to win,” explains Calado. “We lost that protest and went into the race actually thinking we couldn’t really win and we’d just do the best we could. But after the first hour I was in the lead. I was surprised, the car was really good and we had the pace of the Porsche. They still had more power and it was a hard fight for the whole eight hours. It was super-close and any one of us could have won it. Thankfully we came out on top.”


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Not without further controversy though. It wasn’t so much the collision between Pier Guidi and Michael Christensen that was the problem – it’s generally been accepted the Italian didn’t mean to hit the Porsche. It was the lack of a penalty following the collision – or more accurately the lack of a penalty served. The incident was a mess, all thanks to a lack of communication from the opaque officials, who also never really explained the BoP changes they had pushed through, beyond what is supposed to be an automatic system based on hard data. The FIA has insisted the changes were driven by numbers, as they should be – but it was poorly handled and doesn’t exactly bode well for the future LMH/LMDh era when BoP will be central to parity between manufacturers and two entirely different set of car regulations.

“To beat Porsche was all we wanted to do” James Calado

Was Calado worried the title had slipped away after the collision? “Yes, of course,” he says. “Alessandro did nothing wrong because the Porsche closed on the [LMP2] prototype [ahead of him]. The Porsche naturally braked early to try and get a better exit because he knew he’d lose in the corner, and Alessandro couldn’t stop and just hit him in the wrong angle [which spun Christensen around]. We got a penalty for it, that’s the thing, to let #92 back past. Alessandro slowed right down, 10 to 12 seconds, but at that point the Porsche decided to go in the pits, so we couldn’t do anything in that respect. Then the penalty from the race director and the stewards was over-ruled and we received the information, which went straight to Ale on the radio, so we decided to carry on and win the race. That’s purely how it was. We did everything we were told to do and that’s it.”

The problem was, no one on the outside received that communication. To fans and the media, it initially appeared the Ferrari had got away without a penalty for what was clearly a slam-dunk case. The full story only emerged later. Frustrating, on a number of fronts.

“Porsche protested, which was rejected,” says Calado. “Then they had an intention to appeal, but didn’t in the end. So we found out a few days ago officially that we had won the championship. We had a strong chance anyway [if it had gone to appeal]. But I felt we won at the track, that was the main thing. We felt like over the year we’d done a really good job and won fair and square. It was nice to beat the Porsche. That’s all we wanted to do.”

Just four permanent entries in GTE Pro – two works Porsches, two works Ferrari – was a far cry from the category’s multi-manufacturer pinnacle. But the intensity of the duel and how close it had been – apart from the Bahrain 6 Hours – has still left Calado with immense satisfaction. More cars would clearly have been preferential, but he and Pier Guidi still had to give everything to beat formidable opposition.

All being well, it won’t be his problem – but the lack of support for GTE has led the FIA and Le Mans organiser the ACO to plan a switch to GT3-based cars for 2024. Calado says the move should be handled carefully to ensure the category remains a challenge for professional drivers and the best amateurs. “There’s quite a big difference between GTE and GT3,” he says. “GT3 has got ABS, that’s the biggest thing. GTE is more of a race car and has a bigger change of direction, better tyres, more electronics we can mess around with and it’s quicker. Personally I don’t like to drive the GT3 as much. In terms of lap time it’s not massive, but the GTE is more of a thoroughbred.

“But who knows what they will do? They have GT3 coming in, but maybe they will have better tyres and do something with the regulations. For sure, you want to be able to change enough things on the car, not to be too static, to make it a professional championship.”

51 Pier Guidi Alessandro (ita), Calado James (gbr), Ledogar Come (fra), AF Corse, Ferrari 488 GTE Evo, celebrates their win during the 24 Hours of Le Mans 2021, 4th round of the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, FIA WEC, on the Circuit de la Sarthe, from August 21 to 22, 2021 in Le Mans, France - Photo Frédéric Le Floc'h / DPPI

Celebrating 2021 LM GTE PRO Le Mans win

Frédéric Le Floc'h / DPPI

As we talk, the Qatar Grand Prix is playing out on a big screen in front of us. In some parallel universe, Calado might still be in the thick of grand prix racing, given the momentum he carried though GP3 and GP2 up to 2014. But that was a long time ago and he’s content with his lot. “At first obviously you are disappointed because when you are young your whole approach is to be an F1 driver,” says James, who only made it as far a reserve driver for Force India in 2013. “There was a contract, put straight in front of me on the table, a race seat. But it involved a lot of sponsorship, a lot of money which we didn’t have. Saying that, I don’t think I would have fitted in very well anyway because of the atmosphere. In the WEC paddock you see a lot of happy people, where people talk to one another. In F1 you tend to see a lot of tired, sad people.

“I was one of the first to go from single-seaters and properly commit to GT racing, and it was the best decision I ever made. I find the racing in WEC is superb, I love endurance racing. The fact that you share the car with another driver is a completely different approach as well and I’m chuffed to be a Ferrari driver and be able to do this. And to be a world champion with them as well is super-special.”

All James Calado needs now is the big chance he deserves, and one that is surely going to come his way. He’s won a lot of GT races. But there’s still so much ahead of him.