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How Ferrari's British star reached Le Mans-winning heights

One of the leading names at Autosport International will be the UK’s latest Le Mans winner. Before James Calado's appearance on stage this Saturday, here's the story of how he became a modern Ferrari great

#51 Ferrari AF Corse Ferrari 499P of Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, Antonio Giovinazzi

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Le Mans 24 Hours winner. That’s the tag that’s now nailed firmly ahead of the name James Calado, and has been since Ferrari’s victory in the centenary running of the French enduro last summer. Only it should really be, as the man himself points out, three-time Le Mans winner.

When Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Antonio Giovinazzi took victory aboard their 499P Le Mans Hypercar in June, the first two were adding to their tally of wins at sportscar racing’s ‘Big One’. The Briton and long-time Italian team-mate Pier Guidi were winners at the World Endurance Championship blue-riband in GTE Pro in 2019 and 2021, triumphs that inevitably didn’t receive the same plaudits or attention as an overall win.

Yet their importance shouldn’t be diminished. That’s very much Calado’s view. 

“I always insist that it was just as difficult to win in GTE Pro; those races were so intense,” he reckons. “There was the year in 2019 [in the second of two editions of Le Mans encompassed by the 2018-19 WEC ‘superseason’] when there were 19 cars in class. That one was special.

“The big difference between winning in class and winning overall now in Hypercar is the attention you get afterwards. People start to know who you are. My mum realised I go racing for once after this year!”

That said, Calado acknowledges just how significant – or special, again – this one was.

“It wasn’t just an outright victory in the 100th year of Le Mans, it was Ferrari’s comeback season after half a century away [from the prototype ranks as a factory],” explains the 34-year-old. “It was a new car and the three of us were all new to prototypes. We won it – and it was only the fourth race!”

Calado's third victory at Le Mans, his first outright, was made even more special by the 499P being in only its fourth race

Photo by: Marc Fleury

Calado's third victory at Le Mans, his first outright, was made even more special by the 499P being in only its fourth race

That point shouldn’t be overlooked given that Ferrari beat the previous king of Le Mans in the form of Toyota, a marque incumbent in the WEC since 2012 and the winner of the 24 Hours every year from 2018 to 2022. Just how close it was as the #51 prevailed over the second-placed Toyota GR010 HYBRID LMH by just 80 seconds explains Calado’s reaction to questions about the Balance of Performance, which was controversially changed against Toyota just days before the cars were due on the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Of Toyota boss Akio Toyoda’s contention that the Japanese manufacturer was “beaten by politics”, he retorts, “Not true”.

PLUS: How Ferrari scored a historic victory at Le Mans

“They were 15s behind when they put it in the barrier,” he says of Ryo Hirakawa’s off at Arnage that appeared to have set the seal on a Ferrari victory with a couple of hours to go. “People say Ferrari won because we had a performance advantage given to us, but there were times during the race when Toyota was quicker. It really was equal. It was such an enjoyable race because it was so close.”

"We’d never done more than six or something hours in a row without having to pull the car into the garage. An engineer showed me a statistic suggesting that we had a 38 to 40% chance of running through without a major problem" James Calado

Calado didn’t enjoy the moment with half an hour to go when an electrical glitch that had cost the winning 499P time earlier in the race reoccurred at the car’s final pitstop. He looked like he’d seen a ghost when the TV cameras panned onto him in the box. 

“I was really worried we wouldn’t get going in time to hang onto the lead,” he recalls. “Ale [Pier Guidi] basically had to do a full reset, which isn’t a simple on-off. You have to press one switch, then do two more things, and then some more. It seemed like it was taking a lifetime. I remember Berto [longtime Ferrari driver Andrea Bertolini] trying to reassure me it was going to be OK. When the car left the pits, I thought, yes!”

The electronic glitch was the only significant issue to afflict the winning Ferrari during the race, save for Pier Guidi’s off in the wet during the night at the first Mulsanne chicane. That wasn’t what was expected within the Ferrari camp heading into the race.

“During testing we’d never done more than six or something hours in a row without having to pull the car into the garage,” recalls Calado. “An engineer showed me a statistic on the computer suggesting that we had a 38 to 40% chance of running through without a major problem. But that’s what we did. Mechanically the car was faultless.”

Ferrari ran faultlessly to claim victory at Le Mans in 2023 and end Toyota's streak that dated back to 2018

Photo by: Nikolaz Godet

Ferrari ran faultlessly to claim victory at Le Mans in 2023 and end Toyota's streak that dated back to 2018

And supremely enjoyable to drive: “The car at Le Mans last year was unreal. The speed and the balance through Porsche Curves was so impressive. All three of us came in smiling after our first laps in the car at the Test Day the weekend before the race.”

Calado regards the Spa 6 Hours at the end of April, the last WEC round before Le Mans, as the race at which the 499P came alive. He overturned a 50s deficit to the factory Porsche 963 ahead of him over the final two hours to snatch a first podium for #51 on the final lap.

“I was flat-chat all the way after getting in the car for those final two hours: it was quali lap after quali lap,” he relates. “It was the first time that I really felt comfortable in the car, that I could start throwing it around. Spa gave us great confidence going into Le Mans. We said to ourselves afterwards, ‘We’re right there now’.” 

The Le Mans victory propelled Calado and his team-mates into second in the points and gave them a scent of the WEC title, but it didn’t work out that way and they faded to fourth in the championship. The balance between Toyota and Ferrari swung the other way after a further – scheduled, this time – BoP change in the wake of the 24 Hours. Drivers, along with teams and manufacturers,aren’t permitted by regulation to talk about the BoP.

“I can only say that what we were given set us back a bit” is all he can offer.

PLUS: Why Ferrari's Le Mans glory proved an outlier as Toyota dominated the WEC

The 2023 season was Calado’s 10th year with Ferrari and he has just signed a new long-term deal to keep him there for the foreseeable future. He joined the Italian marque for 2014 after his single-seater career came to an end following two seasons in GP2 with ART Grand Prix. He’d been backed by the Racing Steps Foundation, which generally allowed its drivers to what it used to call “graduate” from the scheme after a single year of GP2.

A deal was done between RSF, ART and team co-owner Nicolas Todt, who brought Calado into his All Road Management fold, for a second season. Despite finishing third in the points, the funds weren’t there to continue his open-wheeler career.

Calado was a race-winner in GP2, his career assisted by the Racing Steps Foundation, before joining Ferrari

Photo by: Daniel Kalisz / Motorsport Images

Calado was a race-winner in GP2, his career assisted by the Racing Steps Foundation, before joining Ferrari

Calado probably wouldn’t be up on stage at this weekend’s Autosport International – or if he was, his attire would bear the badges of a different manufacturer – had the original plan post-GP2 come to fruition. He had a provisional agreement to join Mercedes to race in the DTM in 2014.

“It was pretty much a done deal when [Mercedes motorsport boss] Toto Wolff told me straight after I’d done a simulator session that it would have to wait for a year,” he remembers. “I knew I had to keep racing, otherwise I was thinking it could be the end for me.”

Todt, son of former Ferrari F1 boss Jean, then used his connections at the Italian marque to get Calado into a shootout for a vacant seat on its factory sportscar roster. The Brit was squeezed into a test at Vallelunga originally due to involve only Sam Bird and Jerome d’Ambrosio. 

"It was Davide [Rigon] who told me that there were some worries within Ferrari about me, but he said he’d have a word. He helped me realise I had a lot to learn about being an endurance driver" James Calado

“I’d heard of Le Mans but I’m not sure I knew what the WEC was,” recalls Calado. “When I got in the car for the first time, I thought, ‘What is this?’ It was wet and I sussed that a different approach was required. It was the 458 Italia, and once I got used to it, I realised it was a well-balanced, real racing car. And it sounded great, so a proper Ferrari. I loved that car.”

Calado got the drive and was paired with Davide Rigon for his maiden season in the WEC in 2014. He can reveal now that Ferrari had some misgivings about his signing after he crashed during qualifying for what should have been his maiden Le Mans that year: “I nearly lost my job straight away!”

The accident happened in the second left of the ultra-quick Porsche Curves: “Maybe I was pushing too hard on new tyres; I didn’t have a lot of experience of them at the time. I actually caught it, but the correction cost me 50 metres, which put me in the wall.

“It was Davide who told me that there were some worries within Ferrari about me, but he said he’d have a word. He helped me realise I had a lot to learn about being an endurance driver.”

Calado fell briefly unconscious while still in the car after the shunt and again in the ambulance on the way to the medical centre.

Calado was unable to take the start of his first Le Mans with Ferrari in 2014 and had to be replaced by Pierre Kaffer

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Calado was unable to take the start of his first Le Mans with Ferrari in 2014 and had to be replaced by Pierre Kaffer

“I knew the doctors were going to ask me questions to work out if I was concussed,” he remembers. “I desperately wanted to race at Le Mans and thought I was ready for them. The first questions were, ‘Where are you and what corner did you crash at?’ Silverstone and Copse were my answers!” 

Calado was carted off to hospital and remained there for the better part of the week. It was an inauspicious start to a Le Mans career that would quickly blossom. He was second on his proper debut the following year, and he’s been on the class podium every year since 2019.

The aim now is to continue that run and try to add to his tally of WEC titles: in addition to his trio of Le Mans triumphs, he’s also won the GTE Pro crown on three occasions, each time with Pier Guidi, in 2017, 2021 and 2022.

“We proved our worth in 2023,” he says. “The goal on my side has to be to add another championship to the ones I’ve won already.”

More titles are the clear goal for Calado moving forward

Photo by: Ferrari

More titles are the clear goal for Calado moving forward

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