Abhishek Takle sat down over the Korean Grand Prix weekend for a chat with Britain’s next big Formula One hope, James Calado. The 24-year-old, currently competing in Formula One feeder series GP2, was recently announced as Force India’s reserve driver after an impressive showing in the young drivers’ test at Silverstone. In a wide-ranging conversation, he discusses driving a Formula One car around corners for the first time, the difficulty young drivers face when breaking into Formula One and the Racing Steps Foundation which has backed him since early in his career.
Abhishek Takle: So Force India reserve driver, got a nice ring to it, excited about that?
James Calado: It’s fantastic. It’s a great opportunity for me. It’s really nice to be able to do the Fridays. I’m just having loads of fun, learning as much as I can as quickly as possible and just trying to help the team, develop the team going forward and doing everything the race drivers do other than actually race the car.
AT: You did the young driver test in Silverstone in July, did you expect at that time you’d be a Force India reserve driver?
JC: All I had to do is do a good job and do the best I could and obviously I knew there was a good chance and shortly after the young driver tests it was announced. Obvisouly doing a good job there and showing some potential and speed was key to the final decision and it’s just a matter now of progressing on and learning as much as I can, especially with the Fridays – it’s all very well doing a test, there’s much less pressure and it’s a different environment. When you come to your first Grand Prix, it’s more intense and really important not to make any silly mistakes but just to give good feedback to the team so they can progress forward especially for the driver that’s not done the free practice one.
AT: I think the young driver test was the first time you drove a Formula One car…
JC: I’d done, I might be wrong, but I think it was two straightline tests before that. But first time around a corner was Silverstone. And it was a big shock, it feels really quick.
AT: Through Maggots and Becketts…
JC: Amazing! Obviously realised I need to train the neck a bit more.
AT: But from that, in a couple of months, to FP1 at a circuit like Monza… must have been quite amazing.
JC: Two completely different tracks as well. And the reason for doing Monza actually was primarily because it’s a low downforce circuit and at the same weekend I was driving a GP2 car and the difference between the two wasn’t so big as it would be for example at Silverstone. So it was a good, good starting point, good introduction and nice to be able to carry on going forward.
AT: Like you say, you probably didn’t feel the difference that much between a GP2 and Formula One at Monza but…
JC: Obviously you still have the ratio, but I think it’s not quite as big.
AT: Is that why probably at Monza you were just half a second shy of Paul’s time in FP1 and you looked like you were exploring the limits of the track which you wouldn’t do if you weren’t confident in the car?
JC: I’ve been to Monza a few times before, so I had really good track knowledge. The majority of the track is all about good engine, low downforce, high speed. When you come to somewhere like here, it’s a bit tougher because it was my first time and it’s a really tough last sector, it’s a longer track so the time difference between the two is for sure going to be bigger. But when you look at yesterday, actually, as time went on I progressed and I was up to speed on the race runs, set similar times to the two race drivers. It’s tough for a young driver because you obviously only have the one set of tyres but the team, they’ve got all the data and so much information, they know if you’re doing a good job, even if you are at the bottom of the timesheets.
JC: Yeah, track knowledge is key. The Pirelli tyre degrades so quickly that, really, you’ve only got two laps of peak performance and then after that you see high degradation, really. So for me, when I don’t know the track, I’m not a hundred percent comfortable in pushing in a Formula One car straight away, it’s tough when you’ve only got two laps to do a good time. My peak performance is always at the end when the tyres are completely destroyed, especially when you’re on a green track. So, it’s hard. But it’s good, still able to drive it quick enough to give good data.
AT: When you go into the young drivers test, obviously you want to impress, you want to show how quick you are but then again you have to be disciplined…
JC: Not to crash…
AT: Well that too and also work to the team’s programme and not go for just out and out speed so…
JC: At the end of the day, I’m here to help the team and whilst doing that I’m learning at the same time.
AT: But the first time you drive a Formula One car, with limited testing opportunities, you probably think that is your one big shot to impress, like at the young drivers test. How difficult is to be disciplined and work to the team’s programme rather than …?
AT: Yeah, exactly!
JC: It’s not entirely all team programme. I think what’s really good about Sahara Force India is that they’ve progressed young drivers and helped young drivers be ready for when they need to be a race driver in Formula One. This is probably one of the only teams that’s able to do that properly, which is really encouraging. When you look at Nico Hulkenberg, Bianchi, Paul, they’ve all come through and been developed properly as a driver, so it gives me encouragement and that’s quite positive.
AT: Would you say you’re probably in a better position than say somebody like Sam Bird for example who is…?
JC: I think so, yes…
AT: No disrespect but a lot of the reserves up and down the paddock are basically sitting twiddling their thumbs which is not the ideal scenario.
JC: Yeah, Sam is a good driver. I think he had his opportunity and, you know, it’s a tough game. Formula One is really, really hard for a young driver to make the step. I think I’m with the right team to be able to progress forward.
AT: Since early in your career, you’ve been backed by the Racing Steps Foundation (RSF). How important is it—it’s not just the RSF or the financial backing – but how important is it for a young driver to have a driver development programme behind him and not just from the financial point of view?
JC: Well, without Racing Steps, I’d have nothing, I wouldn’t be racing anything! They’ve supported me since the start of 2008 up until now. They’ve supplied the budget for me to be in competitive teams and that’s why we’ve got good results. And without them, without the results, financial backing, the support that they give, then for sure I wouldn’t be sat talking to you now.
AT: Apart from the budget, there’s also a lot else that a driver development programme like the RSF brings with it. Talk to me about the other sort of work they’ve done with you.
JC: We go through everything a driver needs to do to be ready for Formula One. So that includes physical training, income just to live – because if you think about it how is it possible when we’re doing what we’re doing to earn money when we should be training, we’re doing things like this. So they support me that way, with the media training, everything, absolutely everything you do. They do as much as they can to develop drivers. It’s not just myself – all the other young guys coming up from go-karts, Formula Renault, Formula 3. You’ve got bikers in MotoGP at the moment, so fantastic scheme, really, a group of people all funded just by the one guy as well… amazing!
AT: They have some pretty unconventional methods don’t they? I read this piece over this weekend about the heart surgery for example…
JC: Yeah, yeah! Forgot to mention that! With me, and also Mark Webber did this. Yeah, we saw live heart surgery and the doctor… just incredible. It makes you realise the amount of preparation that needs to done for a race or for an operation, it’s really similar. And one of the guys had a cardiac arrest and his heart stopped. But they were so calm. They were like, ‘Okay we have thirty seconds before this guy dies, but this is what we do.’ No panic, okay done. And it’s like us – if we make a mistake in a car, or go off in qualifying, you’ve just got to learn to forget it and concentrate on going forward. That’s a similarity between that and what we do.
AT: So take a driver who has ample budget to fund his junior career all the way up to Formula One. He’s also got the talent. And then you take a driver who is – not just the RSF – but part of any driver development programme, say, the Red Bull one, or the Ferrari Driver Academy, whatever it is. Do you think a driver who is part of a programme will still be a better prepared driver?
JC: I think when you look at the majority of programmes, all the drivers are young and talented and that’s why they’re there. I believe that everyone’s got their opportunity to progress and do well in the junior series and you’ve just got to make the most of it. And, you’ve got young guys – Antonio Felix da Costa, Carlos Sainz in the Red Bull (programme). Someone who maybe should be further forward is Robin Frijns who is not backed by anyone, has won every single junior series championship he’s ever competed in. So goes to show how important it is to be within a group of people that are able to communicate with the right people.
AT: So is it a case of, you work through your junior career, you’ve got your results to merit a Formula One drive but then you get to the fringes of Formula One, you get to Formula One and then it’s like hitting a ceiling because of the budget issues and all of that. Do you think it is that way, I mean, is it frustrating for a young driver?
JC: This is the biggest step so of course it’s going to be the hardest.
AT: But given that everything else seems to count more than the merit or the talent…
JC: The thing is, you’ve got to look at it from two points of view, really. You’ve got to look at it from my point of view, or a driver’s point of view, and it is annoying to see big spenders just buying their way into Formula One. Of course it is. Not to say they’re not talented but there are people maybe that deserve it more. But then when you look at it from a team’s point of view, given the tough world we live in, they need the money and at the end of the day if an average driver was employed by a team yet they had the money to develop the car, you’re going to gain more from the car than you are from the driver. So that’s the way it is, that’s the reality of the sport.
AT: Some of the drivers you competed against say Jean-Eric Vergne or Valtteri Bottas, for example, they tended to make the step up before you. So at the time, does it play on your mind, when am I going to make the step up, when am I going to get my turn?
JC: I don’t really think of anyone else.
AT: GP2, I wanted to talk to you about the driving standards. We saw that incident in Singapore with Alexander [Rossi] and Fabio [Leimer], do you think there is something that needs to be addressed as far as… because that is the feeder series into Formula One isn’t it?
JC: I can’t really comment on that, really. At the end of the day, we’re all individual drivers and we all make our own decisions and of course we’re young, we’ve been put into a fast car – the closest car to a Formula One – so you’re going to expect more incidents than what you would in a Formula One world championship. So, it’s to be expected but, for sure, at times there have been some strange incidents.
JC: I don’t know.
AT: Would you say you’d rather do what Valtteri did, spend a year out – big changes next year – so spend a year out as a reserve for Force India, knowing you will get the chance to drive?
JC: I don’t know. Obviously, it’s been my ambition to be a Formula One race driver since I was this big. So, we’ll see.
AT: But would you be open to taking a year out of active racing, similar to what Valtteri did last year?
JC: That depends on the situation.
AT: We’ve heard a lot about heavier drivers being disadvantaged by the new rules…
JC: Heavier drivers?
AT: Because the cars are heavy, so they’ve got to lose more weight?
JC: I’ve never really thought of that. Are you on about for next year?
AT: Yeah, for next year.
JC: Well it’s good for me because I’m quite light. I’m only 70 kilos!
AT: But apparently the ideal fighting weight is supposed to be 60 next year is what people are saying if you want enough ballast to move around the car and things like that. [Note: Red Bull driver Mark Webber had tweeted ahead of the Korean Grand Prix saying perfect driver weight now was between 60-65 kg]
JC: Sixty kilos! I don’t think anyone’s under sixty kilos in Formula One. I think I’m a good weight… I don’t know. Does it really make a big difference?
AT: Because you see the situation with Nico Hulkenberg, for example…
JC: He’s tall. Just move the pedals.
AT: People are also saying he’s heavier because of his height and everything…
JC: I honestly don’t think it makes that much of a difference. You just put the weight somewhere else.
AT: Last couple of questions – when you’re not driving on Fridays what does your day involve?
JC: Lots of training. I’ll go to the factory and do sim work and help the team. So, quite busy away from the track.
AT: And engineering debriefs and stuff like that?
JC: Yeah, when I’m here I do all the debriefs. When I’m driving in GP2, sometimes I have to miss a few. But, like for example now, I do all of them, including the strategy, pitstops, everything.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic and Sahara Force India F1 Team.