British racing driver James Calado is not new to the sport, he’s an FIA World Champion with Ferrari in the World Endurance Championship, having won his class at Le Mans last June. Nor is he new to open wheel racing, having spent his formative years rising through the ranks of the European single seater theater to getting a Formula One test with Force India in 2013. He is new to Formula E, however, joining the series last November at the start of the 2019-20 season. A season that has fallen apart.
The transition from open wheel sprint to endurance tin-top has taken Calado to the top of the sport. He’s still bashing Ferrari GTE cars around the world with AF Corse and Risi Competizione, nabbing a couple podiums this season. Along with his sports car work, James has taken a role with the Jaguar Formula E team, partnering Mitch Evans who has been with the team since its 2016 inception.
With Formula E’s 2019-20 season currently on the ropes—nine of fourteen rounds have been cancelled or postponed—Calado is currently cooped up at home like the rest of us. Where he would normally be doing some heavy globe-trotting in the midst of two vastly different FIA series and an occasional IMSA run right now, he’s sitting at home running sim races in his front room.
How does something like this change a racer’s outlook? How does it change a racer’s life? What could we possibly hope for looking to the future of Formula E? Calado may not have all the answers here, but he was gracious enough to allow us some of his time to attempt to answer what he can.
Bradley Brownell: With only five races under your belt this season, how is it looking back the transition to this new series so far?
James Calado: Jaguar had me doing a lot of testing, so I’ve got a lot of time in the car. It came back to me very quickly. I adapted to being in a single-seater again, and the way a single-seater works. The approach you need to do single-seater racing is also completely different to endurance. I’ve got that experience from before.
The car itself is quite a lot different. I’d say the biggest change is that it’s an electric race car. So it works quite a lot differently, we utilize a lot of software and things like that. So that took quite a long time to adapt and to learn what to do in a race situation where you need to regen. That’s quite an art.
In that respect, I’m still in pretty much a steep learning curve. I’ve not done much racing. Obviously we’ve got this break now, which isn’t helping. But I’m looking forward to getting back and getting back to racing.
BB: How has your previous open-wheel experience helped in the transition to the Jaguar I-Type 4 race car?
JC: Obviously I miss the high-downforce cars. Before GTs I was in GP2 and doing some Formula One tests with Force India, and honestly they are the most incredible cars to drive. GT is very much different in that it still has downforce, quite a lot, and the Formula E is pretty much next to no downforce. Zero. You can follow cars, you can race cars, you can overtake, much easier than what you can in any other formula that I’ve raced in before.
In terms of adapting to that, you just do. Any driver that gets into a car will just adapt. It takes a few laps really to get used to it. There is a different driving style in Formula E where one can’t really attack the brakes as hard as you would in say a Formula 3. You need to be really gentle on the brakes. And that’s purely from a lack of downforce and a lack of slick tires.
You can overdrive the Formula E cars, because you’re sat in what feels like an F1 car, but without the downforce and without the grip. And not only that, we’re on tiny little street circuits, which makes driving really really tough. But at the same time, they are very enjoyable cars to drive. Very very clever in what they can do. And you know, they’re not slow. They’re probably the same speed as an F3 car.
I mean it’s nice to be able to slide around and follow other cars. It makes for really good racing. You see frequently in Formula E races that it’s always action-packed. You don’t rely on aerodynamics. It’s more of a technology game.
BB: There has been some talk of Formula E running on permanent circuits if the street courses can’t be run due to coronavirus. Do you have any experience testing a Formula E car on a road course?
JC: I’ve never been on a proper Grand Prix circuit in a Formula E car. They’re not really quick enough for that to happen. Um, I have been on airfields; that’s where I did the majority of my testing. At the moment we won’t be there, but as the cars improve, as the technology improves, as the generations go up and up, we will eventually have to go on bigger tracks because [the street circuits] will just be too small for the performance.
We’d easily be able to do Monaco Grand Prix circuit. And that would be a really cool track. I just see the future of Formula E getting better and better and there will be changes going forward.
BB: How helpful has a professional simulator been in getting up to speed with a new racing series?
JC: The simulator is the most important thing for us. It’s really realistic, the tracks are identical. They’re all laser-scanned tracks. We can pretty much simulate anything that would react in the same way in real life. With Formula E they’re all new tracks for me, so I tend to do 2 days of sim prior to each race. The first day purely to get used to the track and push my limits. The second day is to work on setup and strategy for the race.
We can simulate races, we can even simulate the shake-downs. We do absolutely everything as if we were at the race weekend. It’s important because we don’t actually get much time on track. In reality we only get two free-practice sessions which are only 45 minutes and 30 minutes and then we’re straight into quali, which is one lap. We rely on the simulator to get that knowledge before getting into the car.
BB: And speaking of simulators, you’ve recently been racing a virtual Formula E championship. How is that going?
JC: Formula E gave all of the drivers simulators. We’ve been racing in the RaceAtHome challenge. I think I finished 8th in the last one. I had a good battle with JEV [DS Techeetah driver Jean-Éric Vergne].
I mean, these simulators aren’t like the professional simulators, they’re completely more for fun than anything. The thing that is real is the tracks and the fact that you get to race your real competitors. That is really quite nice. We all get to speak to each other on the Discord. It is so funny to hear the other drivers get mad and we wind each other up all the time.
It’s all for a good cause [RaceAtHome proceeds go to benefit Unicef]. We’re all enjoying it. It’s something we can do whilst we’re stuck at home until things kind of get back to normal, I guess. I think it’s good fun. It gives the fans the opportunity to watch us race. And when you look at the graphics of iRacing or RFactor, it’s like ‘is it real or not?’ It’s really realistic.
BB: How are drivers maintaining their physical preparedness for the eventual return of racing? What is the workout regimen of a driver stuck at home without a trainer, presumably?
JC: We set up a little home gym in the house, which I’m sat in it now, actually. I can do my weights and things. I got a cycle machine, I use Zwift (an indoor cycling game app) a lot. I’m into my bikes and cycling and things like that. We’re allowed to get outside to exercise once a day, so I try to get out when I can when the weather’s nice.
I’m probably actually training just as much as I would, you know, even when everything was normal. Personally, I’ve just got time to actually do it.
Between two championships, it was really hectic. I was never home. Sometimes I was home one or two days a month. So it’s nice firstly to spend some time at home with the family and just do normal things. I think this break has kind of been positive, in most ways, for me.
BB: How drivers are maintaining their mental preparedness for the eventual return of racing?
JC: These RaceAtHome simulators are good in the fact that you can stay sharp in terms of race craft, which is always really good. That’s kind of realistic. Your brain works in the same way whether its reality or on the simulator. That’s kind of been keeping me sharp.
It’s actually kind of nice to be able to switch off. Things can sometimes get to be too much in reality, so it’s nice to step down and actually everyone is just getting their normal life back together. And actually, when we go back, I think that kind of positivity and relaxation will just make me stronger and quicker.
BB: Maintaining a competitive edge in these trying times isn’t easy, so does it involve meditation, psychiatric evaluations, etc?
JC: It’s funny you should say that, because actually when I was in GP2 I had a mind coach. Not because I had anything wrong with me, but I just saw it as an advantage compared to the rest of the field.
I’ve got to be honest, at the moment I haven’t got anything like that going on. I’m a bit older now and the pressure’s a bit less, I guess. I think experience is the biggest factor in racing. Yeah, maybe I should be, but I’m not really doing anything.
BB: And with the current season already extended beyond the initial end date of late July, how are drivers coping with the uncertainty?
JC: I think Formula E are just doing their best to try and work out a plan when everything is still uncertain. That’s the only thing they can do. I guess they’re speaking to all of the countries and all of the sponsors that are involved to try and work out a plan a, b, c, d. A lot of plans.
For me, what will be will be. No point worrying about something which you don’t know about. And when we get back to it, we get back to it. I just look forward to that day, I just hope it comes around sooner rather than later.