Hannah Newman and Thomas Britton interview WEC driver, Olli Caldwell, discussing his career and perspectives on the motorsport industry.
Spectators of motorsport want action, excitement, drama, and unpredictability. This is what makes the sport so gripping; this is what makes the sport so suitable for Netflix series. However, there is another world beyond the grandstands. We interviewed Olli Caldwell, a World Endurance Championship (WEC) driver for Alpine who has driven across a number of categories, to find out what the perspective from the protagonists is: do they enjoy the drama too? What don’t we, or the TV cameras, see? How do team dynamics work in reality? And most importantly: do they look at F1 memes as much as we do?
The World Endurance Championship is a category of motorsport that, in Olli’s words, “pushes both the car and the person to their absolute limit.” Perhaps most famous for the classic 24 Hours of Le Mans, with other races typically lasting six hours or longer, it’s one of the most physically demanding motorsport series.
Since it receives less media attention than the Formula Series, and with Olli’s experience driving across these categories, we thought he’d be the perfect person to ask about what the differences in training regime and feel of the cars are. Olli told us that it was difficult to compare the WEC car that he drives, an LMP2 (Le Mans Prototype) class, with an F1 car simply because they are such different vehicles, but that the hypercars that compete in the WEC are much closer to F1 performance.
As perhaps is expected, the F1 car has a lot more power and has had a lot more research and development put behind it: it is, therefore, significantly more expensive than other cars. Olli said that an F1 car costs about £100m, whereas an F2 car costs between £2-3m, which translates to a physical time difference of about 10 seconds.
However what we really wanted to know was how it actually feels as the driver – and it was here that the answer became less statistical and more lyrical. Only one word was necessary: “otherworldly”.
The performance gaps between these cars don’t mean the drivers in WEC and F2 have to be any less fit, or train any less. A couple of sessions a week in Westgate Buzz Gym won’t cut it, so Olli described to us how demanding his training regime was, as well as the different training focuses between categories. Olli told us that in F2, the longest race is one hour, but there is no power steering, so a lot of high-intensity strength work is required to build upper-body muscle. In F1, the races are longer, so there is more focus on endurance, but F1 cars have power steering so less muscle strength is required. WEC is a mixture of them both – the races are much longer, with the longest driving stint being three hours. Olli said that his training was less about strength, and more about quick recovery and endurance in a hot environment – sealed cars lead to stifling conditions.
Controversy about rules and regulations is never far from the discourse surrounding motorsport – look at the track limits at this year’s Qatar and Austrian Grands Prix, or Pérez’s miraculous unretirement at Suzuka (definitely a five-second penalty for Ocon) to get a sense of this. Or even just go on to F1 twitter and see how long it takes until someone mentions Abu Dhabi 2021. As spectators we have our own strong views, but what often isn’t talked about is how the drivers themselves feel. Do they, as we asked Olli, wish to change any rules, or alter any feature of motorsport?
Olli said “there are lots of little things”, and that “we deal with them so often, they don’t really make the media.” He said that “in terms of bigger things, it’s quite well managed” but “maybe one of the biggest controversies that needs reviewing is how penalties are handed out.” Clearly inconsistency about penalties is as frustrating for drivers as it is for fans. However, he told us that being in the room when the decisions are made helps drivers understand the decision-making process. He told us that decisions are considered and explained, but did add that “it’s something that can never be perfect.”
Specifically for WEC, he added that more spaces on the grid would benefit the series, and allow more people to join. While “there is a limit of 40-something cars due to the nature of some circuits, more cars means better racing.”
Perhaps another aspect of racing that’s difficult to observe from behind the screen is how drivers interact with their teams – messages over the radio and the occasional interview don’t tell the full story. Olli emphasised that “the driver has to be close with the team members – you spend so much time with them, whether in endurance or F1.” However, in his view, F1 is on a different level as there are so many more races on the calendar, so drivers have to be extra close with their team as they spend so much time together.
Olli shared that “there are some teams where drivers don’t interact with their team particularly well and this can create a massive divide”. Clearly, a mutual respect and healthy relationship between drivers and their team produces on-track results, and a breakdown in these relationships can cause performance issues.
Cars aren’t perfect, though, and neither are engineers, and inevitably for drivers, there will be races where, through no fault of their own they are forced to retire. This happened to Olli at the 1000 Miles of Sebring race, where an electrical issue forced his retirement five hours in. We asked whether this affected team relationships, to which he responded, as “drivers, we put in so much effort to do things perfectly on our side”, so when things go wrong in the car and it’s out of the driver’s control, it can cause “a rift if it happens too frequently”.
Social relationships within motorsport aren’t restricted to those between drivers and teams, however. Olli told us that – because he spends so much time racing and on the move – his closest friends tend to be other drivers. Indeed, he told us that his best friend is Frederik Vesti (currently competing in the F2 championship for Prema), and that even when they were competing against each other, they were also living together. “I’m also close with Oscar Piastri and Logan Sargeant, and other F2 drivers who have now moved on to other things like IndyCar.”
Considering the competitive nature of motorsport teammate partnerships (we all remember Brocedes), we asked Olli whether it was ever possible to truly be friends with a teammate. Olli maintained that yes, you are fighting against each other for points and championship standings, but that drivers often have contracts for three or four years together, so a healthy relationship is beneficial. He cited the example of Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris, both competing for McLaren, but with very different roles within the team – Piastri is a rookie, learning from the more experienced Norris. “They don’t see each other as rivals yet”, Olli said, “instead Oscar sees Lando as a benchmark, Lando sees himself as at the head of the team trying to make the car better.”
That doesn’t mean teammate friendships are easy or universal though, and he contrasted McLaren with Red Bull, where “Sergio is having to compete directly against Max”. However, Olli didn’t seem to think this was the standard model for teams – “that’s just how things function at Red Bull.”
One key thing to note about Olli Caldwell is that he is only 21, and he spent a lot of his formative years getting to where he is now. When asked whether he felt he had to grow up more quickly compared to his non-racing peers, he told us that “things were definitely different – I never used to notice it.” He continued, “at 16, I was flying to different countries alone – it was only when I came back and had to go to school that I realised it wasn’t that normal.”
Olli revealed that he used to do his studying at race tracks, “which wasn’t ideal”, but that he still did his GCSEs and A-levels so that he has the option of going to university after his racing career – “but for now, I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing.” Despite admitting, “I was alone a lot from an early age”, Olli has no regrets about his unusual childhood – “I wouldn’t change it at all.”
Perhaps one of the biggest developments in motorsport in the past few years has come from its substantially greater media attention, and we wanted to find out how drivers felt about this. For Olli, it has both positive and negative aspects. “It’s great, because F1 was on a downward decline in terms of popularity”, he told us. “You’d meet people who genuinely had no idea what F1 was, and those who did were from the older generation, who had watched people like Schumacher.”
However, while he feels the sport has been revived, “now you get some people who don’t necessarily understand everything”, who “take a hard stance for particular people and teams”, and this results in a lot more negative dialogue. “As a driver and team you try to ignore hate and focus on what you know is right, because you’re involved in the sport.”
Nevertheless, despite the prevalence of criticism, he feels like “while they may not appreciate you directly, they appreciate the sport”, and “I would rather have tens of millions of people watching all the hard work that goes in.” At the end of the day, “the sport can’t operate without fans.” Aww.
During our discussion, Olli told us about some of the more memorable things that have happened to him during his career as a driver, including the story of a race at Zandvoort, when, as he was walking with Vesti back to the car park, a fan recognised him, and soon “10,000 people turned around and looked at us.” The life of a driver is not for those who are shy.
Also at Zandvoort (“Zandvoort is always crazy”), while racing “there was a massive bird that hit me nearly right on my head”. The ultimate fate of the bird remains a mystery but Olli said “I don’t think the bird was okay.” Hannah commented that it was a bit Alonso of him (see the flying lizard at Singapore, RIP).
From Zandvoort to Le Mans, and a detour via the Varsity Club, Olli has fascinating insights into all aspects of racing: the technical and the social; the emotional and the physical. Clearly, there is so much more to motorsport than what the audience sees. It is so insightful to hear about the drama of motorsport from one of its protagonists.
To conclude the interview, we had a quick fire round of ten questions, where Olli had to give us the first answer that came to mind:
Favourite race track?
Hype song for before a race?
Taylor Swift [HE’S A SWIFTIE!!!]
Favourite post-race/cheat meal?
Favourite non-racing sport?
What would you be doing if you weren’t a driver?
Which driver do you look up to the most?
Best night out in Oxford?
“The one across from the Ivy” [which we clarified to mean The Varsity Club]
Favourite career moment?
Initially, “winning in F3”, but this was changed to “testing an F1 car”.
Favourite F1 meme?
I liked the Alonso and Taylor Swift ones, or the meme where at Silverstone last year someone leaned in to Carlos and Charles’ car and says “I wanna see p3”, and Carlos says “why p3?”