Marking 100 years of the infamous 24 Hours of Le Mans, Olli Caldwell joined his teammates aboard the #35 Alpine Elf Endurance Team’s A470 machine to make his debut at the historic race yesterday. The French team worked flat out through the night, battling rain, incidents and formidable opponents to make their comeback to 9th place.
Putting their learnings from Spa and private test sessions into practice on Sunday’s test day, Olli finally got his first taste at running the 13.626 km long Circuit de la Sarthe as he began to run through his mandatory rookie test of completing 10 day and 5 night laps to be allowed to compete in the race. Getting off without a hitch the team felt spurred on by their smooth running as race week loomed.
“It's an amazing track, even more so at night, as I've discovered over the past two days. Driving at over 300 kph in total darkness is both strange and awesome. We've made small improvements to get the car to the competitive level we want for the race. The aim will be to avoid problems, penalties and damage throughout the 24 hours to make up positions and get a good result at the finish."
Practice and Preparation
Olli launched the team’s campaign early on Wednesday as he joined the track for the opening session of the 24 Hours of Le Mans event, excitement reached a thrilling high as the sound of the cars roared around the infamous circuit. Utilising the sessions French team worked through their opening test plan, allowing them to tweak their set up and ensure the car was running smoothly ahead of qualifying that evening.
Driving honours were handed to teammate André Negrão for a frenetic qualifying session with 3 categories on track at the same time, which predictably saw a number of incidents and red flag periods. It proved hard to not only get a traffic free lap but even harder to hook one up without a slow zone. The LMP2 field was so closely matched that 13 cars were covered by less than a second. Missing out on the hyperpole session for the Top 8 cars, André was forced to settle for a position further back in 19th. But as is the nature of racing at Le Mans, there was plenty of road ahead of them and a forecast of changing conditions that could really play into their hands.
As goosebumps raised to the sound of the pack roaring underneath the tricolour starting flag, André took the charge of the #35 as Olli watched on with baited breath. Running on a wet track for the first time, it wasn’t long before incidents scattered throughout the field which brought the first safety car period before racing had really started.
Getting back to racing after a lengthy period, André avoided any drama in the opening stint to run P9 in class as the first 2 hours rounded off. Handing over to Memo on Lap 31 soon the rain begins to fall heavily as the 3rd hour mark loomed. From this point on it was clear that the race was going to be a thriller, as half the pack began to aquaplane or spin off at the same section of the track. Luckily Memo survived his own spin without colliding with the barriers and continued running almost immediately.
A blessing in disguise, this spin allowed them to pit for wet tyres a whole lap earlier than the rest of the LMP2 field, which in turn boosted them up to P2 on the road as the safety car period began once more. As the race reached the end of hour 4, the safety car prepared to release the field once again and the #35 squad were leading the LMP2 class with the sister car #36 behind.
Beginning his third and final opening stint both Alpine cars came in for slick tyres at the restart, back in the garage Olli began his preparations to jump in the car.
Olli jumps into the action
Taking to the track for the first time during the twice-around-the-clock race, Olli jumped in on Lap 57. As the dusk began to fall the British driver put his foot down and his eyes focused, circuiting his way round the track avoiding GT cars and lapped competitors with expert precision. As the rain began to threaten he readied himself to pit for fuel, but the team opted to hold out and try to take on tyres should the rain make an appearance. Their gamble paid off as they bolted on the wet tyres as the rain began to pour.
Under wet conditions Olli was fully engaged in a battle for P4 on the road with the #80 AF Corse Ferrari. With his rival on his tail, it was all about staying out of trouble and keeping the car on track. Holding his own in tricky conditions he put in a performance to be proud of in his opening stints, despite taking a short trip through the gravel trap to avoid a GTE Am.
One of the first cars to take the gamble to take on slicks it really was a roll of the dice for the young rookie as night bed in at the damp Circuit de La Sarthe. Returning to the track in P5 he radioed to the team that the track was still slippery in places, therefore wisely opted to take it easy and not push the Alpine machine too hard. It turned to be the correct tyre call as the track continued to dry. Having rounded out the first of the night running under mainly green flag conditions, he handed back to Memo Rojas from P3.
“Really difficult conditions out there and getting into the rhythm with the sun setting was challenging. Then the rain came, which just added to the challenging as it was my first running in the rain and dark which was not so easy. But I definitely felt confident in the car which helped, we’ve got good pace and the balance allowed us to take the risk to pit for slicks earlier than everyone else”
A Century of Laps
As the centenary race reached 100 laps, the #35 team were running solidly in the Top 5, but when a multi-car incident saw all 3 categories of car come together, Memo darted to take avoiding action from the #66 JMW Motorsport GTE-Am and #39 Graff Racing LMP2. Unfortunately he caught the back of the #7 Toyota Hypercar and clattered into a trackside boarding which caused damage to the front section of the car.
Making his way back to the pits, the team were forced to wheel the car into the garage to repair the car which was a heart-wrenching blow for the French team who were running comfortably in the top 3.
Returning to the race after the mechanics carried out repairs to the front half-axle, the rear end and other bodywork components. A further blow came in the form of a one minute stop-go penalty for their part in the collision.
However as driving honours was passed over to André once more, there was still more than half the race left to forge their comeback effort. As the drama and chaotic nature of the race began to settle into the depths of the night, the Brazilian driver worked hard to edge back their disadvantage.
As the halfway stage of the race loomed, Olli took to the wheel once again for his second night stint. Racing on his own for much of this section of the race proved to be tricky for the Alpine Academy rookie as he battled against what felt like an unstable car and the mental edge of ensuring his concentration on point.
"I got to experience the start and finish of the night of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It's more challenging and enjoyable if you manage to avoid trouble, rivals making mistakes or the mentally draining aspect of being on your own, as was the case on most of my triple stint. I think there is some damage to the car, as it feels less stable since the accident in which Memo was involved. It was difficult for me to find all the confidence I needed at high speeds, and we didn't have the pace we'd hoped for before dawn, but we'll keep battling right through to the finish."
The sun shines on the final hours
After his teammates took charge of the race for some thankfully uneventful running, Olli was back at the wheel as the race reached it’s final 6 hours. Firing out of the pits for his first daylight running of the race, Olli was focused on keeping out of trouble and picking up the spills where their rivals may falter. With clean running throughout his final stint and boxing with just under 3 and a half hours remaining, Olli handed over to André for the final driver change of their race.
With bright blue skies and sun beating down, running P12 in class the Brazilian driver just had 3 more stints to bring the car home. With full trust in his experienced teammate, Olli watched on as they head into the final hours of racing. Managing the tyres, handling traffic and keeping the A470 machine out of trouble. Andre battled on to finish the journey they had started 24 hours earlier, crossing the line to make a valiant comeback to 9th place in LMP2 class, with the sister car in 4th place, the team welcomed a double finish in a true race of attrition.
Celebrating his 21st birthday with a top-10 debut at 24 Hours of Le Mans, Olli Caldwell congratulated his teammates, engineers and thanked the whole Alpine outfit for their efforts.
“I’m really pleased with our result, I think it’s been a positive Le Mans for us and we can be happy with where we finished. We certainly had the pace for a better result but we were unlucky, then also it could’ve been a lot worse considering the conditions. I felt really confident in the car and we have made good progress in terms of the balance and set up. Hopefully we can maintain this momentum and take it forward into the rest of the season”
Olli Caldwell will be back in action with the Alpine Elf Endurance Team for the next round of the World Endurance Championship at Monza on 8-9th July.