Olli Caldwell and his Inter Europol Competition teammates sealed their European Le Mans season this weekend in a wet and windy Portugal, where their performance was hampered by the conditions, despite having strong pace going into the finale. With a previous round having been rescheduled to coincide with the season finale, the British driver tackled his first double header endurance event with encouraging form.
Setting the pace
With rain forecast for much of the weekend, it certainly was looking to be a strategic challenge for the team. Taking charge of qualifying, Olli head out on track on Friday morning looking to show their hand against the field in the first truly rapid laps of the weekend. Some areas of the track were still wet due to the earlier rain and grandstands blocking the sun from drying out the track evenly. Therefore Olli set about searching for every ounce of grip he could find on the slippery surface.
Improving to P5 in the timings by shaving 2.9s off his early banker lap at the halfway point of the session, Olli really put the hammer down to punch in a time just 1.071s shy of the pole lap to be P4 with 5 mins left. Increasing his advantage with every lap, Olli stamped his mark on P2 as the lap times were so narrowly matched. Whilst the Duqueine managed to better Olli’s lap time, he soon came back into play and improved to 0.174 off pole position. However driving on the limit always comes with risks and he exceeded track limits on his final attempt, meaning he was unable to steal pole position. Following a sensational effort from the British driver, a front row start gave them a solid starting point in the race later that day.
“Our car felt really good changing conditions, we had great pace throughout the session. Unfortunately I made a mistake in sector 1 which meant I missed out on setting what could’ve been the fastest lap of the session. I’m disappointed honestly, but it feels good to be starting on the front row”
4 Hours of Algarve
In a quick turnaround from qualifying, the European Le Mans Series field were back on track for the first of two 4 hour battles at the Autodromo International de Algarve – namely the 4 Hours of Algarve on Friday afternoon.
The changing weather certainly proved tricky for the entire field and race strategy was an ever moving challenge against the elements. Rui Andrade took starting honours, before handing over to Olli on Lap 59.
Unluckily for Olli it started to rain just 2 laps after he had pitted, which forced him to swap tyres again. Despite this stroke of bad luck, Olli and the team were confident in their pace and hoped for a reversal of fortunes. The highlight of the race for Olli came as he demonstrated a sensational pass for position, using the back markers to his advantage to pull a gap on the IDEC car.
Finishing the race in 7th place, the team set their sights on improving as the weekend progressed.
Olli takes charge once again
Late on Saturday afternoon, Olli was entrusted with qualifying honours for the second time of the weekend. Showing his development across his LMP2 rookie season, the British driver confidently took charge of the Inter Europol Competition car once again. But with traffic really hampering their efforts, they were forced to settle for P5 starting position.
“Unfortunately our track position really proved to be the issue in this qualifying session, first getting caught behind the Algarve Pro Racing car, then behind Cool Racing who was behind the pace. I really think we had the pace to be in the Top 3 again but it wasn’t to be, it’s a 4 hour race so we’ll see what we can do from there”
4 Hours of Portimao
Sunday action was delayed indefinitely due to a deluge of rain soaking the track. Following just a handful of opening laps that sent cars aquaplaning under slow speed, in the car Rui Andrade was reporting rivers of rain at almost every turn. Therefore Race Control determined a further red flag was necessary whilst the clock continued to count down to ensure racing was completed under daylight hours.
After another period behind the safety car, racing finally went green as the clock ticked down to the 3 hour mark. Edging their way through the opening corners, the #43 squad managed to keep their tyres on the track and their nose facing forward where rivals faltered, maintaining 5th place as racing settled into the opening laps.
With minimum drive time reduced to 48 minutes for each driver, Rui took charge of the first stint as rain eased in Portuguese skies allowing the Inter Europol squad to carve their way around the drying track.
Driving duties were handed over to Olli with under two and a half hours left to run, the 21-year-old British driver used feedback from his teammate about the conditions and his own experience to push on into the race.
Hungry and determined, Olli extracted the maximum out of their ORECA machinery to seal a number of fastest laps which was a true showing of their raw pace. Holding off advancements from his rivals, the Alpine Academy driver was the first of the LMP2 field to peel into the pits. Confident that the strategy would pay off for them, he handed over to Jonathan Aberdein for the final push to the flag. However once the #43 car was back on track and the other cars made their own pit stops, the safety car was called and the subsequent speed limit caused them to drop down the order. Further misfortune came in the shape of a 10-second penalty due to the team working on the car during refuelling at their pit stop. Undeterred by the cards stacked against them, the team faced forward and worked at pushing themselves up the order.
Escaping the drama and furore that followed through FCY periods and yellow flag sectors, the #43 crew managed to bring the green and yellow machine home for the final time, just shy of the podium finishing 4th place in class.
Sealing the season with a points finish brought an end to a tough season for the Inter Europol Competition squad. Olli showed promise in his first full season in LMP2 machinery as he looks ahead to 2024 with eagerness to progress.
“Overall this was probably the unluckiest season of my career in terms of retirements. But it’s been a pleasure to share it with Jonathan and Rui who have been really strong and competitive all season, it’s a shame we were unable to capitalise on it”
Next Olli will be back with his Alpine Elf Endurance Teammates to sign off their season in the World Endurance Championship at the 8 Hours of Bahrain in just a few weeks time.