For Andrea Caldarelli, 2019 is a step into the unknown. The Italian – a Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup champion two years ago – is competing in a full season of the SRO championship with his own Orange1 FFF Racing team.
That represents a big change on two fronts for Caldarelli, firstly his Lamborghini team moves from its base in Asia to Europe, and Caldarelli goes from running his team and driving for others, to focusing his dual efforts solely on FFF.
Whilst it’s something he’s had experience of in the past, moving into the highly-competitive European GT scene represents a tougher challenge for the former single-seater racer but is confident his experience in Asia will be of benefit.
“You have to kind of split your brain in two halves,” he said. “It is very important that you are able to choose the right one at the right moment. I have to say, I have been managing this team since the beginning, and I did some races as both, but of course never at such a high level like the campaign in Europe.
“The only difference is there is much more pressure and we have many more people, the level is higher. It is very intense, for me the weekend is like a double weekend. I think you have to be prepared for that, it is very difficult.”
It’s arguably the biggest challenge Caldarelli has faced in his career, but his tasks have been made easier by the people he’s surrounded himself within the team.
He added: “It is, the biggest challenge for me is to be both [team principal and driver]. But, I think it is a question of – and this comes with time – I trust all of our guys, it is very important to have this kind of feeling so you don’t worry about too many other things. But it is very interesting, I’m kind of enjoying it!”
The change of continents for FFF came from chatting with officials at Lamborghini, and with Caldarelli’s personal driving programme making him so busy he couldn’t get to see many of the Asian races, the move west made sense.
“I mean the first choice was because our team was started of course to race in Asia and it was always – we never really wanted to move to Europe in the beginning because most of our, let’s say, friends, partners, drivers, customers they are all based in Asia,” he explained.
“But last year once we started to do very well, I actually didn’t have time to see the races so the team was going very well on its own. Then with Lamborghini, we started to talk about setting up something big in Europe and that’s the reason we decided to come to Europe, to have a factory support programme.”
The team’s 2019 campaign started out in the best possible fashion with pole in the first Endurance Cup race of the year at Monza, and the 29-year-old believes that result – combined with a podium in the race itself – was a major confidence boost.
“It was a very difficult race, the conditions were like horrible, we didn’t really know anything like for the strategy, tyre choice – everything! But to finish second overall and even the Silver car finished third in class, I think it was a very good boost for all the team,” he commented.
The success at Monza and the strong showings at the following rounds at Brands Hatch, Silverstone and Paul Ricard are a vindication of the cost of moving the team over to Europe, with Caldarelli – and team owner Fu Songyang – wary of the costs of relocating the team thousands of miles away.
However, the Italian also had another consideration in mind. After lengthy, and successful, spells in both Super GT and Super Formula, Caldarelli had little experience of the GT scene in Europe and admitted it was difficult at the start.
“In the beginning, it was a very tough decision to make because we were based in Asia, the economic investment was not easy to move everything back to Europe. As well, in a field that I myself, especially in GT, did not have a lot of knowledge because I came back from Japan just two years ago and I never raced GT in Europe before 2017.
“So it was very difficult at the beginning to find the right people, find a good location to base the team at. That, I think, was the biggest challenge for us.”
The challenge though seems to have paid off. As well as running the Pro and Silver cars, FFF also runs a Pro-Am entry in both Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe and the Endurance Cup and watching long-time co-driver Hiroshi Hamaguchi score class victory at Brands Hatch was an ‘amazing’ moment for Caldarelli – despite not knowing about it until after.
“I was actually in the car because we both did the last stint!” He said. “It was only on the radio afterwards they told me: ‘Well done, P2. But the best thing is that we are P1 in Pro-Am!” So yeah these things are very funny to me. I asked the guys if they can put a screen next to the cockpit so I can follow the race!”
Hamaguchi’s success is the perfect example of why Caldarelli set up the team with Songyang in 2014. The pair raced together in GT Asia, with Caldarelli Songyang’s coach, and after frustrations with the team they were running with grew, the idea to race their own team grew stronger.
Caldarelli explained it was an idea that took hold quickly: “This programme of FFF’s started as a kind of a game that we wanted to do. We started to race together, I was coaching him to do GT Asia and our car was managed by an Asian team, and then in the middle of the season when we started to have a few problems, I said ‘Why don’t we have our own team and we can create a business behind it?’
“That’s how everything started and then I think it was just like a game, it started to be a business, the business started to be like something with a lot of interest behind, we started companies and now we are here.”
While managing the team in Blancpain GT takes up most of the ‘two halves’ of Caldarelli’s brain, he does keep half-an-eye on the future with the Intercontinental GT Challenge, one potential target as part of a short-term strategy of staying within SRO championships.
Despite his own experience racing – and securing the odd podium – in the showpiece IMSA races, mainly the Daytona 24 Hours, Sebring 12 Hours and Petit Le Mans, he’s not thinking about a trip across the Atlantic in the next few years.
“Not IMSA, for the moment. It is not what we are targeting at least for the next three years. Apart from races like Daytona, Sebring or Petit Le Mans but for the next three years I don’t see FFF going to IMSA,” he said.
“In the endurance races, it is always something that we are looking at so Daytona and Sebring can be a good target, but the full season definitely for the next three seasons, I don’t think so.”