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How Ilott is patiently building his name in IndyCar

Now into his second full season of racing in IndyCar, Callum Ilott has gotten over the worst of the culture shock. But driving for one of the smallest teams in one of the most competitive racing series on the planet, he's had to manage expectations while building up his stock

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

After finishing runner-up to Mick Schumacher in the 2020 FIA Formula 2 Championship, Callum Ilott made his IndyCar debut in 2021 with Juncos Hollinger Racing at Portland. At the time, he was a test driver with the Ferrari Driver Academy and was Alfa Romeo’s second reserve driver in Formula 1, sharing the role with Robert Kubica.

But the Briton's F1 prospects fell through when Alfa offered Zhou Guanyu a 2022 seat over him. Ilott turned attentions elsewhere and looked at IndyCar as his true racing future, having tested the waters in endurance racing by finishing third on his Le Mans 24 Hours debut in the GTE Am class.

“I'd always watched IndyCar over the last two, three years and been interested in giving it a go,” he tells Autosport. “In 2021 I had tried Le Mans, I'd been racing in the endurance stuff [with the Iron Lynx Ferrari GT team] and I could stay around the F1 environment in as a test reserve role and, you know, live off of hope that one day you go in.

“But, at the end of the day, I wanted to race, I wanted to have a good career.”

After setting aside his Hypercar options in WEC, Ilott’s manager informed him that Juncos Hollinger Racing was starting up its IndyCar programme in America and said he could enter the last three races of 2021. Ilott took a chance on the Argentinean-American team and has since signed a contract that commits him until the end of 2024.

One key factor for Ilott making the commitment to run full-time in IndyCar with Juncos was the fact that there were more opportunities career-wise in America to “make a name for yourself”, as opposed to endurance racing where you must share the limelight with other team-mates.

“Look, I love endurance racing,” he says. “I thought it was great. But the one thing as a young guy that you want to do is make a name for yourself, make a career and, of course, you can do that there.

Ilott finished third at Le Mans in the GTE Am class in 2021 while waiting for an F1 opportunity to open up, but decided not to pursue a future in sportscars

Ilott finished third at Le Mans in the GTE Am class in 2021 while waiting for an F1 opportunity to open up, but decided not to pursue a future in sportscars

Photo by: Marc Fleury

“But in endurance racing, you're one of three people in the car and it's harder to stand out. It's harder to show your ability and I still want to win and I still want to win on my own.”

Ilott’s bold decision to focus his career on the American open-wheel series over endurance racing was a no-brainer: “I can go and do endurance racing at any time and do a good job at it. But you know, I can't decide in 10 years’ time to go to IndyCar – that's a much harder route to take. And yeah, I want to win big races in America.”

Ilott believes that breaking into IndyCar isn't easy for European drivers because “you have to bring value, whether that's in speed or monetary”, but reckons it can be a more fulfilling career by reaping rewards that aren't possible in other categories.

“Once you've got that opportunity, once you're inside of it, it's a very good career – some people overlook it,” he says. “You easily be racing IndyCar and do some one-offs in IMSA or Le Mans. You just wouldn't be able to do it the same way in Europe.

"I had to learn how what my capabilities and what my ceilings were. And I did a good job of it, trying to try to imagine how I can go quicker by just seeing what I can do. And in a car that I barely knew" Callum Ilott

“Once you're in the environment, it's a great career. But it's just tough to enter it.”

Securing a seat in IndyCar was only half the battle for Ilott. He reckons adapting his European-honed driving style to the unfamiliar ovals in American racing was the toughest challenge he’s had to face so far.

“Most definitely,” he admits. “Because you get thrown in on the super speedways first – you don't do [smaller ovals] Iowa or Gateway – you go straight into Texas, then into the Indy 500. And as a team, we're still developing.  I didn’t know what to expect.”

Ilott also says that the demands of oval racing is “physically like nothing I've ever done” and that most of the drivers are “destroyed” after completing them. In addition to the unpredictable nature of oval racing, there’s a steep learning curve to master the art.

“Unfortunately, you kind of learn by mistakes on that… And the mistakes are quite heavy on ovals,” he winces. “Then it's just all the little things you know, the way the racing works, the fact that I'm no longer racing for up to an hour, I'm doing two hours-plus – the Indy 500 we just had, it was three hours. I mean, wow!”

Ilott has found the challenge of ovals a steep learning curve

Ilott has found the challenge of ovals a steep learning curve

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

Coming from F2 to IndyCar also meant there were more tools in the car to optimise, from anti-roll bars front and rear to the weight jacker. The racing is “very intense” as a result, but it's a challenge he relishes.

“The racing is tough, there's no DRS,” he says. “In F2 I'd just wait and wait and wait and set it up, so I just got someone on the DRS – it was easy and you were saving the tyres up until then. Here it's like ‘Oh there's an opportunity, got to go for it!’ There's no holding back. So, it's a cool series and it's tough to get used to. But make one little mistake and you drop back a lot.”

One of the drawbacks of joining a smaller team in a series dominated by multi-car powerhouses is having limited resources at your disposal. For Ilott, who previously made a career out of using a simulator, not having one at his disposal in America is a handicap. But he does at least now have a team-mate to compare data with in touring car convert Augustin Canapino, Juncos-Holinger having scaled up from a single car effort last season. 

“There are limited resources, no simulator,” he explains. “You're just at a disadvantage with everything but it doesn't overcomplicate things – it actually made it more simple for us, because we only had a limited amount of tools. So, we just had to work with what we had, and we couldn't get lost.

“I had no data to compare to, because it's just me. I had to learn how what my capabilities and what my ceilings were. And I did a good job of it, trying to try to imagine how I can go quicker by just seeing what I can do. And in a car that I barely knew.”

With that mentality, Ilott has had to change his outlook while remaining patient during disappointing and frustrating results with his team. His best result is a fifth place from this year's St. Petersburg season-opener and he currently sits 14th in the standings.

“From the outside without any knowledge, you may look at the results and go, well, that's not very good,” he admits. “And, you know, sometimes it can be like that occasionally it can be frustrating. But in one way, there's no pressure because, at the end of the day, any result’s a good result because we're always looking to improve, I'm always looking to improve.”

When it comes to handling his own frustration, Ilott chooses to stay focused on his career and not get caught up in the success that some of his peers – like Kyle Kirkwood, who also entered the series full-time in 2021 but has made the jump into a big team and secured a first win already.

Ilott remains upbeat despite a tricky start to the season, having yet to crack the top 10 in qualifying

Ilott remains upbeat despite a tricky start to the season, having yet to crack the top 10 in qualifying

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

“We're not doing well this year and that can build some frustration,” he admits. “Of course you see Kyle go from AJ Foyt Racing to Andretti Autosport and win in Long Beach, his third race.

“Some people will look at that and say, you know, that could have been you if you jumped somewhere or whatever. And I sit there and I relax. I know that for those who know, they're happy to watch me build and learn, and you don't want to miss the opportunity when it comes along.”

The 24-year-old remains practical when it comes to making a name for himself: “Within the series, I'm building a name for myself very slowly. People know and recognise me, everyone knows the job that I've been doing with a very small team, which is building and growing, and we've had some great results.

“But at the same time you're taking things in a different pathway, in a certain sense. And as long as you have the patience to do so, and take the results when they come, that's fine. But of course, everyone wants to win, I want to win. You've just got to wait.”

"You're taking things in a different pathway, in a certain sense. And as long as you have the patience to do so, and take the results when they come, that's fine" Callum Ilott

Other European drivers like Romain Grosjean (Andretti), Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi) and Christian Lundgaard (RLL) have managed to secure seats with larger IndyCar teams, with Ericsson scooping the Indianapolis 500 last year. Ilott sees their prowess as a positive for his own chances of moving up the grid in years to come.

He says: “Marcus is a great example of perseverance, putting yourself in the right place and really being able to reap the rewards of that. And yeah, he's done an amazing job. And winning the crown jewel of motorsports is impressive, and what everyone aims for.

“Even Christian [a fellow F2 standout], where he came in just for that one event and did such a good job [qualifying fourth on debut at the Indianapolis road course in 2021, 0.02s off pole position]. That was a real standout for me, because I'm like, 'OK, cool, that helps all of us'.

“It just adds value for drivers coming from outside of [IndyCar] when someone jumps in and does a great job like that. And one day, you hope you can do the same when you get your big chance.”

Ilott is determined to earn his big opportunity and continue to build JHR into a front-runner

Ilott is determined to earn his big opportunity and continue to build JHR into a front-runner

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

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