Callum Ilott is eyeing up the chance to talk to IndyCar’s top teams for 2024, having impressed in his 22 races with the underdog Juncos outfit so far. But he knows how hard negotiating for seats at this level is…
Only a few years ago, Callum Ilott was one of the most promising drivers competing in junior single-seaters. He was third in GP3 in 2018, and Formula 2 runner-up with Virtuosi Racing in 2020, but never made it to a Formula 1 race seat after.
He currently races in IndyCar for Juncos Hollinger Racing, with whom he debuted late in the 2021 season, and led the team’s first ever full-time attack on the series last year. Ilott ended his rookie season by qualifying on the front row, and started his sophomore campaign last month with a fifth place. With the team looking competitive enough for similar results to be achieved through the year, its bolstering Ilott’s reputation and helping make sure he stays in single-seaters’ top tier for 2024.
But when Ilott finished second in F2 almost two-and-a-half years ago, he had a very different negotiating card for landing a seat at the top level. On the Formula Scout Podcast, he talked about how events behind the scenes evolved in 2020 while he was a Ferrari junior in regards to a step up to F1, and why that never materialised. It was a situation where, according to him, he was kept in the dark for most of the year as fellow Ferrari junior Mick Schumacher beat him to the title and an F1 seat.
“It was that they [the Ferrari Driver Academy] would help find a seat. It’s not that you definitely get one,” Ilott said when asked whether he had been promised a 2021 F1 seat ahead of the 2020 F2 season.
“There is never any guarantees in this industry, so it was understood that it was never guaranteed, but obviously you’ve got a very good chance if you’re finishing the top three.”
“It is very difficult because I was not told really anything from that side,” Ilott explained about how close he came to becoming an F1 driver in 2021.
“Like I never really knew what was going on until it was solid. Of course, there are other ways for me to find out information, and I did. And then the media would always clarify that information two weeks later or three weeks later. So you knew you were kind of getting stuff that was correct.
“I felt like I got quite close. But of course you never know really where these deals are at, where mines are at. I think in some ways I could have got a bit more help in some areas. But again, it can all change in a week.”
Schumacher ended up graduating to F1 with Haas, a team Ilott had set to drive for in the opening practice session of the Eifel Grand Prix before rain and fog led to it being abandoned before Ilott got a chance to head out on track.
“I remember that Nurburgring FP1. Before that, it was kind of looking like that’s the direction of everything. And then I remember the Monday after that weekend, it just all changed. And then it went from you have a great chance to ciao ciao basically,” Ilott recalled, despite not mentioning the team he had more chances to step up with.
“The world works like that and it’s quite tough. And it was quite tough to hear. And again, I didn’t hear that directly. I heard it through my own sources. I mean, if it was all from the one side, I didn’t know until three races to go that I wasn’t going to F1, two races.”
Although he understands that is part of the F1 game, the then-FDA member admits he would have liked to receive more direct information about what his future was looking like and at an earlier time.
“It’s tough, and it’s a big, big moving entity, F1. Lots of decisions are made off of lots of things. It’s never just one thing. I mean, if it was on who was the quickest driver, I’d probably have a seat. If it was off of championship results, I’d probably have a seat, or at least a chance,” he reckoned.
“I wish some things were communicated earlier, or at least the idea and the perception. And I much prefer being told the truth than some bullshit half of the time because, you know, it’s just you live your life off of hope.
“I lived 2020, 2021 off of hope, and a lot of people don’t give a shit about your hope. ‘It’s just a dream for you, okay, go along’. I found that out on one stage that no one really cared personally about my dream or whatever.”
Ilott described his situation those years as being a “pawn on the front” on a chessboard, which was “tough”.
“We’ll just let you move two spaces and get on with it,” he said. Such a scenario prompted him to look elsewhere for the future, and let him ultimately to where he is now.
“That was why 2021, I took it into my own hands and was like ‘well, you know, I’m going to go and find my own way because no one would ever find the way for me’ kind of thing. So I went over to IndyCar and that’s the start of it.
“But no, I don’t think it’s managed poorly. It’s just that’s how it works, you know. That’s why sometimes you need people in the right places. But you are dealing with something that’s so political and so big, there’s a lot more to it than that, a lot more to it than just being managed slightly better,” the 24-year-old affirmed.
Ferrari announced Ilott as its F1 test driver for 2021 just over a week after the conclusion of the F2 season, in which he had won two feature races, a sprint race and claimed five poles, and he also joined Ferrari’s engine customer Alfa Romeo Racing as one of its reserve drivers. That led to two free practice outings, and he combined those duties with racing Ferraris for the Iron Lynx team in the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup, the Le Mans 24 Hours – where he finished third in the GTE AM class – and the Indianapolis 8 Hours.
“Testing with Ferrari in a certain way is like a holding place on a contract. Because there was a reserve driver, and that was [Antonio] Giovinazzi, and test driver was more like the simulator side of things.
“I wasn’t really going to the track with Ferrari, I was just behind the scenes. And not doing a massive, massive amount, which is why I started doing some of the GT stuff as well because they had a space there and there was probably potential to run for the Hypercar,” he explained.
“Then the reserve stuff with Alfa, I wanted to do. So I pushed for that and got that with Fred [Vasseur, Alfa Romeo team principal]. And that came with the FP1s, and that kept me busy, going to the track, staying in touch with people, and filling my weekends up basically.
“The FP1s were obviously great to do and a great experience. And then to work with all those guys and see the professionalism and learn from Giovinazzi and [Kimi] Raikkonen. To see them hand in hand and like the way they speak, the way they work with the team, for a potential if I got the seat in ‘22 to be able to replicate and do the best job possible.”
Ilott enjoyed his maiden F1 practice session appearance at Algarve, where he clocked 21 laps in Giovinazzi’s car. His next outing was at the Red Bull Ring, where he did 23 laps, which would be his last despite the initial plan was to do a few more practice sessions in preparation for an eventual F1 debut in 2022.
“I had more agreed. Then I found the IndyCar stuff, and I think I had to sacrifice one for an IndyCar test or race. I think it was maybe Sochi I had to sacrifice, because I was probably going to do that one. And I chose the IndyCar stuff because I was like that’s probably what I’m going to end up doing [next year]. And then I had another two, but they kind of disappeared as soon as I confirmed I was doing IndyCar.”
Moving to America for 2022 meant he had to stop working with Alfa Romeo. However, he briefly returned to the F1 paddock in Miami to deputise as reserve for Robert Kubica, who had a clashing racing committment.
“I still keep in touch with Fred. Obviously now he’s at Ferrari. They needed someone for Miami and I was there. I was going anyway, and it made sense. And so it was just limited to that.
“I did offer for anything else, but they didn’t need it. I think they had [Theo] Pourchaire for a couple of races later on in the season, which I might have done if I was around.”
IndyCar is now Ilott’s “medium-term project, which could be very long term if you look at Scott Dixon, Will Power [for example].
“At the end of the day, I’m with Juncos, and they brought me into IndyCar. They gave me the opportunity, and we’ve got a big plan to try and improve as much as possible.”
Notwithstanding, he keeps his mind open for the longer term.
“I would like to see what other opportunities there are after IndyCar. There could be the Hypercar stuff, [it] is very appealing. I do take an interest to that, but it was at the wrong time in my career to really step into it. I think there’s more of an impact I can do in single-seaters, and it was a good opportunity for me in IndyCar.
“I think I’m going to target probably another four years in IndyCar and see what position I’m in and where I’m at and where the championships are, and then look at what else I might be able to do. I might stay in IndyCar for the long term. I might have maybe won the championship and have an opportunity in F1, which I may or may not turn down out of spite.”
An F1 call-up, even if from a team running towards the back of the field, would definitely bring a dilemma up in Ilott’s head.
“It depends on what I’ve got lined up in IndyCar or in Hypercar [in the future]. I think with currently one of the top two or top three teams in IndyCar, that’s a great long-term career and opportunity. For one year in F1, is it worth the trade? Probably not. But because it was something that I worked at for many, many years and still got turned down for, just to be able to do it and see what it’s like, you know, a lot of people would be like you’d be crazy to turn down the opportunity.
“But it really depends on how settled I am, and how much I’m enjoying IndyCar.
“So, I’m not going to write it off, but at the same time it’s like I’ve got to be in the position to be able to have that decision. And it would be a nice decision to have, that’s for sure.”
You can listen to the full interview on Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts, Spotify and below.