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Inside story: Callum Ilott’s quest to build his name in IndyCar

Former Ferrari junior driver Callum Ilott opens up about his move from Europe to compete in IndyCar and the struggles that he’s faced trying to make a name for himself in arguably the most competitive racing series on the planet.

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

After finishing runner-up to Mick Schumacher in Formula 2 in 2020, Ilott made his IndyCar debut in 2021 with Juncos Hollinger Racing at the Grand Prix of 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.

He first tested for Alfa’s F1 team in the in-season 2019 test at Barcelona and ran again in the post-2020 test at Abu Dhabi, having missed out on a Friday practice run for Haas at the Nurburgring when the session got washed out.

He shared his Alfa reserve role with Robert Kubica, and finally got his FP1 runouts in Portugal and Austria in 2021, having previously tested an older-spec car for Ferrari at Fiorano.

Callum Ilott and Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo F1 Team

Callum Ilott and Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo F1 Team

Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images

But the British driver’s F1 racing prospects fell through when the Alfa Romeo team offered Guanyu Zhou a 2022 seat over him. Ilott decided it was time to commit to other things and looked at IndyCar as his true racing future.

“I'd always watched IndyCar over the last two, three years and been interested in giving it a go,” he tells Motorsport.com. “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.”

Callum Ilott, Ferrari

Callum Ilott, Ferrari

Photo by: Ferrari

After setting aside his Hypercar options in WEC, Ilott’s manager called him up about a team called Juncos Hollinger Racing, which was starting up its IndyCar program in America and said that they could get him in for the last three races of the 2021 season.

Ilott took a chance on the Argentinean-American team and then later signed a contract with them the next year until the end of the 2024 season.

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Committing to the land of opportunity

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.

“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 I can't decide in 10 years’ time to go to IndyCar – that's a much harder route to take. I want to win big races in America.”

FIA F2: Callum Ilott, UNI-VIRTUOSI leads Mick Schumacher, Prema Racing

FIA F2: Callum Ilott, UNI-VIRTUOSI leads Mick Schumacher, Prema Racing

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Tough times breaking into IndyCar as a European youngster

Despite more opportunities in America, Ilott revealed that breaking into IndyCar is not easy for European drivers especially when you have to prove yourself to land lucrative sponsorship deals for the team along the way.

“It's tough to get into from Europe the same way, probably from America, it's tough to get into Europe,” he admits. “It's tough as a European to come into IndyCar because you're obviously not in it. Although they're aware of who your are, they're not actively looking for European drivers, or they're looking for the best, right?

“And whether the best means as a package, because of the sponsorship you bring or being the best, because you’re the hottest prospect from wherever, it gets looked at. But you have to build a name for yourself, you have to bring value, whether that's in speed or monetary.”

But once a non-American driver has found a way into IndyCar, Ilott believes that it can prove to be a more fulfilling career by reaping rewards that aren't possible in other European racing series.

“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.

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

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Ovals: The biggest challenge to conquer

Securing a seat in IndyCar was only half the battle for Ilott; adapting his European-honed driving style to the unfamiliar ovals in American racing was the toughest challenge he’s had to face as a racer 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!”

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Coming from F2 to IndyCar was a technical culture shock for Ilott. He’s enjoying the challenge but admits it’s a tough series to adapt to.

He says: “These little differences, you have more tools in the car, we got the anti-roll bars front and rear you got the weight jacker you're pushing 100% every lap. It's very intense, and it's super enjoyable.

“The racing is tough, there's no DRS. 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 tires up until then. Here it's like, ‘oh there's an opportunity, got to go for it!’ There's no holding back.

“It's a cool series and it's tough to get used to. But make one little mistake and you drop back a lot.”

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet Indy 500 qualification photo

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet Indy 500 qualification photo

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

Managing expectations with a small team

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, regards not having one at his disposal in America as a handicap.

“There are limited resources, no simulator, all of this,” he says. “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.

“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.”

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

When it comes to accessing expectations from an outside perspective, no one truly appreciates the progress being made within the team.

And 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.

“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 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 recognize 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.”

Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

Aiming to follow in the footsteps of others

Other European drivers like Romain Grosjean, Marcus Ericsson and Christian Lundgaard have managed to secure seats with larger IndyCar teams, with ex-Alfa F1 racer Ericsson going on to win the Indy 500 last year. Ilott sees all their success 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. 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, 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.”

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

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