Callum Ilott has moved to pastures new by joining the INDYCAR paddock with Juncos Hollinger Racing for the entire 2022 IndyCar season. The 2020 Formula 2 runner-up, Ferrari Driver Academy member and former F1 test driver is yet another talented young racer finding no place on the starting grid of the pinnacle of motorsport. So, is the American adventure a gap year from F1 or will it turn out to be something more?
Speaking to the media at a pre-season INDYCAR press conference, Callum Ilott explained how he intends to tackle the year ahead of him whilst also reflecting on his past success.
“My last year I was doing the testing reserve stuff in F1 with Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. I was racing in GTs, I experienced Le Mans, and then I ended up coming here at the end of the year. For me that was like an experimentation. At the end I chose to come to INDYCAR because I enjoy it, but for me, given the potential of this championship and the hybrid coming in next year, I really see a big growth of this championship.”
The growth Ilott refers to is because INDYCAR will undergo a change in regulations in 2023. Therefore, this is the last year of INDYCAR with the current spec car. Meanwhile, 2022 sees F1 press the reset button in the hope of closer wheel to wheel racing by outlining its own new regulations. As such, 2022 is a big year for Formula One because if it cannot deliver what is hoped then INDYCAR is more than ready to take up the mantle with such a competitive field of racers. Ilott also knows that there is a long-term option in America should he perform well.
“Honestly, I'm just looking forward to it and going to try and enjoy it, and honestly, if it really works for me and I'm enjoying it, I'm really happy to stay out here. You can see with Scott [Speed], with Will Power, there's a long career that you can build out here and a very good one, as well. I'm open to everything, and honestly, I hope it goes that direction because it's a good lifestyle here…At the end of the year if I want to stay out here, I can stay out here. If I want to look at options back in Europe, I can look at options back in Europe. If there's an option in F1, I can continue with that.”
The final point is a very big if because the next breed of young talent is already knocking at the door of Formula One. This includes current F2 Drivers’ Champion Oscar Piastri currently having to settle for reserve driver role for Alpine F1 Team. So, the question was posed to Ilott as to whether there is room in F1 for the young talent?
“From stories in past I believe similar things have happened in the sense of young guys didn't make it and you always believe that's not going to happen to you, and at the end of the day life is like that.” Ilott said pragmatically.
“But with Oscar it's a bit different in the sense that there wasn't availability for the support package that he had for this year, so I wasn't surprised in that sense. What would be a surprise is if at the end of this year he didn't have a seat for the following year because you can have a year off…that would be an injustice to junior formula and the single seater ladder that we have.”
Until a new manufacturer enters Formula One, there are only 20 seats for drivers on the starting grid. Most of these are already filled by experienced racers who have more than proved their worth or drivers with considerable financial backing. In F1 you certainly need more than talent. Ilott reflected on this fact but also admitted there are many more issues deserving attention.
“It's an individual sport in the way it works, and unfortunately for the young guys -- for me, it was a very lonely discovery process of that's how the world works. There are lots of injustices in the world, but yeah, I think that's one of the smaller problems that are facing the world, I think.”
Callum Ilott may have found the process a lonely one but in INDYCAR he will be surrounded by familiar faces seeing how serval ex-F2 racers as well as ex-F1 racers have headed to this opportunity in motorsport. Nevertheless, Ilott does not view INDYCAR as a step down or demotion.
“I think this is one of the questions lately that probably some of the fans are wondering about. Yeah, I don't want to say that it's an F1 rejection site because it's not in that sense. F1 is a very interesting environment as it stands and not a simple one to get into…this championship is stacked full of very, very impressive drivers, and I think that's the way it works. A lot of people would say for me that I had the potential to go to Formula 1, and for the last two years I did fight for that, but unfortunately it doesn't quite work because it's a bit more than just how good you are. It's more, yeah, shall we say commercial in some senses.”
INDYCAR fan-favourite Romain Grosjean built up a huge following with many motorsport fans drawn to The Phoenix and the success of the Frenchman and the joy he is having in America was not lost on Ilott.
“Here is a great opportunity, and a lot of drivers love the single seater. The racing is great. Seeing the smile on Romain's face from a lot of the races, coming from F1, 10 years in the sport, it shows that I think -- this is what I was talking about the potential of this championship earlier. I honestly think this championship in its own way should be better. The competition, the fact that anyone can almost win these races no matter what the team, and you don't get that in Formula 1.”
No one knows what the future holds. Also, at a time when these past two years the global pandemic has reminded us not to plan too far ahead - surely enjoyment of life is all one can hope for.
Callum Ilott was always regarded as a gentleman of the F1 paddock and many people hoped for him to succeed and break into the top motorsport category. Whether that comes to be one day or not, Ilott is not on a gap year and he is more than capable of taking this new opportunity.
“I'm focusing on myself. INDYCAR is a new start for me and a great opportunity, so yeah, that's the way I want to look at it, and I think to be fair for me, I will have hopefully a very good career out here.” Callum Ilott said displaying the self-confidence one would expect from a sportsperson.
A self confidence that will surely attract him many millions of fans stateside and you would be hard pressed to find someone who would say that he doesn’t deserve it.