Multiple elements align for Ilott’s IndyCar opportunity

As strange as it might sound for a relatively unknown rookie, an entire paddock of support comes with 22-year-old Callum Ilott as he prepares to make his NTT IndyCar Series debut next week with Juncos Hollinger Racing.

The kid from England with a last name that’s guaranteed to befuddle most Americans (it’s pronounced EYE-lot) who’s yet to make his first start in a Formula 1 race, is already regarded as championship-caliber material. Speak with almost anyone from the world of F1, and Ilott’s the one they want to see in action wheeling a competitive car and demonstrating his immense capabilities.

And with his open-wheel career kicked into neutral as the few remaining F1 seats are being filled by familiar names, the Ferrari test driver and Alfa Romeo reserve driver, who also made a practice appearance at the Nurburgring for Ferrari-powered Haas last October (pictured above), decided it was time to do more than test or simulate. With an outreach from Ricardo Juncos and the blessing of the Scuderia, hardcore open-wheel racing will return to the Briton’s life when he climbs into the No. 77 JHR Chevy for IndyCar’s visit to Portland International Raceway.

The door to F1 certainly isn’t closed for Ilott, but in the meantime, a bit of exploration with JHR in IndyCar just might reveal a new path to consider if all goes well in the Pacific Northwest.

“I had a proper look at IndyCar at the end of last year, but it can be quite difficult as a rookie to get a chance, especially without budget,” Ilott told RACER. “And after completing the Formula 2 season, I put the focus on to the Formula 1 side. But I’ve been watching for a few years, especially when Fernando Alonso first went over to do the Indy 500, and then seeing when Felix Rosenqvist came over here — because I raced with him in Formula 3 — and seeing how well he’s done, it made IndyCar quite attractive.

“Seeing what Marcus Ericsson has done — winning — and how good the change to IndyCar has been for Romain Grosjean. Then obviously the most recent one was Christian Lundgaard coming over, who I raced against last year. That inspired me quite a bit because he was brave enough to give it a go and had a very, very good run. And at that point, I was already talking to Ricardo.”

Count F1 presenter Will Buxton among those who are rooting for Ilott to impress at PIR.

“Callum’s stock has been high in Europe for some time,” he said. “I suppose it was 2017 and his link-up with Prema on European F3 that first brought him onto most radars, well… after Nikita Mazepin had thumped him after an altercation in 2016 I guess, but it was his GP3 campaign and following years in F2 that really caught the imagination.

Ilott (No. 4) came up just short in his battle for the 2020 F2 title with Mick Schumacher (No. 20) but opened a lot of eyes to his potential. Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

“He came incredibly close to the F2 title last year, in an unfancied team, missing out — and only just — to Mick Schumacher. He’s trusted as test and reserve by not only Alfa Romeo but crucially by Ferrari. He’s just come off the podium at Le Mans, too, so he’s versatile and rapid. With options limiting in F1, Juncos have got their hands on a driver many believe should have been on the F1 grid this year. He’s a proper talent.”

As much as Ilott would like to continue the trend from F2, where he was usually on pole, on the podium, or celebrating a win, he’s fully aware of the difficulties ahead in Portland. JHR is rebooting an IndyCar operation that last ran as a part-time entrant in 2019, it’s never raced at PIR, and it will need to learn about the different chassis setup requirements that come with the 60-pound aeroscreen driver safety device that became mandatory in 2020. Altogether, Juncos, new team co-owner Brad Hollinger, and Ilott would be wise to temper their expectations at the 1.9-mile road course.

“Obviously, I would love to go straight in and win the first race, but you’ve got to be realistic,” Ilott added. “Even coming in with an established team, it would be a very, very difficult and a long shot to feature that way. But the goal with Ricardo is to build this team, work from the start the first proper race to get some momentum, and I think for sure we can put out a good car.

“It’s eliminating issues, mistakes, and building up consistency and a good way of working so that the team can move forward. I’m young, I have ambition, I know how to develop a car; that’s why my two roles in Formula 1 are in in development, but obviously I’m limited on my experience in an IndyCar, for sure. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make a car very fast and drive it quickly.”

Ilott’s signed for one race with JHR, and while there’s no promise of a second, he’s looking at the bigger picture in how he’ll approach the event. If all goes well and permission is granted by Ferrari, look for Juncos to extend another invitation to dance.

“The first thing is getting the car to the finish, getting all the experience as possible, and anything above that is a bonus,” Ilott said. “I’m looking forward to seeing where we’re at and where we can improve. Yeah, it’s a long shot to have amazing results, but I wouldn’t say it’s off the radar. I know that they can do a good job, for sure.”