Written by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
Callum Ilott is unarguably one of IndyCar’s shining lights, amid its talented young crop of drivers. In his two full seasons in the series, the 24-year-old British driver finished 20th and 16th in the championship standings — massively creditable given he has competed for a Juncos Hollinger Racing team, who joined the series full-time at the same time as the Briton.
Ilott’s first complete season in IndyCar, following three preliminary races in 2021, saw him as part of a single-car operation, with limited resources and rather basic facilities. But he still picked up eight top-15 finishes, including two top-10s, and qualified on the front row for the season-closing race at Laguna Seca.
There was only further improvement in 2023. Despite qualifying struggles for an expanded two-car Juncos team, Ilott bookended the season with career-best fifth-places, and notched a best oval result of ninth in Texas. He finished outside the top 20 only twice — an improvement on six finishes below 20th-place in 2022.
The Brit’s character was also shown in abundance through the Month of May, when an inherent car issue saw him considerably off the pace all through testing and practice, forcing a chassis change on the eve of qualifying. Ilott would still comfortably go on to make the field in the back-up car, rounding out his second Indianapolis 500 in a laudable 12th-place.
All signs have pointed towards Ilott being a budding champion in IndyCar, hence why it is unthinkable that he currently faces the prospect of being without a seat in 2024, having parted ways with Juncos, as announced on Thursday.
On one hand, it is almost unfathomable that one of IndyCar’s finest prospects is now likely scrambling to find a ride for next season. But on the other hand, maybe it is not a huge surprise, given internal discontent was clearly growing at Juncos. As has been evident from the outside, the relationship between Ilott and the team was seeming to deteriorate. Quickly.
While no admissions were made in his statement, which purely thanked Juncos for the opportunity, the situation inside the team must have been an uncomfortable one for Ilott.
A torrent of unjust treatment was dealt to Ilott on a regular basis from the fanbase of first-year teammate Agustin Canapino, across 2023. He was often the butt of masses of unwarranted toxicity, exacerbated in part by the team, and their occasional inaction or miscalculated action.
There were two big flashpoints in particular, first of all at Long Beach, when Ilott came out of the pits, about to fall a lap down, in front of Canapino when the Argentine driver was leading having stayed out during a caution period. Then came Laguna Seca at the end of the season, when contact between the pair saw Canapino’s front wing dislodged.
The latter incident seems to have been the climax in this situation, with the pair contending for the podium positions, and Canapino’s No.78 car in a battle to secure the additional Leaders’ Circle funding, when the contact occurred.
In both cases, Ilott was an innocent party. He was sent out in front of his teammate by the team in Long Beach, before Canapino’s misjudgement, after ‘team orders’ were suggested to have been given, albeit evidently miscommunicated, saw him suffer the damage that dropped him down to an eventual 14th-place finish at Laguna Seca.
Despite the abuse from Canapino’s followers, including death threats that forced Ilott to turn his social media to private, there was only a fairly weak statement of condemnation from the team after the season finale. This came almost an entire day later.
In many ways, you can’t help but feel team co-owner Ricardo Juncos added fuel to the fire after Laguna Seca. He failed to take the blame off Ilott, and it was lamentable the time it took for his driver to be protected by any sort of statement. In the interim, a video was published by the team, sharing their gratitude towards its fans for their ‘support’ through the season.
It was a showing of pure ignorance.
The team could have dealt with the whole predicament so much better. Foremost, there should ideally have been a video from Juncos and Canapino telling those abusing Ilott to stop. But instead there was a delayed, generic written statement, lacking any major power.
Through the 2023 season, there was often a sense that Canapino was favoured in the team. You can partially understand how that came about — an Argentinian driving for a team founded and built up by an Argentinian with a dream. And Canapino had an impressive rookie year, taking everybody by surprise, after having no prior open wheel experience.
He did come into the series as a very established racing driver — and experienced as a 33-year-old. He was very successful in touring cars back in his home country, gaining him a huge following in Argentina, where he is nothing short of a hero. But this was a discipline of racing quite vastly different to IndyCar, and for that matter, any single-seater championship.
In 2018, Canapino did win an award for being the Argentine sportsman of the year — an accolade also won by the likes of Lionel Messi, and only one other racing driver, Juan Manuel Fangio. But the way he hit the ground running in IndyCar, with back-to-back 12th-places in his opening races, including his first oval race at Texas, was unexpected.
There was continual improvement from Canapino all year round, seeing him competitive with some of IndyCar’s front-runners at times. A 12th-place finish in Toronto marked arguably his most impressive weekend, but it was a 13th-place qualifying position at Laguna Seca, where he would go on to run near the front, that arguably justified his status in the series the most.
He ultimately finished second in the Rookie of the Year standings, ahead of the two drivers that came from a background that involved racing on some of the American circuits in the Road to Indy. The manner in which he adapted to ovals, comfortably qualifying for the Indy 500, was also a considerable achievement.
All of this said, though, and as impressive a package as Canapino was in the team’s first year of running two cars, Ilott was still the driver leading the team forward, finishing five places, and 86 points ahead of Canapino in the standings. Unfortunately, it didn’t always seem as though Ilott got the treatment worthy of that.
The way things panned out, you can understand why Ilott may have felt unwanted at the team; you don’t want to be employed somewhere that you don't feel as valued as you could be, or frankly, as valued as you deserve to be.
It feels unfair that it has come to this for the driver who kickstarted the team’s full-time IndyCar journey. Such was Ilott’s success across the first season, the foundations were laid to be able to expand. But amid the expansion, you cannot help but feel Ilott and his blatant worth has got somewhat lost, at least from a team perspective.
Another facet to this situation is the strategic alliance recently announced between Arrow McLaren and Juncos. It felt as though Ilott could be a significant part of that relationship, and maybe even a major reason behind it.
There was potential for his development to be overseen, and possibly even aided to prime him for a possible seat at McLaren. It had been widely suggested that McLaren held interest in Ilott, before signing David Malukas to replace Felix Rosenqvist, though there does seem a keenness to expand to a four-car team in the near future.
As it stands, it is uncertain what happens to the links with Ilott for now. It is uncertain what the next steps will be for Ilott, full stop.
It is very late in the day in terms of silly season, with seats rapidly filling up, and options quickly becoming increasingly limited. Ilott had seemed certain he would return to Juncos and fulfil his contract late in the season, but things have evidently deteriorated in prompt fashion, since those comments.
It is another blot on Juncos’ copybook that they didn’t sort Ilott’s future sooner. One would imagine it must have seemed a probability that a split could be on the cards, but only now, seven weeks post-season, has anything been sorted. And as a result, Ilott’s options are unclear at this point.
One hypothetical path could be to sign a pre-agreement with McLaren for 2025 if interest persists there, and a possible loan out to another team for the 2024 season could be explored if this does happen. But this theory is probably flawed by the fact other teams will be searching for continuity, and not a one-year solution.
Other alternatives could include delving into sports cars for a year before targeting a return, but a whole season out of IndyCar would feel incredibly harsh on Ilott. It did feel as though staying at Juncos for one more year could then lend into Ilott getting an upwards move for 2025, with a clear pathway to McLaren emerging. Given his talent warrants a front-running drive, you do feel Ilott can’t really afford to get locked into a multi-year agreement with a team not fighting for wins. The only possible option that could be a reliably competitive team for Ilott to switch to in 2024 is Andretti Global, if they opt to maintain the No.29 car after its failure to make it into the Leaders’ Circle. But it is unclear what backing Ilott would bring to a team that will require funding, and they may still opt to look at bettering their consistency by running only three cars. In terms of Juncos, they are a team that will probably struggle to do better than signing Ilott. Romain Grosjean has been touted as the possible leading candidate to replace Ilott, but he finished only three places, and 30 points ahead of Ilott for a leading team in Andretti, after a disappointing 2023. For the sake of the driver himself, and IndyCar as a series, you have to hope Ilott does land somewhere. It would be wretched to see one of the series’ leading talents to fall by the wayside through no fault of his own, having been tied to a contract. It is a massive shame that it has come to this.