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IndyCar journey so far, WEC and what’s to come: An interview with Callum Ilott

Written by Archie O’Reilly

Conducted via the DIVEBOMB IndyCar Podcast

Callum Ilott is sitting at home in the United Kingdom for the Christmas period as he speaks to the DIVEBOMB IndyCar Podcast. He is, gratefully, in a position that he can enjoy the festivities - a matter of weeks after being confirmed as part of Jota Sport’s Hypercar lineup for 2024 in the World Endurance Championship.

It has been an off-season riddled with unexpected uncertainty for Ilott. By his own admission, he had absolutely no doubt that he would be continuing with Juncos Hollinger Racing in IndyCar. But the relationship gradually became strained and the parties mutually agreed to split in October, leaving Ilott’s future plans up in the air.

In this exclusive interview with DIVEBOMB, Ilott speaks about his IndyCar journey so far, opens up about his surprise scramble for a drive in 2024 and details his plans and expectations for the future. 

How an IndyCar move came about

If things had panned out even slightly differently, Ilott could well have been a Formula One driver in 2021. He finished a mere 14 points behind champion and fellow member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, Mick Schumacher, in the 2020 Formula Two championship. 

This secured Schumacher an F1 driver with Haas, while third-place Yuki Tsunoda graduated with AlphaTauri. But Ilott was left on the sidelines as Alfa Romeo Reserve Driver and Test Driver for Ferrari, limited to only practice sessions in F1. Inevitably, when it became clear an F1 opportunity was not on the cards, Ilott was keen to gain a race seat elsewhere.

“So after 2020, going into 2021, you kind of get one season to be a reserve and have a chance to break into F1,” he tells DIVEBOMB. “I think after that it always decreases a bit. So I think it got to about August, middle of 2021, and I kind of knew that for 2022 it wasn't going to happen. And then I had to make a decision as to what to do.”

IndyCar has increasingly become a desirable destination for F2 graduates whose F1 prospects are quashed, with Christian Lundgaard and Marcus Armstrong also making the switch in recent years. For Ilott, an opportunity arose in late 2021 for a Juncos team returning to IndyCar competition after participating in one near-complete year in 2018.

He had spent 2021 dabbling in GT racing aside from his roles with F1 teams but was keen to make a step up in 2022 rather than biding his time for a possible higher-up opportunity in sportscar racing the following year. A three-race trial period with Juncos in IndyCar in September of 2023 proved timely.

“I could have stayed in the same kind of roles and done the same thing - racing the GT stuff and being reserve,” Ilott says. “But I wanted to make a change and try something else. I understood how good a career could be in IndyCar if you make it work.

“So I went to go and try it and found a situation that I could build up in and learn and develop in and try and take something small to something quite impressive. I committed to that. I think, because of the situation that I was in, I was probably one of the only ones to just say, ‘Yeah, you know what? I'll give it a go and do it.’

“I think the only other option was to continue in GT for another year and then see where that landed in terms of the Hypercar stuff for what would have been 2023 instead of IndyCar. But I didn't really want to wait. I wanted to see what I could do in IndyCar and, worst case, come back. It just so happened that that's what's happened.”

There was an opportunity to make the move to IndyCar two years earlier than he did, Ilott tells DIVEBOMB. But with F1 the goal for a young British driver part of the Ferrari Driver Academy, F2 remained the clear pathway to reach his ultimate target.

“Obviously, when you're young, you always have eyes for Formula One and you know and understand the other opportunities and routes,” he says. “And if we take out Hypercar because, at the time, when I started to get into single seaters, there were only three manufacturers in LMP1, you would look at probably either doing Formula E, which was growing, or IndyCar.

“And I think that I didn't really explore the opportunities in Formula E. I dabbled in it and there was, in one or two of the years, an opportunity or two. But I just didn't commit to it because it wasn't the right time. And then I think it was more of a circumstance. I'd looked at IndyCar, end of 2019. I looked at IndyCar with Dale Coyne - I explored it as an opportunity.

“But again, I wanted to continue in F2 and it just wasn't the right time. So it wasn't something that I had decided I was going to do, only until the opportunity was completely there and the timing was right. I was like, ‘You know what? I'll just give it a go and see what we can do.’ I did want to try the 500. 

“Obviously, you can be a bit apprehensive about doing that race when you're not used to any ovals. But I did want to explore it. Outside of that, I didn't really know much about it until the first talk came up in 2019.”

The rookie challenge of a single-car team

The situation that Ilott opted to throw himself into was by no means the easiest. Juncos were attempting to reignite a full-time IndyCar venture with a single-car operation, which meant Ilott would have no experienced benchmark as a rookie. And, as a series, IndyCar is difficult enough to adapt to in the first place.

“The intensity of the weekend, the intensity of the races,” Ilott says when asked about the greatest challenge. “An F2 race was about an hour long. An IndyCar race is anywhere from an hour-and-a-half to three hours. So it's quite a long, long event. No power steering, three to six pit stops… it takes its toll physically - I had to step up the training a lot. 

“In terms of other stuff, I would say that the car is a lot more kind of rally style. You're always moving, you're always sliding. It's a very versatile car because it can go across bumps, you can be on ovals, you can be on short ovals. We race everything. 

“So I think as a driver you have to adapt and constantly be on top of it, and that's what makes it so difficult, also on the team’s side, to be so consistent within IndyCar. Whereas European tracks, it's all the same, even the street circuits; probably most of the street circuits I did in F2 were smoother than any circuit I did in IndyCar.”

Ilott made his debut in Portland before further races at Laguna Seca and Long Beach. While he failed to finish inside the top 20 in any of the three races, there was much more to the picture amid a crucial learning experience heading into two full years in the series.

“The first three races were very tough because it was just an unknown,” he says. “And actually, in hindsight, we did a pretty good job. There were a lot of mistakes that were made, and then we figured it out and would move on to the next. You were kind of recovering. That team, at the end of those three races, was just a load of people put together with no synchronisation. 

“So it was good but a bit messy in some ways, and I think we actually overachieved on the performance side a lot. In Portland, before I had an electronics failure, it was about lap 50… I think I was running in P12, which at the time was not bad because it was the first race. Pit stops were nothing special at the time.”

Before going full-time in 2022, Juncos partnered with the outgoing Carlin team in order to acquire equipment and personnel. Ilott describes this as a “very, very positive” step, albeit facilities did remain limited for IndyCar’s smallest full-season team.

“Going into 2022,  single car, I didn't do any simulator,” Ilott says. “Learning the tracks was just… I'd turn up, YouTube video and go. You can imagine on the development side as well, it was very tough to pre-decide anything set-up wise when you're not doing that. 

“A lot of people don't really understand how tough it is to go against a Penske, Ganassi, McLaren with no sim, just one car, no data to judge off. If you're Colton [Herta]’s teammate, Pato [O’Ward]’s teammate, Will Power’s… you come in from a session and you know exactly where that guy's quicker than you in the same car. I didn’t. 

“I didn't know the tracks, I had nothing to compare with, so I just sit there and go, ‘Okay, if we're going to do that, that and that with the car, I think I can do this, this and this in this corner. I'll probably be able to do this.’ And I think, like 80 percent of the time, I managed to do that and get it right. 

“And I think, because it went so well in 2022 compared to 2023, people didn't really appreciate the job I did, the job we did, at getting everything set up with a single car. The amount we did in taking that car, even a lot of the stuff from Carlin, and just making it as good as it can be, I don't think I could have got what we had any better than what it was.

“Which is why, when everyone steps it up into 2023, you kind of look like you've taken a backward step. It’s not the case. We just fine-tuned everything and actually found that, in 2023, there's not much else to do. So you're trying things, and sometimes it's actually going worse because you've got it so good the year before. 

“So it was very tough, but I think we did an amazing job, which after that got overlooked. And then people don't think you're doing as good of a job as you did. And you're like, ‘I don't think you realise how much we're doing right now.’”

Ilott capped off Juncos’ first complete season by qualifying on the front row for the final race at Laguna Seca. “I think I could have done it [got pole], but it was close,” he recalls. “I got a P2 in the end and, as a single car team, that was impressive. I think it'll be a long time before someone does that.”

He finished his rookie campaign a laudable 20th-place in the championship, ahead of both AJ Foyt Racing entries, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Jimmie Johnson, Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Jack Harvey and Andretti Autosport’s Devlin DeFrancesco. For a single-car operation, this was a very impressive feat indicative of Ilott’s talent levels.

Altered expectations for the 2023 season

There was significant change at Juncos for 2023. Such was the level at which they performed with Ilott in 2022, they had the foundations to expand to a two-car team. Ricardo Juncos opted to recruit compatriot and successful touring car driver from his native Argentina, Agustin Canapino, who came in with no top level open wheel experience.

“I wouldn't say I was a team leader,” Ilott says. “I just carried on the jobs that I was doing, because especially when someone's a rookie - a rookie in single seaters - there's a very steep learning curve. A lot of your feelings, even coming into a new car, you just don't know what you want. So I was just following off with the development that we'd been doing, trying to make things better.

“He was learning and progressing on the track, on the car, while I was doing the development. So across Thermal and a lot of the earlier test days and weekends, I was just doing the normal stuff. Then once he got pretty comfortable with it, you can progress together. But at that time it was such a steep learning curve that you have got a lot more to focus on than the car development in his position.”

As Ilott mentions, he feels another forward step was taken in 2023 - something somewhat masked by the rest of the field also making steps forward. Ilott ultimately finished an improved 16th-place in the championship, bookending the season with top-five finishes. There were times where a podium even looked on the cards in the season-ending race.

“The book-ending was obviously good,” he says. “I think, actually, we should have had a better result at Laguna - I think there was potential to be on the podium there without some contacts. But that's life and you have to move on. 

“It was a very messy race. Lap one, my wing got taken off on the front, or it was hanging off, so I had to box around lap four or five and I was the only one to do so. Every lap of that race from then on, I was fuel-saving. So it was a very weird race where I didn't know where I was, when I was. But we seemed to get the strategy rather right. 

“I ended up being turned around in the last corner, I ended up spinning in pit lane. Thankfully, the spin in pit lane allowed us to be on a certain strategy because I could come in the pits and refuel an extra two times before we went green to be able to have enough fuel to go to the end, which put me in the position that I was, which should have really been leading, going around the outside of my teammate. 

“But, unfortunately, Scott Dixon and then [Scott] McLaughlin passed me because of that. There were lots of different situations. But I think the thing was that from that point, I was not affected by any yellows or anything. I think it was one yellow after that, but that would have only put me in a better position if anything had changed.”

A tumultuous 2023 Indy 500 campaign

One of the biggest storylines of the 2023 IndyCar season was Ilott’s Indianapolis 500 campaign. He was at the rear of the field through the vast amount of testing and practice amid what ultimately proved to be an inherent issue with the car. But it was not until the eve of qualifying that action was taken.

“I struggled with the car for the open test and the testing before it,” he says. “Every year, someone has some kind of issue. And I just so happened to be that person this time. It's not comfortable at 230 miles an hour, when something's not right and also you can't pinpoint it. It's all driver feel. We checked a lot of stuff, over and over again, and just couldn't find it. 

“So, in the end, Friday morning, we decided to change the car. And within three laps, I already knew it was better. It's just you then have to fine tune that car. So I kind of was like, ‘Okay, this is good, but I'm missing this.’ So come in, try again. ‘Okay, this is good, but we've overdone it.’ And then it was qualifying. So you're straight in there. Again, I knew the car was good, but it wasn't right. 

“The first run, I came in a bit annoyed because I'd almost crashed every lap trying to kind of get it round. But I knew the car was there. It was just out of the window. So then, as I was doing the interviews, because there was a long line of interviews, I'm like, ‘Actually, my first lap was like a 232. That's not bad. Like, I think, actually, the car's pretty quick. I just need to put it in the window.’ 

“And that's not a difficult thing to do. Then we got that, overshot it a bit, because then I was a bit loose coming on the final lap. But I got into the race, and I think like 0.1 mile an hour behind my teammate with like three runs before that with a new car. I proved that there was an issue and it needed to be remedied. 

“We did that and then I struggled a bit with the race car after that because, the rest of the week, normally you're fine-tuning the race car. You're going through all your wings, you're going through all your ride heights to try and get in the right window for you to be following other cars to be comfortable. I just didn't have the time to do that and go through everything.”

Ilott cycled to the front of the field during a mid-race caution having found himself off-strategy. And while he couldn’t hold position, it was no doubt a rewarding moment amid the tumult of his Month of May, which saw doubt over whether he would even make the race. A 12th-place finish was an exceptional achievement, all things considered.

“I was not slow, but I couldn't follow guys very close behind, so I did suffer in the race because of that,” he says. “I had to run a lot of downforce, which made me suffer. When I got to the front, I was just a sitting duck because everyone else was running so much less downforce. I was starting 27th, so I just cranked the wing on and hoped for the best.

“In hindsight, as a learning experience, it was great. There was a lot that I learned throughout the whole event. I think there are a lot of positives to take away, whether it was kind of personal, whether it was an achievement within myself and sometimes standing up for your beliefs in some ways. 

“Of course, some people viewed it quite negatively because no one likes criticism. And, of course, some things aren't very well-accepted in the world of motorsports. But, in hindsight, if I didn't change the car, I don't think I would have qualified for the race. It just wasn't possible to put three corners together, let alone two laps.

“Looking further into it, it was a special time. So, honestly, I'm quite thankful for it as a person. Did it help some things? No. Did it help some things? Yeah. It's life. It's challenges. Ups and downs. And I think if I was to do it again, there are some things I'd do better, and there's some things I'd do the same.”

Ilott, who crashed out of his first Indy 500 in 2022 and suffered a broken hand, also describes the 2023 experience as “very stressful and not something I would like to repeat in the same way”. But it has taught him valuable lessons as to how to deal with such difficulties when travelling at speeds considerably upwards of 200 miles per hour on ovals.

A surprise change of plans for 2024

Across the closing rounds of the 2023 IndyCar season, Ilott was almost entirely certain that he would be returning in 2024. The only eventuality in which he left Juncos seemed to be if he was acquired by one of the series’ leading teams, which was not necessarily an impossibility given the results achieved with such a small team.

But things changed. In October, Juncos and Ilott confirmed that, by mutual agreement, they were to part ways. It has come to light that there was a breakdown in relationship due to certain disagreements internally, with the outside view being one that Ilott was not necessarily being treated as he deserved as the driver who had led the team upwards.

“I was more than expecting to stay,” Ilott says. “There was no option not to stay, if you know what I mean. I was always convinced. If you'd asked me just over two months ago what I was doing, I would have definitely expected to be staying in IndyCar. There was no doubt in my mind. So it was a bit of a surprise. 

“And then, of course, we came to an agreement to split and move on. And then I explored IndyCar. That was my first goal - to stay in IndyCar. But with what was left available and the nature of what was needed for those seats, I wasn't the top option because of the nature of those seats. 

“That's not to say that, if I'd have known another month or two earlier, even a couple of weeks earlier, there would have been options. And for my type of driver, should we say that I wouldn't have had an issue. But that wasn't the case. So I had to look at other things while seeing if those options are going in the right direction.”

When it became clear that Ilott would not find an opening for a full-season seat in IndyCar, he reverted to an avenue he initially explored when it became clear that F1 would not be on the cards after the 2020 F2 runner-up finish.

“I explored the endurance side because obviously I'd done it a little bit in 2021,” he says. “Jota knew that they were going to have one opening, if not two, within the now No.12 car. And the more and more I looked into it and understood it, the more I realised how good of an opportunity it is and could be. We moved very quickly after the Bahrain event.

“I like, a lot, their idea, their mentality, their openness. And, a simple thing, they encourage a racing driver to do as much driving as possible. That's the nature of it. So, for me, it's quite nice to just be able to have something that I can prioritise - and in a very good position - and to be able to explore other things that I want to do without having to worry too much.”

Seizing an opportunity in WEC

Given he now has a house in the United States, which Ilott admits he annoyingly renewed “very close” to splitting with Juncos, IMSA could have been deemed the more logical route in sportscars. But Ilott says WEC “was the first real opportunity” he found, made easier by his parents still offering a base for him to travel from in the UK.

“Whether you do IMSA or WEC, it doesn't really matter,” Ilott says. “Because, for example, you've got Penske that operate in WEC and IMSA - and IndyCar - with a Porsche, and they can compare and see you [given Jota run a Porsche]. So if you end up stopping in WEC for a year and then decide what you're going to do, they have that comparison with you.”

Jenson Button, who will be a teammate of Ilott in Jota’s second entry, has remarked about the fact that Hypercars are as technologically advanced as F1 cars nowadays. Ilott agrees that the appeal of WEC is growing.

“I think there are a couple of positives to look at,” Ilott says. “One is that the amount of manufacturers coming into the series is just great and really increasing the relevance - not that it was irrelevant at all before - but the relevance of the series and the popularity, the opportunities for drivers, the opportunities for manufacturers and at the top level as well. 

“You’ve got a lot of manufacturers fighting for the top spot. It's super cool and it's nice to be a part of it. For me as a driver, you can see the amount of guys that have a very long career within motorsports who have done endurance stuff and continue to do endurance stuff. I think it creates a great platform to be able to do that.”

Across the season, Ilott believes there will be wins on the table for Jota, as well as “a couple of podiums”. With more testing, Ilott believes they “can hit the ground running and completely smash some people out of the park” in 2024. A move to WEC also means Ilott has the opportunity to pursue a dream 24 Hours of Le Mans victory - in the top class too.

“I finished third in the pro-am in 2021, which was kind of the building blocks for me to come back, how good of an event that was for me,” Ilott says. “And then to be able to do that in the top class is going to be super exciting. I'm quite excited to get back to the European tracks that I grew up racing on and learning and excelling on. 

“There's a very high self-esteem of trying to beat the manufacturers and to do a great job. They can, and I know they can, and I think we've got a great lineup. Le Mans is the target, and then any other races we can win on the way, and get podiums in, would be great.”

Targeting a possible IndyCar return

In recent weeks, DIVEBOMB exclusively revealed details about Ilott’s future IndyCar plans. In the immediate term, he is targeting a possible Indy 500 drive for 2024 and intends to be around the paddock as much as possible in order to stay in teams’ eyelines and be on hand as a reserve option.

He understands certain things have to fall into place for different parties but admits: “I was definitely going to go to some of the races, like try and go to St. Pete, the 500 - if I don't end up driving straight away - and go there as a kind of reserve, enjoy it, chat to a few people and then see later on. 

“I have the ability, I think, to go to maybe nine or 10 events within IndyCar. Who knows if I do all of those? Because that would be quite a lot of money to spend to go to every single one. But I'll definitely try to go to a few. And I think the 500, I definitely want to do. It’s just how I do it, I don't know yet.”

In terms of his longer term future, beyond a season in WEC, Ilott is continuing to keep his options open. But, if the conditions are right in terms of having an opportunity with a top team, Ilott would certainly be willing to return to IndyCar.

“Two months ago, if you'd asked me what I was doing, it was definitely IndyCar,” he says. “Nothing was changing. And then very quickly, I had to change. I've been presented with this great opportunity and in something that a lot of guys enjoy and something that you can have a great career in. So I'm interested to see where this journey goes. I'm not against anything.

“I don't want to write anything off. So IndyCar, WEC… I'm quite relaxed as to where it goes. I think, in a certain way, if in the future I was to return, it would have to be more like that [with a top team] because I'd spent two-and-a-half years, and planned to do another year, trying to take something small and make it work.

“My peers are going into positions where they can win and do a good job. I know I can win and I know I can do a very good job. It's just you have to be in a place that can put you into that position or help you be in that position. So, I'd have to explore it. And if the right thing comes up, who knows?”

You can watch the full interview on the DIVEBOMB YouTube channel or listen to the conversation on the DIVEBOMB IndyCar Podcast feed on Spotify. A further piece will be on the DIVEBOMB website in the coming days as Ilott gives his detailed thoughts on the state of the NTT IndyCar Series.


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