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Seizing the opportunity to prove he belongs at the top: Callum Ilott’s McLaren chance

Written by Archie O’Reilly

When Callum Ilott departed Juncos Hollinger Racing in October, he was left scrambling for options in the NTT IndyCar Series. In driver market terms, it was pretty late in the day.

Before the split with Juncos, where he remained under contract for 2024, Ilott has admitted that he “had some contact with Zak [Brown] to see what was going on” at Arrow McLaren after “some shifts in the market” caused by Alex Palou’s U-turn and decision to stay with Chip Ganassi Racing.

But, speaking in a media call on Tuesday, he acknowledged it made sense for him to remain at Juncos at the time, especially given their newfound strategic alliance with McLaren. As he told DIVEBOMB in December: “I was more than expecting to stay. There was no option not to stay.”

By the time the situation at Juncos became untenable, David Malukas was in place in McLaren’s No.6 car and Ilott was left short of there being any feasible openings. He was ideally targeting a move to one of IndyCar’s leading teams, while “the nature of what was needed” in terms of funding for some vacant seats meant he was not really an option.

Fortunately for Ilott, a new opportunity in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) Hypercar class, with Hertz Team JOTA, arose. And he got off to a strong start on debut last weekend, too, qualifying the No.12 car third on debut in Qatar and going on to score a second-place finish, splitting two Penske Porsche entries with Roger Penske looking on.

At the same time, it has always been Ilott’s plan to stay around the IndyCar paddock and remain firmly in the eyeline of teams. St. Petersburg was always a race that he planned on attending so, when news emerged that Malukas would be sidelined for six weeks with a dislocated wrist, sustained while mountain biking, Ilott made sure McLaren knew of his availability.

“Obviously I saw the news,” Ilott said. “Then I think a day or two later, the seat fit was happening, and then we were moving step by step on that side. There were some things and logistics that needed to be sorted out, obviously, as it’s not an easy one to deal with last minute, especially as I’m now no longer in the US full time.

“I think it was with Tony [Kanaan] that the first contact was made. But yeah, I reached out, and it was kind of like, let’s see what we can do and how we can make this work.”

“I am available for Thermal,” Ilott confirmed, with Malukas being ready for the Million Dollar Challenge in late March by no means a guarantee. And, given it is a non-championship race, you could foresee McLaren erring on the side of caution in terms of Malukas’ return. But Ilott knows the pain of missing races all too well so maintains that Malukas returning promptly is paramount.

“I pray for David that that’s not the case [that he misses more rounds] because you want to be in the car and you want to work with your team,” Ilott said. “I hope that he is in the car very soon because it’s very tough. I can understand - even for me, the one race I did out of the car after the 500 in 2022, it’s tough to sit and watch. 

“I don’t really wish that on anyone, especially with a new team. It’s very tough. I do feel for David and want him to be in the car as soon as possible.”

To some extent, though, without gambling on anyone’s misfortune, this sort of opportunity to deputise was one reason why Ilott wanted to remain in the picture at as many races as possible.

“Well, I think the plan of being around and maybe jumping in a car came sooner than expected,” he said when reminded of his previous comments about remaining in close quarters with the series. “So obviously that, I don’t want to say wish, but idea, has come early.”

Ilott has described the opportunity as being “a bit of a discovery process”. But he did participate in a hybrid test with the team on the Homestead-Miami roval last month amid Malukas’ absence, which offered the first inkling that he would likely be top of their list for St. Pete.

“It was really important to do the test,” he said. “Even though I felt like I hit the ground running, there’s always stuff that you need to learn and how the environment works together. At the end of the day, it’s such a competitive series, so any little edge you can get is good.”

Having been in Qatar for WEC testing and the opening round of the season, meaning he missed the full-field test in the non-hybrid 2024-spec car on the Sebring International Raceway short course last week, Ilott does still have a few things to get to grips with.

“I’ve only been in the shop for one or two days now,” he said “The size of the team obviously is larger and more years of experience within the series, but I can’t really comment on that until during the race weekend and experiencing it on that side of a full scale… The preparation is good even though I’ve kind of had to be in Qatar and fully focused on that.”

Credit: Arrow McLaren

As a Formula 2 vice-champion, debut Hypercar podium-sitter in WEC and 36-race starter in IndyCar, Ilott should not have to do much to prove himself. But given his desire to make the step up to a ‘top team’ if he does return to IndyCar competition full-time in the near future, this McLaren outing prevents the perfect chance to prove he belongs at a leading outfit.

“If I look back at my career in IndyCar, it was spent in a single-car team, which moved to a dual-car team, and we got some amazing results in that environment and built something up from the ground,” he said. “Sometimes that gets overlooked because, at the end of the day, results are the most important thing.”

A chance to compete with a team known to be capable of winning races offers the perfect chance for Ilott to validate the level he showed at Juncos, which included bookending 2023 with fifth-place finishes.

“I think it kind of goes without saying that every racing driver wants to prove what they can do, and this is a perfect opportunity to do it,” he said. “The test at Homestead went really well. So far gearing up to this weekend, it’s all going very smoothly. I fit in quite well in a last-minute situation. 

“I wish David all the best and he gets to be in the car as soon as possible, but I’ll try and do the best job that I can within that time. It’s obviously an interesting place to be and an interesting place to see what I can do. But I can’t really comment until I get on there, but that’s the goal, to do as well as possible.”

Stepping into a team that he has had nowhere near an entire off-season with, unlike most other drivers on the grid, means it is hard to define what success will be for Ilott in St. Pete. He may have finished fifth-place with Juncos last year, but placing excessive pressure on the Briton this weekend would not be particularly fair.

“My focus at the end of the day is filling in and doing a solid job and leaving the weekend with no complaints,” he said. “If I can be fast and up there, great. If I can finish the race and get some good points for them, that’s also the goal.”

He later added: “Yes, I was competitive there last year in the race, and you’d hope that that would continue, and that’s the goal. In terms of the extent of that, I don’t know. We’ve got to see. Really, on the discovery side, there’s a lot to learn and know, and I think a few questions will be answered by the end of the weekend.”

Beyond his substitute stint with McLaren, Ilott still intends to attend more races where possible. He is not ruling out any opportunities yet, with seats sometimes coming free later in seasons, particularly for teams on the brink of the Leaders’ Circle.

“I’ll see what happens,” Ilott said. “I’m obviously quite busy with the World Endurance Championship throughout the year, but if I can make some races, we’ll see what happens. But I’m around, and I’ll be looking about for sure.”

There will be a limit to what Ilott can pursue and the amount that he is able to travel, he has admitted, even with the WEC schedule only consisting of eight rounds - all suitably spread out.

“I might take a little break as I’ve got some WEC stuff coming up, and then we gear up for Le Mans,” he said. “I think I can make the 500… I think in terms of a for-sure ride for the 500, it’s going to be tough - I think those filled up quite quickly. I’m just focusing on WEC and if I’m available for anything else that seems convenient.”

Should the St. Pete weekend be a success with McLaren, it is easy to see a large amount of interest in Ilott come next off-season. And given McLaren’s supposed prior interest in Ilott, you cannot rule out a landing spot in papaya, particularly if previous talk of an expansion to five cars is reignited. 

In terms of free agents, it will be hard to find better than Ilott. And, this weekend, he is ready to seize an opportunity that his IndyCar career to date has built up to.


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