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The inside view: The current state of IndyCar, with Callum Ilott

Written by Archie O’Reilly


“Sorry, that took a while,” Callum Ilott says, speaking to the DIVEBOMB IndyCar Podcast. Such is the depth with which he speaks about IndyCar and its current state, he feels the need to apologise for taking so long with his answers.


Ilott is without an IndyCar ride for the 2024 season following the mutual agreement to part ways with Juncos Hollinger Racing after an apparent breakdown in relationship. But the eloquence that he speaks with when discussing IndyCar, emitting a clear passion for the series that he initially joined in 2021, reinforces that his heart remains with IndyCar.


Making the switch away from the Formula One sphere, and in hand moving away from the childhood dream of most budding drivers, is not an easy decision. But the nature of IndyCar quickly endeared Ilott to a series widely agreed to boast arguably the most enticing racing in the motorsport world, yet without the popularity of F1.


“I think the racing product itself is the best, if not one of the best,” Ilott says, agreeing with the sentiment that IndyCar deserves many more eyes on it. “I think the versatility of how we race and the circuits we race on is impressive as well.”


But IndyCar continues to lag behind other open-wheel series. There are times where it is left to feel invisible outside the United States, and even inside North America, where many people are only aware of the Indianapolis 500 - attended by over 300,000 people on race day every year - and do not realise the season continues away from that.


“Unfortunately, the series suffered quite a loss during the split between IndyCar and CART,” Ilott says. “It, from there, suffered a lot. At that time, I would say that it was close to F1 in terms of the popularity, in terms of how it was for the drivers, the development. And then from there, it has obviously been a great racing product, but it has been behind on other stuff.” 


While F1 has seen an increase in viewership, in part due to the boom caused by the Drive to Survive series on Netflix in recent years, IndyCar has stagnated. Its own television series, named 100 Days to Indy and airing in the lead-up to the 2023 Indy 500, was exclusive to the US and lacked widespread reach, never gaining serious traction.


While there may be some concerns, there are also some signs of IndyCar racing starting to grow once more. More high-profile drivers, including Ilott, are moving over from the European scene; Marcus Ericsson and Romain Grosjean have made the switch from F1, while Ilott is one of a selection of drivers that have made the move from Formula Two. 


“F1 has excelled and it has slowly been increasing,” Ilott says. “But, of course, you have high profile drivers joining [IndyCar]. You have teams, like McLaren, coming in and trying to bridge the gap from a European side, from a sponsorship side.”


Ilott also believes the series needs to embrace its identity. He is evidently very switched-on and in-tune with IndyCar's situation, as shown by his knowledge of the series’ past and the vast catalogue of ideas as to how it can maximise its future.


“The series is very old school, and that's like it's USP,” he says. “It's built off efficiency but the racing product, the simplicity of it, while also having a bit of development. And out of that, you maybe take a bit of a relaxed side on some things, you overdo it on others. And I think, without constant development and constant strive for more, you don't really benefit until it's too late. 


“And that's when, should we say, warning signs come - and there have been a few over the years, whether it's we need a new engine or the hybrid stuff or new chassis. It's all a bit of a game of like, ‘What keeps the series going? What's beneficial for the series?’ And TV deals, all of that - that's very important as well. 


“So it's tough because you're trying to get the best of everything while other things and money rely on other stuff to happen. It's tough and I can understand why some things have lacked. But if you want to excel, you've got to have the marketing right, you've got to have the best TV deals, you've got to be racing in the best places. 


“The thing is, if you look to go more international, you sacrifice the kind of American TV deal that you have - not completely, but you've got to look for money outside of America. And again, that's not impossible if you do it right. But if you don't do it completely, you don't get the full benefit and it's not of interest.”


One possible avenue for growth is for IndyCar to explore options of racing abroad again - something that could be achieved post-season in 2024 if negotiations about a race in Argentina, which both parties seem keen to happen, are successful. But when looking internationally, there are issues such as teams acquiring willing sponsors.


“People realistically want to probably see it go back to Australia on the Gold Coast, want to see it come to the UK, want to see it go to Italy,” Ilott says. “Personally, I'd love to race in IndyCar around Monza. But these things don't happen without a big load of money thrown at it. And the enticement of that is limited right now. 


“So it's a long way to go and I think little steps in improvement have been enough. But maybe, at some point, there's got to be a big step to take the series to another level that others have. If we take WEC at the moment, they've had 11 manufacturers coming in on the Hypercar side, and I really think that it's going to take the series to another level.”


Growing internationally does have to be one of the next strides for IndyCar if they are to grow in calibre close to the extent that F1 has done. In Ilott’s native United Kingdom, a television deal with Sky Sports, which sees the NBC coverage mirrored, has made IndyCar much more accessible. 


“I think the deal with Sky has made it good, actually very accessible if you know you want to watch it,” Ilott says. But, in his eyes, more can still be done. He continues: “I think the thing is the marketing of that is obviously, before it gets to Sky, very American. So unless you are an avid Sky viewer, you're not going to know that IndyCar is going to be on at this time or that time.”


Still, there is now year on year growth in terms of viewership of IndyCar on Sky. The viewership for the 2023 Indy 500 matched the viewership that Sky achieve for the final day of a major golf event, as Sky Sports IndyCar commentator, Tom Gaymor, confirmed to DIVEBOMB - impressive given golf is one of Sky’s marquee sports.


“For an unadvertised, non-US event, that's not bad and pretty impressive from a UK perspective,” Ilott says. “I think it was similar in France with Grosjean. So I'd say it's growing, but in a motorsports community, not outside. Because it's hard to be known outside. And I think within the US, the 500 allows it to do so. Outside of it, I don’t know.


“But I know, within motorsports, I would say, in the last five to six years, IndyCar has grown a lot within motorsports to make it outside of the US, because I think it went a bit quiet for a couple of years.”


Another thing that stands out about IndyCar is the community feel surrounding the series, plus the access that fans have, particularly when attending races. It is very easy for fans to interact with drivers. But while this can be viably interpreted as a positive, Ilott believes a different approach could be beneficial.


“What does IndyCar need to take it further? The racing product is amazing, the Indy 500 is amazing,” he says. “How do you make the whole thing more attractive? And maybe younger. Maybe more isolated. 


“I think one of the differences between F1 and F2 to IndyCar is I could barely even get more than one or two guest passes for an F2 race, to get in the paddock. Which is in one way ridiculous but, in another way, it's so exclusive. Even to get in the F1 paddock, I still have to break people's balls to get myself a paddock pass if I want to go there. 


“Whereas in IndyCar, it costs you $35 or $45, which is great because it allows everyone to get that experience. But I always have this feeling of… is the exclusivity of F1, and the fact that you can go there and not even see a driver in the flesh, something that makes you want to go there and make it rare? 


“Not to say that that's the right thing, but you go to an IndyCar race and you'll see all the drivers and you'll probably be able to chat to at least five, six, seven of them. I wonder if it kind of takes the specialty off it. I'm not sure… I mean, someone a lot older and cleverer can decide that for themselves. But I’m just playing devil's advocate. 


“I know how great it is for the fans to come to an IndyCar race and be that close. I'm just wondering if there's actually more of a balance that can be had to make it more exclusive. And I know someone's probably going to be sitting there going like, ‘Oh, please don't say that. We love seeing the drivers.’ And I get that, and we love seeing the fans as well. 


“But I just wonder, what makes it more attractive on a global scale?”


There is belief in some quarters, including from drivers, that changes to the car could be one way for IndyCar to grow among a global motorsports audience. The current Dallara DW12 chassis - renamed from the IR-12 in memory of Dan Wheldon - was introduced in 2012 and is still being used at present. But how feasible would producing a new chassis actually be?


“The problem with the new chassis is, I think probably over 100 of these Dallara chassis have been produced - the 2012 ones,” Ilott says. “And in the grand scheme of things, the chassis itself is expensive but not too expensive. 


“But you've got to buy, as a team, probably at least three chassis for each two drivers because you've got to have the spare. Then even at that point, you don't have the spare oval car - you've just got to transfer everything over, and that's not the way people always want to do it. So you're looking at, for a four car team, having a minimum of six cars. 


“And you've got to have all the spares that come with it. The numbers then add up into the millions for doing that, and you've got to do that for every single team. I think if it's really a worthwhile thing to do, in terms of timing, then go for it - if everything is updated and there is a complete plan.”


There is also the argument that, while the chassis is starting to become somewhat dated, the racing product, as Ilott mentions, remains one of IndyCar’s greatest selling points. But, in his mind, Ilott does see a model for what IndyCar could possibly base any prospective new chassis off, providing they manage to match the structural integrity of the DW12.


“I love the Super Formula car: I like the idea of power steering, I like the idea of the engine, the power that they have, because it's actually in between F2 and F1 and a very, very fast, good, reliable car,” he says. 


“I don't know if that car would work as an IndyCar, because you've got to have a different survival cell, as they say for the ovals, and crash structures and impact structure. If you see the IndyCar when it hits the wall, those sidepods never really collapse because of the amount that they have to take on the impact. And that has to be quite different.”


At the moment, IndyCar’s priority lies with introducing the hybrid system, which was intended to be in action for the 2024 season-opening race in St. Pete but has now been pushed back beyond the Indy 500 due to supply chain issues. 


There have been arguments that introducing the hybrid system alongside a new chassis could have been worthwhile for IndyCar. But at the same time, Ilott believes this would have been a challenge and it is justifiable that the series want to focus on perfecting one thing at a time. It is also too late for this to be anything beyond hypothetical anyway.

 

“The issue you have is the weight of an IndyCar,” he says. “If we add the hybrid system now, that's another, I think, 140 pounds. So you have to make some other stuff lighter. Making that stuff lighter, does it impact the structural strength of the car? Maybe. Maybe not. They are making the halo lighter by quite a bit, actually while strengthening the halo.


“I know that with the old Dallara - the one with the airbox that they still use in Euroformula - they managed to make a new chassis with the halo with a bit more structural strength in certain areas, and it's even lighter than the old car. So it's not impossible to make a lighter car with the halo, with the structure, with updated stuff. That would be nice.”


There are mixed feelings about the hybrid system as a concept. It is, of course, complicated to introduce, and the series has to be certain that it will be reliable. But, as shown by IMSA’s introduction of the hybrid in 2023, it can be very beneficial. IndyCar believe it should give drivers more control and enhance the racing product further.


“Back to the hybrid system… 100 pounds more - 140 in total I think - then minus a little bit because of the new weight of the bellhousing and gearbox and the halo makes it about 80, 90 pounds heavier,” Ilott says of the possible issues. “That car is already super heavy, and with the steering weight it's getting on the edge of being dangerous to turn. 


“You have a couple of things to make the steering actually harder, which they used to use before the aeroscreen, and we can't use those because it's just too hard for almost everyone, and they are only used in ovals because it's a certain way.”


“Then you've got to look at the engine side of things, where they almost went to the 2.4 litre, I believe,” Ilott continues. “Development had started on that side, and then that got cancelled.”


He has a clear vision of how IndyCar could possibly develop from an engine and chassis side of things, while also maintaining some development, which continues to mean IndyCar is not entirely a spec series and gives teams a continued opportunity to gain a performance advantage.


“Is it worth deciding for 2027 or 2026… a completely new car, that's the philosophy,” he says. “We're going to have a new engine with that and then we're going to integrate this hybrid system or another hybrid system into that, and we're going to open up this area of aero to develop as well? 


“I wonder how many things you could integrate to encourage engine manufacturers but also, maybe, hybrid manufacturers. So I think you've got Mahle that does the current one, maybe Bosch, because they do some of the stuff with the Hypercar stuff. And give them the space that they can fit into and allow for that. And then you get some more investment from another area. 


“I actually thought synthetic fuels and renewable fuels were a great thing to rely on, which unfortunately, in this modern day, is not enough to encourage people to completely invest within the series like it should be. So yes, it would be great to have and do, and I think a lot of guys would appreciate and love it. But there's a lot of things that you have to think about.


“And I think a lot of stuff is coming to light within the media as to why you have to find a balance because some people need the hybrid to justify the existence to carry on. A lot of people don't want the hybrid because it creates other issues. And, actually, is it beneficial from a driving point of view? Probably not. 


“It's actually quite nice to put a V8 in the car, make it super light and drive as fast as possible - I would love that personally, to justify money, experience, all of this sort of stuff. But then you have to add on the weight. Are we going to have to add power steering? Do we have room for power steering? Do we need a new chassis to be able to add the power steering?”


You can watch the full interview on the DIVEBOMB YouTube channel or listen to the conversation on the DIVEBOMB IndyCar Podcast feed on Spotify.

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