Written by Archie O'Reilly, Edited by Sean McKean
“Honestly, it’s tough,” Callum Ilott said on the broadcast after his second qualifying run on the first day of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500. “I kind of want to cry. Maybe I did a little bit.”
There is little more taxing in motorsport than putting together four laps in qualifying at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Ilott experienced this in its purest form across the 2023 qualifying weekend. A chassis change late on Friday, after significant issues with his Juncos Hollinger Racing car’s drivability, put him on the back foot heading into qualifying, which is certainly tough enough without that sort of conundrum to contend with.
Ilott, despite a start to the 2023 IndyCar season that sees him 14th in the championship for one of the series’ smaller teams, quickly became the favourite to be bumped from a 34-car field that has to be condensed to 33 ahead of the 107th running of the prestigious race.
It took a mental toll on Ilott, who used words such as “stress” and “panic” when recalling the events of a tumultuous 24 hours.
He admitted in the post-qualifying press conference that he didn’t think he would make the race, especially given initial fears that his back-up car may not even be ready until Sunday. However, somewhat against the odds, he managed to make the field without having to return to fight for his place on Bump Day.
This was a story that can be traced back to April’s open test, held between races on the streets of Long Beach and the Barber road course. Ilott barely ran on what became a single day of testing due to rain on the scheduled second day, with his car essentially on the verge of crashing on every run, and no changes making any real differences.
With conditions different to those almost a month later when practice gets underway, thus running fairly unrepresentative, the second day being scratched due to weather wasn’t too much of an issue for many teams. For Juncos, however, it would have been wholly necessary to get further on top of the issues ahead of the Month of May.
Instead, they had to try and make changes heading into practice without any basis to go off with regards to testing of set-ups. And then in a further blow, the first day of practice on Tuesday was a washout, meaning it wasn’t until Wednesday that they discovered their fate: the car was still evil.
Ilott finished last in practice on Wednesday, and while he found it somewhat easier to drive the car with changes on Thursday, 32nd was the best he could manage. The reality was shown in stark fashion when the engines were turned up for Fast Friday, the final day before qualifying. It was a day meant for qualifying simulations, yet he only ran seven laps and was slowest once more.
The team could be deemed stubborn for sticking with a troublesome chassis and trying to navigate around their issues all week. But the risk was huge, and they undoubtedly wanted to try everything before concluding that there was certainly an issue with the chassis.
It was eventually announced, with around two hours left in practice on Friday, that Ilott would be switched to a back-up car, which was run by teammate Agustin Canapino in the open test in April. The lack of performance ultimately became so profound that team owner Ricardo Juncos claimed it was a matter of safety.
The actual issue with the chassis is unclear, but it was by no means a driver-induced problem, given Ilott is absolutely no slouch. It can happen that cars end up having such problems - ‘slow car syndrome,’ so to say - and for all the risk associated with switching cars so late, it was too much of a nightmare for Ilott to persist with his initial car.
There was a herculean effort from the Juncos team to get the new car ready overnight in time for morning practice ahead of qualifying on Saturday. The first run elicited more concern, but despite not completing four laps due to an error of his own, Ilott immediately felt much better in the car.
Maybe the trigger could have been pulled sooner once recurrent issues were identified, with Ilott put on the back foot heading into qualifying, having hardly driven the back-up car aside from a select few laps in practice. But in terms of getting into the field for the race, it transpired to be a decision vindicated come late Saturday.
“We pretty much did what others had four days of testing to set up in just 12 laps today,” Ilott posted on Twitter. And he pretty much put it perfectly. An open test and three full days of practice learning were squeezed into one day of a few runs, hence why qualifying without having to face the jeopardy of facing up to the bump on Sunday is such an achievement.
He claimed he immediately had a better feeling in the new car, not the same ill-feeling that had riddled him with the original car. It showed the value of teams taking the sense of the driver into account, with issues not always clear from the data or from the eye of an engineer.
It was a rocky start on his first qualifying run, and there were further fears that he may struggle to make it into the top 30. But a balance was struck for the re-run, and a lap good enough for 28th when all was said and done meant late stress was avoided.
It was telling that he shed tears on his in-lap after the second run. The whole week up until that point had been a whirlwind for Ilott, and more than anything, as with quite a few further down the order, qualifying for the race can be more of a relief than cause for celebration.
The mental fortitude shown by Ilott, and the work from the Juncos team, including Canapino as a benchmark for Ilott, was admirable. He didn’t get bogged down, kept plugging away, and maintained confidence in himself and his team.
He believed he could do it. And he did.
There will be work ahead to tune the new car ahead of the race, with only two practice sessions to do that. But qualifying for the race inside the top 30 with Ilott after all of his woes has once again shown that the Juncos team can produce against the odds.