Ilott’s Indy: “It was a pretty spectacular result all things considered!”

Thursday 01 June 2023

Ilott’s Indy: “It was a pretty spectacular result all things considered!”

Callum Ilott was the highest-finishing British driver in last weekend’s 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the famous speedway in Indiana, USA. After nearly a month of preparation leading up to the 200-lap flagship IndyCar race, the win came down to a tense final-lap shootout between Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and last year’s winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing.

Newgarden, who briefly forayed into UK racing early in his career and currently stands as the only American to win the Formula Ford Festival (Brands Hatch, 2008), has two IndyCar titles under his belt but victory in the 500 had eluded him before Sunday – where he beat Ericsson to the line by just 0.098s.

A fairly clean race was turned on its head in the typically fraught final stages, with three red flags disrupting – and lengthening – the end of the event.

For Juncos Hollinger Racing driver Ilott, managing to stay out of trouble and take the flag 12th – after a nightmare month which featured a chassis change right before qualifying – was a victory in itself.

“I went into the weekend and, after the testing we’d had, I’d have been very happy with 15th,” Ilott commented. “It was a great result for us after all the struggles we’d been through. For a while I didn’t even think we’d make the race!”

Ilott’s problems began as early as April’s open test day, where he felt a significant issue with the car.

“It was a super windy day, particularly in the afternoon, but I’d already noticed there was something not quite right in the morning. In the afternoon, the problem was exaggerated (due to the wind) and I couldn’t keep the car in a straight line. It was kind of ‘floating’ and not following what I was doing with the steering which, at 230mph, is not very confidence-inspiring,” the 24 year-old added.

“We then changed a lot of parts on the car and, going into (May’s) official practice sessions, we thought everything would be okay, but there was still something not right. It was something I could feel and it took me ages to get the car in a position where I could drive around with confidence, which is just not right. I’d never had that before and it was a real struggle.”

With qualifying fast approaching, most teams have their setup nailed down for the fastest lap possible – which this year topped the 234mph (average) mark. Ilott, who has a contract with Juncos until 2024 alongside his position as a Ferrari Academy driver, was left to persevere with the ill-handling car while the team scrambled to find the issue.

“It’s very difficult to explain because it was quite small, but any small feeling you have at 230mph is not a good feeling. The normal saying is ‘if something doesn’t feel right, you box (pit)’ – that’s the way it goes on these ovals. I could barely hit any apexes because I was worried that the car was going to drop down slightly, or come up off the line slightly, and I just couldn’t predict what it was going to do. You only need to touch the concrete apron on the inside to be in the wall – an inch wrong and it’s game over.”

While some driveability was eventually found, the car was still fundamentally off the pace and a decision was eventually made to swap to the chassis used by his team-mate Agustin Canapino in April’s open test. However, this came on the Friday before qualifying weekend.

“I didn’t really have another choice other than keep going out there and trying again, which in hindsight was a horrible situation but we kept trying to make it work, and I guess that’s part of my character and part of the team’s character – to keep trying, and it probably contributed to a later decision (to swap the chassis) than it needed to be, but I was brave for trying!”

Ilott only had a few laps with his new car before qualifying began, adding: “I was even braver for going and sending something (the new chassis) that I hadn’t even tried before qualifying! It’s so hard to get these cars in the right window – you work the whole week on that, to get the car ready for qualifying, but we had to do it in 8-12 laps.”

After the relief of making it into the race – a feeling echoed by Jack Harvey, who finished 18th for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing – Ilott even led briefly at the race’s halfway point on Sunday. Only a year earlier, he’d crashed heavily before even reaching that point.

“I got a little taste of what the race is about! We got a bit lucky on strategy (with a caution period) but, at the same time, there were others on a very similar strategy who didn’t capitalise as much. It was interesting – we weren’t set up to be running with the front guys. I had so much downforce on the car because I was meant to be 27th in line (starting position), so with the amount of dirty air and turbulence, we needed to be running that (low) downforce – so I was just a sitting duck compared to the others!”

Staying out of trouble during the race’s chaotic final portion, Ilott’s 12th place was spectacular and unexpected – and makes you wonder how much better it could have been with a solid amount of running before the race.

“Once I settled in, I was a good mid-pack car and I was able to fight and make up some places on the restarts and get a great finish in P12! What a great race, it was super nice and rewarding to be in that position and to do everything right when it mattered. It was a pretty spectacular result all things considered!”

IndyCar is straight back into action on the streets of Detroit this weekend – an event Ilott missed last year as a result of a hand injury sustained in his Indy crash.

“I’ve only seen the track map and haven’t had access to a simulator, so it’s very limited on what we know,” added Ilott. “It looks quite bumpy and tight in some areas but it’s all part of the challenge and I actually had a very similar experience (with no pre-event preparation) in Toronto last year.”

Elsewhere, the two other British drivers entered in this year’s Indy 500 – Katherine Legge and Stefan Wilson – had their own misfortunes. The pair tangled in Monday practice (after qualifying), forcing Wilson out of the event, and Legge only managed to complete 41 laps of the race before a car issue ended her day early.

Viewers in the UK can watch the Detroit round on Sky Sports F1 this weekend, with opening practice at 8pm this Friday (June 2), qualifying on Saturday (June 3) at 6:15pm and the race at 8pm on Sunday (June 4).