Years from now, Callum Ilott just might be hailed as IndyCar’s pied piper. Fresh from a breakout season with the upstart Juncos Hollinger Racing team, the 23-year-old Englishman could be the agent of change that leads some of the world’s best drivers — those stuck on the fringes of Formula One — to reconsider their final destination in the sport.
Prior to his rookie IndyCar campaign, Ilott was on the same ugly path that leads to heartbreak for most drivers who believe life begins and ends with F1. In recent years, it’s been a brutal existence for the Ilotts of the world as racing’s most exclusive series has made it nearly impossible for its top young talent to graduate to F1.
A runner-up to current Haas F1 driver Mick Schumacher in the 2020 Formula 2 championship, Ilott was signed by Ferrari as its F1 test driver in 2021 and appointed as Alfa Romeo’s reserve driver. Both distinctions signal the vast skills and potential the legendary F1 team recognized within the native of Cambridge.
Despite the honor of his selection for the Ferrari Driver Academy, the lack of opportunities to take that talent and go racing in a reasonable timeframe from within a Scuderia Ferrari entry or other Ferrari-powered F1 teams led Ilott to a painful realization. Although he was given all of the coolest driving gear emblazoned with Ferrari’s Prancing Horse logo and would get to sample an F1 car a few times each year, Ilott was on the road to nowhere.
It’s a familiar story for scores of drivers who are worthy of racing in F1. Most in Ilott’s former situation choose to toil away, growing older while filling secondary roles as test, reserve and simulator drivers, clinging to a fading belief that they’re destined for race seats.
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Rather than sit and hope to someday compete in F1, just as F2 champion Nyck de Vries did by waiting a remarkable 1,015 days between winning the F2 title in 2019 and making his F1 race debut last month at Monza, Ilott refused to waste years of his life stuck in a dream that carried no guarantees of coming true.
That’s when he broke from the norm and pulled the ripcord on his lifelong pursuit of F1 and rerouted his future to Indianapolis.
“We’re born and bred to try and get to F1, at all costs,” Ilott told ESPN. “And it’s very difficult sometimes to accept how it actually is. Maybe I’ve showed that the reality of getting to F1 is a bit different to what they expect.”
IndyCar has been a traditional landing spot for international drivers whose F1 careers reached modest heights before flaming out or, more commonly, sputtered to ignominious ends. It’s also been a fallback position for many of the underwhelming junior drivers on F1’s training ladder — those who’d be chosen in the third or fourth round of a college draft — who’ve brought millions of dollars to buy their way into a seat.
But rarely has the series received a driver of Ilott’s caliber, a coveted first-rounder, while in their early 20s. Ilott’s gone from being an unexpected pick by a small IndyCar team to a driver who was heavily courted by some of the championship’s biggest teams over the summer before signing a healthy new contract that will keep him with the Juncos Hollinger team through the middle of the decade.
As he showed in 2022, especially after qualifying second next to two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden at the season finale, there’s life and fulfillment to be found outside of grand prix competition.
“There’s a whole world out there in IndyCar to enjoy and the racing is super competitive,” Ilott said. “Until I went and did it, I didn’t understand how competitive it was. I was looking at what possibilities were out there for me [in 2022] and if it isn’t Formula One, it’s something that is often far less spectacular. For the guys thinking about IndyCar, it gives you a positive view on what’s possible. Because if you’re willing to look elsewhere, you’re now no longer limited to Formula E or the WEC.
“Only a few years ago, I know it wasn’t something that would be considered if you’d positioned yourself into a ‘F1 or nothing’ mentality, but IndyCar can really give a driver an opportunity to show what you can do, which I think relates really well back to Europe.”
Four F2 drivers who’ve won races in 2022 are known to be in active discussions with IndyCar teams regarding part- or full-time seats in 2023. A fifth, who was in the frame for a championship-contending IndyCar ride, ultimately chose to pay millions to not race in F1 next year; he’ll play the test and reserve game.
It’s the first time in recent memory when a sizable pool of F2’s leading talents are all looking to move directly to an open-wheel series that isn’t F1, following in the footsteps of Ilott and IndyCar Rookie of the Year Christian Lundgaard, who came to the series after placing 12th in last year’s F2 championship. And if the gates to F1 remain closed to all but the fortunate few, the phenomenon could continue.
The question they face is whether there are enough seats in Indy to accommodate the unexpected wave of interest. With most rosters already set, only one or two of the better F2 drivers are expected to make the transition to the U.S. during the offseason. Nonetheless, there’s clearly a new precedent being established that should lead to more Ilotts and Lundgaards going straight from the top step of the European open-wheel ladder to launch their careers in the U.S.A.
“I am getting more and more inquiries from drivers about coming to IndyCar and younger drivers asking if they should go to the American ladder where a lot of prize money exists to go to the next stage in their careers,” Ilott said of the opportunities that abound. “And I could end up in the next four years as an IndyCar champion and then F1 teams will be ringing. How funny would that be?
“But I also know that some of them don’t want to leave the stability of what they’re in. If it’s a choice between doing another year of F2 and you have a 5% chance to getting into F1 afterwards or going to IndyCar but never having the chance to get back to the F1 route, most will still stay and take that 5% chance. And it’s lower than 5%, actually.
“But for those who are willing to give IndyCar a try, there’s nothing like it. When I came over, I thought that it might only be a year, or it might be the rest of my life, but I will never know unless I try it. And it’s become my new home.”
F1’s loss has been IndyCar’s gain, and if the Ilott trend continues, the series will only get faster and more competitive with the addition of the globe’s next-generation stars.