By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Junior formula standout Callum Ilott will be making his NTT IndyCar Series debut next Sunday at Portland. It’ll also mark the return of Ricardo Juncos’ race team after last having one of his cars on the grid two years ago. Only this time, he’ll have Brad Hollinger working this effort in the rebranded Juncos Hollinger Racing.
A day after the No. 77 team announced Ilott as their Portland driver, the 22-year-old ran his first laps in an Indy car at the Indy Road Course. Ilott’s initial comments was like most drivers who’ve spent their large part of their careers in Europe, being amazed on the differences between the two disciplines.
“First time in Indianapolis, it’s an amazing place I have to say. We don’t have anything like this in Europe. It’s quite special to be here, quite special to drive the car obviously this morning, out for some laps,” said Ilott.
“Going back almost three weeks, one month ago, yeah, a very, very interesting text from my manager saying there was a potential opportunity to do some races in INDYCAR this year, from Ricardo. Very quickly the next day I was on a Zoom call. The opportunity was going from there.”
While trying to get an opportunity to run in Formula One, highlighted with some free practice runs with Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN, Ilott has radared IndyCar. However, it wasn’t a sudden appeal, the British racer has kept the sport in mind since the end of 2020.
With guys like Alexander Rossi, Romain Grosjean, Marcus Ericsson having year-long rides and even F2 driver Christian Lundgaard making a start at Indy, Ilott understands the appeal. Especially, at this moment of the year where there’s three rounds left.
“You can see a lot of drivers are heading towards it. It made sense for me, especially at the end of this year to get an opportunity to do this. I mean, it’s very special,” said Ilott.
“Thank you to Ricardo. I can tell he’s a very, very motivated person. I can understand why Brad (Hollinger) has full trust on him because he does make a job very motivated. I think we could have some very good results coming up.”
When Juncos was an independent team, starts were rare and while they’re known for Kyle Kaiser bumping Fernando Alonso out of the 103rd Indy 500, their time away from IndyCar has helped. Hollinger has seen Juncos’ prominence on the Road to Indy and with his involvement, financial support is now there.
“It enables (Ricardo) to focus 100% on the technologic part, driver enhancement and driver capability as opposed to wondering where the next dollar is going to come from,” said Hollinger. “It enables us to get started this year, get the team ready to go, then next year really hit it hard and be in a position I think to be very competitive. It’s really exciting.”
If there was one comparison for Ilott after driving an Indy car Thursday, it definitely had a vibe of an F2 car. Specifically, tire compounds from Firestone being a grand takeaway compared to Pirelli.
“With these Firestone tires, you can really push it, really slide on it, which is something I haven’t really had in Europe,” Ilott explained. “I did enjoy that on the first couple laps being able to go a bit sideways and enjoy it.
“On the other side, I think the F1 stuff, obviously I’ve been in a test and development role, a reserve role as well, a lot of my focus has been on development. Hopefully I can shift everyone in a good direction and get the car into a very good window.”
In his three seasons in F2, IIlott won three times and finished runner-up to now Haas F1 driver Mick Schumacher last year.
Having Ilott for Portland is a possible indication Ricardo Juncos might want to have the Scuderia Ferrari test racer next season.
His initial plan was to have three different drivers for the West Coast Swing (Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach), but it couldn’t be committed. Therefore, Juncos knew that having Ilott for Portland was the best logical choice.
“We’re going to try to push a little bit so he can stay in the car, would be great,” said Juncos. “Because is so important for the track learning going to next year, obviously that we talk about to keep building the team up.
“It is what it is. I’m very happy to have him. But yes, clearly he was very on the top of my list, as well.”
With Kimi Raikkonen retiring at the end of the 2021 F1 season, there’s a very slim chance for Ilott to get an F1 opportunity. However, he knows that it’s not up to him as to whether or not he’ll be considered for a full-time ride. What he can control is being a part of IndyCar which he’s already enjoyed a lot.
“Anything’s an option at this point. I’m here in INDYCAR to experience it. Hopefully I’ll have a great time and it will attract me more to do it,” said Ilott.
“I’ve been in the testing-reserve role for a while now. Yes, of course there is a potential opportunity, but it’s not up to me. It’s not my decision. This is my decision to be here and to give this a go, but there is still potential in the F1 side as much as there is potential here.
“I’m enjoying it a lot here. It’s attracting me more and more to do this in the future.”