Ilott says IndyCar is a “central option” for the future

Ferrari Formula 1 test driver and Alfa Romeo F1 reserve driver Callum Ilott says that racing an IndyCar in Portland next week could be the first step toward a full-time ride in the series.

The 2020 Formula 2 championship runner-up, speaking at lunch break during his first test for Juncos Hollinger-Chevrolet team on the IMS road course, said that returning to competition in an open-wheel car was a strong enticement. However, he admitted he was also examining his longer-term prospects having seen F1 veteran Romain Grosjean’s adaptation to the NTT IndyCar Series, and the future that Ricardo Juncos and new partner Brad Hollinger are mapping out.

“I can't say no to competition, for sure,” he responded to Motorsport.com’s question. “The thing that motivated me obviously was looking at IndyCar as a central option.

“Seeing Romain go over here, it's definitely a great opportunity, a great thing to do. For me, I've been recommended this series for a long time, because of my style, because of the way I approach things. It seems a lot of people think it's perfect for me. So I'm here to give it a go.

“On the other side, look, I'm quite interested in Ricardo and the future that they have because of his ideas and the projects he can put together. He's very well-trusted. He has a great motivation for the sport. It's a great team to be with. I'm looking forward to kind of hopefully build on a future with them.”

Asked if the paucity of test days in IndyCar, even for rookies, was at all intimidating, Ilott responded : “I can't imagine there's much more restrictions than the F2 stuff! I'm honestly thinking that it should be OK.

“I'm throwing myself into this race in Portland. Honestly this test day only came about recently. I signed up to do [the race] almost without any testing. I'm not afraid to just jump in. You never know how it goes.

“Obviously the idea is to get Ricardo [re]started and to see what we can do with the car. We're lucky to have this test day at a great track like this.

“At the moment I'm happy with what I've got – even if it was one day or if it was 20. You've got to work with what you've got. We'll try our best and make sure we make it happen.”

Ilott was later asked about his Formula 1 prospects for 2022, and he replied: “Look, 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.

“Formula 1… Look, 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.”

Ricardo Juncos’ team, one of the star champion-maker’s outfits in the Road To Indy series, first entered the IndyCar Series in 2017 with a one-off / two-car entry for the Indianapolis 500. The following year, the team ran a single car at 12 of the 16 race, the races being divided up between Juncos’ 2017 Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser, Rene Binder and Alfonso Celis Jr.

In 2019, the team entered just two races but one of those saw its most high-profile moment, when Kaiser, who had suffered an accident in practice, qualified his rebuilt car for the Indianapolis 500 and bumped out Fernando Alonso’s McLaren entry out of the race.

On the subject of oval racing, 22-year-old Briton Ilott said: “I'm definitely not against it. I have a lot to learn. For sure there's a lot of steps to go about to make myself safe, to obviously do all of that.

“But they have a good track record on the ovals especially after '19. I think I'm in good hands with Ricardo to teach me – to get me ready, basically – if I have to do that.”

With Juncos-Hollinger not only starting these final three races of 2021 but also running a full-season campaign in 2022, the number of high-quality drivers available has blossomed in recent months. Asked if he was favoring Formula 2 transfers or Road To Indy graduates who don’t need to learn so many of the tracks, Juncos explained there is a vast number of drivers from which to select.

“That was actually surprise for me, the quantity of people that want to race with us and contact us,” he said. “Clearly we all know the drivers that are racing IndyCar in the last few years, for example, are on the door, like [Spencer] Pigot, [Gabby] Chaves – all those guys. We know them, right? Actually some of them raced for us.

“We’re looking to see top young drivers like Callum. We’re also talking to many from Europe, as well. I think the list is past 20 drivers, to be honest! That was actually good to see because that shows as well that the interest in IndyCar [has grown] in the last year, two years.

“This is good. That tell us we are in the right path. I think actually Roger Penske is doing a great job and everybody is expecting to keep growing. You can see that, you can feel it. Talking not just in drivers as well, by the way, but engineers and mechanics, from overseas as well. It gives you confidence that we are in the right path. Is very happy.”

Asked if he was giving Juncos free rein to choose the team’s driver for 2022, Hollinger said: “That's certainly Ricardo's sweet spot more so than mine. I certainly will yield to him.

“He's been very gracious in providing me the opportunity to provide input but he knows the drivers much better and the personalities that would fit best with the team.

I think also the ability to help calibrate the car from an engineering perspective is really important for us as a team just getting back into the Indy series. That's really vitally important as well. It's a combination of having driver ability, commercial capability, and then technical input that I think can really catapult us.

“As you know, it's very difficult to find drivers that have that combination. Callum obviously has all of those components in spades. I think he's just a brilliant young driver. Ricardo, I think, was able to do something really special.”

Learning an IndyCar

Callum Ilott tests the Juncos Hollinger-Chevrolet on the IMS road course.

Callum Ilott tests the Juncos Hollinger-Chevrolet on the IMS road course.

Photo by: James Black

Ilott said that after a morning of testing the Juncos Hollinger-Chevy, the car felt similar to what he’d experienced in Formula 2, thanks to Trident Racing, Sauber Junior Team by Charouz, and UNI-Virtuosi.

“The style is definitely closer to what I felt in the F2,” he said. “The F1, yeah, it's an incredible car, but this on its own. With these Firestone tires, you can really push it, really slide on it, which is something I haven't really had in Europe. 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… 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.”

Juncos praised his newest recruit’s ability to learn, stating: “We had some issues in the beginning, with the steering wheel and electronics. But we did quite a lot of laps, 30, 40 laps so far. It's been great.

“It's all new for him. Everything we tell him once, he remembers, he does it without telling him. He didn't know some things on the steering wheel and stuff like that.

“The idea was to make sure everything works in the morning. Now we have lunchtime. Then in the afternoon we maybe start pushing a little more, start working on the setup. We can learn a little bit together.

“For me it's very important the relationship between engineer [Matt Curry] and him, on how they communicate, the way he's going to explain the feelings of the car, how they make the changes. All that is very important going to Portland. We're going to try to maximize that on the afternoon, then we see where that leave us.”

Regarding his ambitions for his IndyCar debut, Ilott remarked: “The expectation is hopefully that we finish the race, get everything under control, and limit mistakes, problems. That's my expectation. That's what I'll be happy with. Anything on top of that, points or whatever, is a bonus.

“We've got to work and have realistic goals. Obviously people can have expectations of me, but they know where I stand after last year with Christian [Lundgaard] in Formula 2. They know my speed.

“At the end of the day, we will work as we should. We've got to be focused and get what we can. Portland is a small track, but it doesn't look easy. It's tough, very tight.

“I'm focused and I don't care what people's expectations of me are. People know how fast I can be. Once we get it right, whether it's in Portland or afterwards, we'll see.

“This afternoon I think it's about going through some standard tests, some standard things that we would go through on a race weekend, let me get my feeling for them, then they get my feedback, what we can do with this car… We can figure it out.

It's about me right now I'd say trying some stuff.… At the moment the car is good. Once we sorted out the little electronic issues, it was mega. I can't complain on that side. But we can always fine-tune it. Got to get myself comfortable and we'll see how it goes.”

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing with Ricardo Juncos

Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing with Ricardo Juncos

Photo by: James Black

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