Callum Ilott saw glimpses of something special at Juncos Hollinger Racing.
When the British pilot joined for the final three rounds of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season, though, there was nothing visible make that claim. In the build-up to that point, Brad Hollinger provided the complimentary partnership alongside Ricardo Juncos, who hadn’t fielded a team (formerly known as Juncos Racing) in North America’s premier open-wheel champion since the 2019 Indianapolis 500.
Enter Ilott, who slid into the cockpit of the No. 77 JHR Chevrolet at the time a year removed from finishing runner-up in the 2020 Formula 2 championship after scoring three wins, six podiums and five poles. Instead of bracing for an opportunity to fill one of the 20 seats on a Formula 1 grid, he was left on the outside looking in and thrust into the uncomfortable position of getting behind the wheel for an unproven team in a foreign series on the other side of the world.
The results for those aforementioned three starts in 2021 were nothing sensational. In fact, it was harsh as the group’s average start/finish was 21/24.3. Sitting at the ground floor, though, Ilott witnessed the building blocks for a strong foundation.
“I saw a bit of potential last year,” Ilott told TobyChristie.com. “It was just such a mess, in a honest way. We were so busy finding our feet and just getting the big things right at the end of last year that we could show some speed. Like straight away, Portland after one free practice, never having driven the track before and qualified P18 with loads of little issues with the car in that qualifying, which I thought was, well, I didn’t know what I was being thrown into so I was a bit pissed off, but actually in hindsight, I wasn’t too bad at all. Then having two mechanical issues, one in Long Beach and one in Portland in the race; Laguna, we just messed up with the setup. I saw flashes of how it could work.”
The only full-time single-car entry in IndyCar received a boost over the off-season after entering a technical alliance with Carlin. In turn, Ilott and Co. have managed flash moments of brilliance with some head-turning performances through the opening half of 2022.
The 23-year-old rookie has been at the top of the timesheets in several practice sessions, and finally put it together in a drenched GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course where he started seventh and finished eighth – the first-ever top 10 finish for a team fielded by Juncos since joining the sport in 2017.
It hasn’t been a year without challenges, though, with Ilott forced to sit out of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle due to a broken right hand suffered after crashing out of the Indy 500 (finishing 32nd). Despite the brief setback, he returned after a one-race hiatus and finished a respectable 11th at the most previous round at Road America.
Through his seven appearances this season, the average start/finish has significantly improved to 15.6/19.3.
“This year, we’ve just got all of that right with the partnership with Carlin and all of the big things are done and it’s working well,” said Ilott, who also serves as reserve driver for Alfa Romeo in Formula 1. “We’ve been able to work on the car in areas to help it suit me to help get the most out of what we have. We have no real access at the moment to simulators, so we haven’t really done anything on that side to develop. We don’t have a full-time damper program or anything. We’ve got pretty much what we’ve got and that’s it. So I’ve had to work with the engineers and fine tune what I need and how I can make the current car that we have fast as possible.
“It works well for the road courses and I can get it up to speed. I can get it into a competitive position. I think for the ovals, we’ve got something that, at Indy was 19th (in qualifying). I think we need to work on the street courses because that’s really where I thought I’d be strongest and it’s probably one of the weakest in terms of potential pace. But yeah, it was more there was a lot of thought and hard work over the winter, but in the direction of what was necessary: getting all the small things right, working with people who’ve worked together, get to know what you need. Also, it sounds stupid, but imagine the first three or four races things like my drink system didn’t work and stuff like that.
“You know, those little things make a difference. Now, we get into the rhythm of, ‘Okay, we know what works, what doesn’t, what makes it easier, what doesn’t make it easier, what I need.’ All these ovals, it’s a discovery process because I don’t have a teammate to rely on, I’m doing this all on my own. Even using previous data, which most of the time is not relevant other than a starting point, it’s all from what I do and building up off of that, where I start. Compared to the big teams, who are spending so much more money on development and have two, three, four, five cars, and it’s just me doing it and working hard and I’m able to out-qualify at least one, two of those cars in the big teams every weekend when we come to a road course or whatever, it shows the potential of the team.
“It takes a long time to build these things up. I think we’ve done a good job to start with, but there’s still a long way to go.”
This weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio kickstarts a nine-race run to the end of season, and Ilott believes the potential for scoring a top five or even more is possible “in the right environment.” The main focus the rest of the way, however, is routinely putting together positive results.
“The biggest thing is getting consistency,” he said. “Right now, we have consistently been in the Fast 12 at every road course we raced at [Barber Motorsports Park, IMS road course, Road America]; I would like to continue that. I would just like to show the potential where it is irrelevant of championship results and stuff. Every weekend is a learning process for me and for the team.”