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Formula 1

How an overlooked F1 prospect is giving Ferrari a 2021 headache

by Edd Straw
10 min read

Callum Ilott has thrown Ferrari a curveball. At the start of the season, he was barely a footnote in the Ferrari Driver Academy stable amid the focus on which of the Prema drivers in Formula 2 – anointed next Formula 1 cab-off-the-rank Mick Schumacher or graduating European F3 champion Robert Shwartzman – would earn a move into F1. But Ilott, driving for the hugely accomplished UNI-Virtuosi team, leads the championship heading into this weekend’s Spa races.

Ilott has always been fast. But during his nomadic junior single-seater career – seasons with Carlin, Van Amersfoort Racing and Prema in F3, ART in GP3, then moving full-time into F2 with Charouz last year before this year’s switch to UNI-Virtuosi – it has never entirely come together over a season despite there being plenty of highs. After all, this is a driver good enough to have a Macau Grand Prix pole position on his CV.

This year has been different. He’s bagged feature race F2 victories at the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone and was only denied another last time out in Spain by the capricious impact of the safety car. Aside from spinning out of fourth place in the first Silverstone round sprint race after thumping a kerb too hard, it’s been an excellent season. And although he starts today’s feature race at Spa from a disappointing 12th place, he has shown he has the pace needed to turn that into a good result.

By definition, Ilott has to be considered a strong contender for the Ferrari-controlled F1 seat at Alfa Romeo currently occupied by Antonio Giovinazzi. After all, if the main criticism of him in the past has been “fast but erratic”, if you fix the latter are you not left with a formidable driver?

Given the introduction of the new 18-inch wheels has created new challenges in tyre understanding that lie not in fundamental differences but myriad small details in how they work, that Ilott has been, on average, the fastest driver this season and taken three out of six pole positions proves he is now a well-rounded product at this level.

Motor Racing Fia Formula 2 Championship Saturday Silverstone, England

“The goal of joining Ferrari back in 2017 was to build a pathway into Formula 1,” says Ilott. “It worked for Charles Leclerc and it made sense. They were the only other team [having been dropped by the Red Bull driver programme after his debut season in F3] it really made sense with and had a good strong academy to back that up.

“I’ve spent the last two, three years developing with them to make myself the best driver possible. I made the decision to join UNI-Virtuosi myself at the end of last year because I wanted to put myself in the best position possible and Ferrari were supportive in the decision. The idea is to hopefully win and put myself in the best position for the future.

“This year, there’s five [Ferrari Academy drivers] in Formula 2, which leads to very big competition. But hopefully if you’re the best at the end of the year, it proves you’re the best.”

It’s not necessarily that straightforward. While Ilott is in his second season in F2 after a first full campaign with the erratic Charouz team last year, he’s being compared to a rookie with a bigger potential upside to come in Shwartzman – who currently lies second in the championship.

“After that crash, I wanted to get back in an F1 car and put it right. A lot of people hold it against me and still do, but I can’t change it” :: Callum Ilott

Schumacher is perceived as the favoured son, not only because of his surname but also because, as he showed by winning European F3 in 2018 and continues to do so in flashes in F2, he does have genuine speed. But amid those complications, there’s a simplicity in Ilott simply letting his results do the talking and stake his claim to be first in the queue.

Ilott has already had a brief flirtation with F1. He had a day of testing for Alfa Romeo in Spain last year and did a decent job – until midway through the afternoon when the car swapped ends and he backed into the tyre barrier at around 200km/h in the Turn 3 right-hander.

Such a high-profile mistake on a driver’s first shot behind the wheel of a grand prix car is unavoidably regarded with a sense of finality; you had your shot and you blew it. It’s fair to say that there were those in the team who were far from impressed by what happened. But crashes happen, it’s an occupational hazard and the strong drivers find a way to turn it to their advantage. The mentally robust ones, those who have that extra fortitude needed to cut it in elite sport, learn and go again.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing In Season Test Day 1 Barcelona, Spain

“In my career, that was probably the lowest point I could get to, I’m not going to deny that,” says Ilott. “I didn’t feel good about the whole situation for probably a week afterwards. You get an opportunity, it’s great for half of it and then gone the next second.

“With these things, once it’s done, it’s done. Everyone has had their low points in their life. A lot of people don’t know other things that have gone on in people’s life, and I’ve bounced back from other things like that, and I went into the next weekend at Monaco [in F2] and put it on the front row.

“After that crash, I wanted to get back in an F1 car and put it right. A lot of people hold it against me and still do, but I can’t change it and now I couldn’t care less what they think. I used it as motivation to get back into the car and prove people wrong. Even this season, a lot of people didn’t expect this from me. I’m even exceeded my expectations a little bit.

“I’ve always been the kid that has had talent but never followed through with it. Not many people have ever pushed for me because they don’t know me or they just see me from a different side of things, so I always just been keeping my head down and doing my own thing. I always told people, I would be one of the quickest and this year, it’s showing.

“I’m very happy with the way I’ve bounced back from things. Obviously, the F1 test was a disastrous point in my career, but it was only a disastrous point for one week and I bounced back from there.”

Ilott carries an 18-point lead in the championship. That’s an advantage that will need some work to be protected, especially from his midfield starting spot at Spa, and it’s crucial he shows he can convert that into solid points. It will be a test of his temperament and what he’s learned over the years when he’s sometimes had a tendency to overdo it or, as he admits to during his 2017 F3 season with Prema, being too conservative.

Starting with the Spa races, this second half of the season is the ultimate test of how polished Ilott really is. He’s still only 21 and after starting early in single-seaters – having his first full season in European F3 in 2015 after a prelude in New Zealand’s Toyota Racing Series, it’s not been an easy path. The impact of Max Verstappen a year earlier, a driver who had been prepared for racing from the womb, wildly distorted the expectations of young drivers and his struggles that year resulted in being dropped by Red Bull.

Fia F3 European Championship 2015, Round 3, Pau

But the ability was always there. I remember watching him from trackside on his debut Formula 3 weekend at Silverstone and seeing a driver with a style too lairy for the precise demands of the category, but with undeniable car control and commitment. His career has been all about harnessing that, as indeed he did in an F3 car he eventually became absolutely at one with.

“It’s true that I made a lot of mistakes in my career, quite notable ones in races,” says Ilott. “The point I would like to prove is you’re still learning from all of these things. For my first race, I had no idea what I was really in for. Coming out of karting, you’ve got to learn the hard way.

“A lot of guys get the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes in F4. I went straight into F3 and made quite a few mistakes, but the whole point of the junior formulas is to learn and make mistakes. Unfortunately, you’re in the spotlight and sometimes not given the opportunity to make mistakes. A lot of people overlook this and think you’re the finished article.

So far, the job is only half-done for Ilott. He is now favourite for the F2 title, but on a grid packed with F1-affiliated talent and very few opportunities to make the step up, he knows better than anyone he has to close it out

“I’m not the finished article, we saw that at Silverstone where I made a very small error, misjudged a kerb by a couple of inches or less and it spun me. I’m not perfect but I’ve improved a lot – the racecraft, the feeling and understanding of the car has definitely improved. We saw in Barcelona race one, when I had a car in front of me on a different tyre [Yuki Tsunoda] I had to wait for the DRS to do anything. I made one or two mistakes, got it wrong, then it looked like my racecraft really sucked.”

But sliding to fifth in a race he seemingly had won prior to the safety car has so far been the exception, not the norm. Things appear to be coming together in a way they haven’t quite done so before when he flirted with title bids at F3/GP3 level.

Ilott points to the trio of 10-place grid penalties he was hit with at the Norising in his second F3 season in 2016 as costing him badly and putting him into what might be called a catch-up mentality. The following year, with Prema, he overcompensated and went too conservative while a title threat. As he puts it “points were always on my mind, I was thinking too much.” The same thing happened in his single GP3 campaign with ART in 2018.

Motor Racing Gp3 Series Saturday Monza, Italy

He also points to the 2019 season with unfancied Charouz as a positive despite the unflashy results. Ilott says the car was not to his “optimal liking” but also describes it as a conservative year. With tyre management key, that was a big weakness for the team as a whole. That’s why, aside from a couple of sprint-race third places and pole position at Monza, it wasn’t an eye-catching year and he finished 11th in the standings.

The decision to join UNI-Virtuosi has been a good one. The team finished second in the teams’ championship last year and ran Luca Ghiotto to third overall and Ilott has benefitted hugely from being with a team that is on top of F2 and the demands of the tyre management.

“It’s a combination of things,” says Ilott of the reasons for the good start. “At the end of last year, my rate of improvement went up. The last three races of the year were very strong. Carrying that momentum into this year was one of the things that gave me a strong start.

“Last year, they [UNI-Virtuosi] had a number of very strong weekend and they were pretty much the only top team that straight away wanted to work with me, the others didn’t seem very interested. It’s a good working relationship as when someone is interested, you feel better about yourself.

“It was clear they were a small but well-focused, well-oriented team that put everything in for their drivers. They just run F2, so the whole team is all oriented to me and [team-mate] Guan Yu Zhou. I like the English mentality, I like the guys and the brilliant thing about them is, you could say something isn’t good enough, and they’ll turn around and say ‘OK we’re going to make this better’, and do it.

“If something isn’t good enough on my side, they say it once and they know you’ve listened. When me and Zhou both spun at Silverstone second race, they just said ‘well, we lost a lot of points, we make mistakes, you guys make mistakes, make sure it doesn’t happen again’.

“It’s nice to have that environment especially when you’re pushing for a championship. They just get everything right so I’m really happy with that decision and they’re pushing hard for us.”

Motor Racing Fia Formula 2 Championship Saturday Silverstone, England

So far, the job is only half-done for Ilott. He is now favourite for the F2 title, but on a grid packed with F1-affiliated talent and very few opportunities to make the step up, he knows better than anyone he has to close it out. You could almost say that, were he to do that, it would make all of the trials and tribulations of his up and down career in car racing worth it.

Whether that really will add up to an F1 seat with Alfa Romeo is largely in the hands of Ferrari. But if Ilott can turn himself from the kid with talent who didn’t follow through into the champion of F1’s main feeder series, he will at the very least give Ferrari some difficult questions to answer if he is passed over in favour of those he has beaten.

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