until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


No downsides reprieve? Ilott set to be McLaren's IndyCar stand-in

by Jack Benyon
9 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Callum Ilott is set for an IndyCar drive after all - in the season opener, at least - as McLaren has lined the driver replaced by Romain Grosjean for 2024 to stand in for the injured David Malukas at St Petersburg.

IndyCar has stated Ilott will drive for Arrow McLaren at St Petersburg in a line buried in a website season preview feature on March 1 - the first public acknowledgement of the deal - but that deal has not yet been announced by the team, although it is expected to be a formality at this point, with McLaren keen on Ilott and Ilott wanting another IndyCar chance.

The announcement will have to be made soon as cars hit the track in less than a week’s time for the season opener.

The big question is, what does this opportunity represent?

For one, it means a driver who on ability alone never should have been allowed to walk away from the paddock is back and, crucially, is in a potentially race-winning car - even if McLaren didn’t stand on the top step of an IndyCar podium last year.

In a grid that still has drivers that don’t deserve to be there on merit, Ilott's reprieve is a refreshing and welcome one.

It’s also a chance to examine whether this will be a one-off for a driver who will head into the world’s ‘other’ biggest race outside of the Indianapolis 500, the Le Mans 24 Hours, driving a Porsche, the marque that has won that race more times than any other.

Does IndyCar even have a chance at getting Ilott back?

Let’s get into his return.

Joining McLaren

Ilott replaced David Malukas - McLaren’s new 2024 signing, who is ruled out until the third round in mid-April in Long Beach after a mountain bike-induced wrist injury - for a hybrid test earlier this month at Sebring and, after that, he was the only logical contender for McLaren to choose.

Even before then, it was known to be interested in Ilott as a candidate for the seat that went to Malukas. In the end it was unclear for other teams whether Ilott was under contract at Juncos Hollinger Racing and what it would take to extricate him.

McLaren now has a strategic partnership with Juncos and that deal was announced before Ilott left. While it was still being rumoured earlier in the year, it was hypothesised that it was a chance for McLaren to get closer to Ilott and learn more about him ahead of any potential interest.

Now, Ilott should wear Papaya at a St Petersburg race the team would have won last year, were it not for a plenum fire in Pato O’Ward’s car in the closing stages.

McLaren team principal Gavin Ward is an ex-Red Bull Formula 1 engineer and aerodynamicist who has a healthy obsession with racing’s Triple Crown, so he'll have plenty to discuss with Le Mans-bound Ilott outside of their new IndyCar partnership.

Ilott joins O’Ward and Alexander Rossi in the team’s three-car line-up for St Petersburg on March 5.

How did Ilott end up leaving IndyCar?

In the end, Ilott and Juncos parted ways as a relationship that started so strongly wilted into a fractious mess.

Ilott raced in IndyCar with Juncos for two full seasons, securing a front-row start at Laguna Seca in 2022 and managing top-five finishes at St Petersburg and Laguna Seca on his way to 16th in the championship last year.

However, the 2023 season was a tough one for Ilott, who came in for heavy criticism - which included death threats on social media - for multiple incidents with his team-mate Agustin Canapino.

Canapino’s mostly native Argentinian fanbase criticised Ilott for supposedly ruining Canapino’s Long Beach race while he was leading, though Canapino was actually only in front through an off-sync strategy and Juncos had also given Ilott a slow pitstop, which led to him emerging directly in front of Canapino.

At the last race of the season Ilott was also blamed for hitting Canapino and, although footage released by Ilott showed it wasn’t his fault, he was again abused online and took down his X (Twitter) account. Canapino and Ilott themselves did work together well throughout the season and Canapino defended Ilott on multiple occasions.

These incidents strained the relationship between Ilott and the team.

Ilott also had to fight for the team to change to a back-up car at the Indy 500 because deficiencies were not showing up on data, despite Ilott’s description of its poor handling.

Eventually the back-up car was prepared and, after only 12 laps, Ilott qualified for the race and then finished 12th - the team’s best 500 result.

Ilott’s parting of ways with Juncos - to be replaced by Grosjean - came after the end of the season when a number of high-profile drives Ilott likely would have been the favourite for had already gone.

The Race understands that McLaren would have been interested in evaluating Ilott had he became available earlier. It moved for Malukas, who had announced his decision to leave Dale Coyne Racing by July.

Ilott instead ended up signing for the Jota Porsche squad competing in the top level of the World Endurance Championship in a car developed in conjunction with Team Penske, which runs the factory Porsche 963 cars.

Is this more than a one-off?

It is for McLaren, with Malukas expected back for round two at Long Beach, but it's worth posing as a wider question as to whether Ilott has an IndyCar future.

Ilott did not close the door on a future full-time IndyCar return after switching to the WEC.

There, he topped the first day of WEC’s Qatar test ahead of the season opener this weekend in just his second day in the car, and subsequently qualified the car third for Saturday's race.

Heading to Le Mans will be a pinch-me moment to achieve something Ilott might never have considered in his single-seater chasing career, with arguably sportscar racing's most prestigious brand.

While any driver would have similar feelings driving a works McLaren, Ilott will likely have a feeling of a different sort, too. Vindication. He’s still wanted in this paddock.

Ilott can have a very successful and lucrative career racing sportscars, especially if he impresses Porsche enough to join its works team eventually, I’m sure there will be something eating away at him.

He felt he deserved a chance at F1 and, when he didn’t make it, he felt he had the ability to fight at the front in IndyCar. Even if Juncos is a mid-table team in the short to medium term, no one likes to leave a project unfinished or without just reward.

So you have to believe that if there’s a chance to return to IndyCar in the future and put things right, Ilott would jump at the opportunity.

Especially now he is one of only a handful of drivers who have tested IndyCar’s hybrid unit, which was what the Sebring test he drove in was for. That is almost definitely being introduced in the second half of this season according to IndyCar officials.

It’s hard to imagine a host of teams won’t be interested in him even this year, never mind for 2025. The acrimonious split from Juncos hasn’t been ideal for his reputation but I don’t think there are many people out there who believe Ilott has done anything wrong or caused problems he shouldn’t have.

Of course, he won’t spend the first few months of a deal with Jota, which gave him a home in a very difficult moment in his career, saying how much he wants to leave and go somewhere else. There's a good chance the manufacturer-heavy WEC could steal Ilott's heart.

Asked if he wanted to return to IndyCar full-time by The Race, he said: “I haven’t really thought about it.

"Of course, when my environments were changing at the end of last year, I looked at trying to stay in IndyCar and that didn’t end up happening and then one week later I was talking in this paddock and Jota were very receptive and it just felt like the right place to go.

“I haven’t done a [WEC] race yet, so I kind of want to see where that leads to.

“Obviously I did the test with McLaren which was interesting and good fun, and actually quite good preparation for this as I hadn’t been driving for three months.

“So to answer his question, I don’t know yet. To be honest, I don’t want to burn any bridges, but I also want to enjoy and do what I do and my full focus is on WEC this year, so I'm not really looking at that yet, if you know what I mean.”

What might sway that decision?

That might be as simple as a top IndyCar team trying to sign him, as opposed to one in the midfield. If he can be successful and fight for wins and a Porsche future, why give that up to finish, for example, 15th in IndyCar?

“If I did [return to IndyCar] I think I would want to do it with a top team,” he added.

“It’s not easy to be, shall we say, in a less competitive environment. It’s not easy to be in a non-top-team environment for a while, and so yeah, that would be the goal, otherwise I’m also very happy here and we’ll see what the career path takes.”

Does he have anything to lose at St Pete?

McLaren wasted no time signing Ilott up to test knowing he was available. And after missing out on seats at the same team, Andretti and more, this should be a low-pressure chance to experience a top IndyCar drive at a track Ilott’s raced at twice before.

It will come alongside last year’s race runner-up and the team’s F1 reserve O’Ward and 2016 Indy 500 winner Rossi. Beating either would be a brilliant achievement, but the win-win alternative is that if he doesn’t, he’s only done one test with the team and wouldn’t be expected to beat them. At least, that would be a reasonable assumption.

If he beats O’Ward - who has just signed a new deal through 2027, as revealed by the latest Alex Palou court documents - he has to bump his way up the shortlist for other top teams.

Ultimately, one of the big questions the major teams will have is whether Ilott can produce top-level performances in the low-oxygen air of the front of the field. He’s only been in a smaller team in IndyCar for reference.

Deliver here and he could convince some of the big hitters he’s worth a punt for good. Have an under-the-radar performance and it's a case of ‘What did you expect? He’s in a new team at short notice’.

All that could be moot if Ilott climbs the ladder of the lucrative WEC series, but it would be a shame to not see this driver get the chance to compete at IndyCar's top level when he came so close in sub-optimal machinery.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks