until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


IndyCar teams are sleeping on this underrated star

by Jack Benyon
8 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Callum Ilott has to be one of the most underrated drivers in IndyCar right now.

Perhaps uncertainty over his contract status with Juncos Hollinger Racing is part of the reason he hasn’t featured more prominently in the 2024 silly season so far. Whatever the reasons, it’s the other teams that are missing out.

Among many other factors we’ll get into in more detail, he enters Gateway this weekend as the ninth-best driver in terms of average finish on ovals. When you consider there are 14 cars across IndyCar’s big four teams, it’s some achievement, to be ahead of the likes of 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi and four-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves in that ranking.

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It’s like people have forgotten Ilott came into a team in 2021 that was starting totally afresh as a one-car outfit with no technical partnership with a bigger team.

And his reward for that year – which featured scintillating qualifying performances including a second at Laguna Seca – was a rookie team-mate and a team spread even thinner by a second car for 2022. All part of Juncos’s growth plan, but not ideal for Ilott trying to impress in a new series.

Perhaps part of the lack of hype around Ilott at the moment is down to his decline in qualifying results this year.

Ilott has almost always excelled at qualifying in his career, it’s been one of the constants underpinning any success.

This year, he’s down five spots per race on average, and his best start this year is 15th, not the second he managed last year. That’s obviously quite drastic.

Ilott’s qualifying

2022 2023 so far
Average start 15.375 20.43
Best start 2nd 15th
Worst start 22nd 27th

We can see from this table that there’s no doubt his form has dipped, and we don’t have a team-mate year on year to compare him to. But it’s clear the team and driver believe the car is just not good enough in qualifying and it’s something Juncos has come to expect.

Of course, qualifying is an important aspect of IndyCar racing, but is qualifying as important as race results? Obviously not.

And the story in 2023 is, despite the spread of resources, a poor qualifying car, troublesome pitstops and a lack of an experienced team-mate, Ilott’s finishing two positions higher per race, scoring almost three points per race more, he’s four points short of eclipsing his 2022 points total with three races remaining and he’s upped his best finish from eighth to fifth.

Ilott’s races

2022 2023 so far
Average finish 17.5 15.21
Best finish 8th 5th
Worst finish 32nd 27th
Standings 20th 16th
Points per race 12.88 15.43

So taking his average start and average finish, he’s moving up 5.21 positions per race on average, comfortably the best in the field. The fact his rookie team-mate is second in this ranking shows Juncos’s qualifying deficiency.

Positions gained per race
Callum Ilott 5.21
Agustin Canapino 2.79
Conor Daly 2.58
Christian Lundgaard 2.36
Josef Newgarden 2.29

Perhaps people haven’t crunched the numbers in this depth, but given the team he’s achieving this in – which has so much potential, it’s just new and fighting established teams in one of the most competitive single-seater championships in the world – it’s hard to understand why he doesn’t have an orderly queue of suitors formed and he hasn’t made the move to one of the bigger teams already.

Confusion over his contract status may be partly to blame – The Race understands he could leave Juncos if a top team comes in for him, but it isn’t clear publicly.

But there’s little more llott can prove here, and if the top teams aren’t willing to open their eyes to Ilott, and fight to get him, they’re the ones missing out.

His oval form proves that.

It would be a great surprise if someone like Arrow McLaren wasn’t looking at Ilott. The other top teams – Andretti, Ganassi, Penske – appear to be set with their options, and as McLaren’s a Chevrolet team like Juncos it’s likely to have more shared data about Ilott’s performances.

The Race’s sources indicate that Felix Rosenqvist was told by McLaren he could look at other options for next year before it became clear Alex Palou wouldn’t join the team. Of course, Rosenqvist and McLaren could still reconcile, but if not, Ilott should be top of McLaren’s shortlist.

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Especially as he’s young with plenty of upside, has extensive Formula 1 paddock experience through Ferrari and Alfa Romeo roles and would be a fun personality for McLaren to exploit with its excellent marketing and social team.

Whether McLaren is seriously considering Ilott is not clear. But it should be.

Ilott’s oval form

2023 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car

As we mentioned earlier, Ilott is ninth in the oval form table with an average finish of 12.5.

What makes that so amazing is that he’s only in his second season of racing on ovals, and he’s in the team with the 20th-best pit crew according to the Firestone Pitstop Rankings which judges teams by time spent in the pits.

Of course, on ovals, strategy is so important and losing time in pitstops so often puts you a lap down.

So what’s behind his strong oval form, which wasn’t bad in 2022, but is certainly very impressive this year?

“One thing is comfort and you know what to expect and you know what you need from the car to to make overall life quite a lot easier,” Ilott told The Race just after the Iowa weekend last month.

“I think I’ve kind of benefited from the experience because I really came into IndyCar and oval racing with no expectation, no idea at all.

“Every experience has been a learning experience.

“Starting off with Texas this year, we weren’t very fast, but I was just able to always be clean and get amazing restarts.

“We were lacking a lot on the pitstops in Texas, which put us a lap down. But aside from that, it was good.

“And then at Indy I managed to salvage a solid result.

“These two races at Iowa, they’ve been very solid. There’s no complaints really to say.

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“I think on Saturday, we were a little bit out of balance with the car and Sunday the car was in a much better balance.

“But we’re just super unlucky with the yellows, both of those last yellows, I was just overtaken by [winner Josef] Newgarden like that same lap and so I lost the laps to the guys I was fighting in front, which was a big shame.”

Indy was such a rollercoaster for Ilott because even from the pre-event test he felt something was very wrong with his car, and it wasn’t manifesting in the data, so his team was reluctant to take the drastic measures he felt were needed.

Despite a late car swap that meant he had only done seven laps of preparation for qualifying, he made it into the race and scored an emotional 12th having had to battle his own team and his own thoughts and feelings to convince himself and the team he knew the right thing to do. Ultimately everyone benefitted from Ilott’s courage.

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Sometimes as a driver you have to trust your team, sometimes you have to fight for what you’re feeling.

That showed just how far Ilott has come and makes you think that, given the equipment, he has the feel and knack for oval racing some drivers are just born with.

He’s already figured out a lot of what it takes to be ace on ovals.

“They’re all different but I think there’s a couple of things here,” Ilott adds.

“The style of how you drive the ovals is relatively different to a road course, you can’t use the brakes, everything’s got to be done with the throttle, you’ve got this incredible banking that you never have on a road course and that affects really how you use the car, use the throttle, which is a skill in its own to learn, but it’s not too dissimilar.

“You’re just pushing a car in a different way.

“But what is really tough is the racing, getting the timing, putting the car in the right places, because you can see people put the car in the right places but you have to anticipate what the guy in front is doing.

“So everything is about the anticipation of what everyone else is doing.

Callumilott Indianapolis500practice By Chrisjones Refimagewithoutwatermark M80227

“Obviously you can’t use the brakes so that’s super tough to learn and you don’t learn that experience in Europe.

“I think that’s something from last year to this year that I’ve just learned about where people are going to put their cars, especially on restarts, that allows me to capitalise so much and gain so many positions.”

Ilott has been part of a recent surge to consider more prospects abroad by IndyCar teams, especially in the likes of Formula 2 and Super Formula.

Part of that is arguably because there are so few oval races – and the Indy 500 now longer being worth double points may have helped a bit – and that the domestic feeder series Indy NXT only does two of the four ovals on the IndyCar schedule so foreign rookies are at less of a disadvantage.

So the worry that drivers from outside the United States system may need longer to get up to speed on ovals no longer feels so costly for IndyCar teams.

But with Ilott it seems you don’t need to take that into consideration.

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