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IndyCar

Team-mate drama + death threats – Ilott’s Long Beach explained

by Jack Benyon
11 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The Long Beach weekend was a rollercoaster one for one of the standout drivers of the 2023 IndyCar season so far, Callum Ilott, after an incident involving his team-mate prompted death threats.

The ex-Ferrari Formula 1 test and development driver and Formula 2 runner-up already crashed in practice after a kerb was replaced without the drivers being warned, and then a succession of sub-optimal pitstops put Ilott in tricky positions – the last of which he emerged from just in front of his Juncos team-mate Agustin Canapino, who was leading the race.

The Race has broken down Ilott’s weekend bit-by-bit to better understand what happened and how everyone can learn lessons – on and off the track – from a very difficult Long Beach weekend, where he eventually finished 19th.

Damage repayment, please

The weekend had already started off badly for Ilott. A kerb – which had been removed after being damaged in an IMSA SportsCar Championship session and wasn’t present when IndyCar practice took place on Friday – was re-installed for Saturday.

It wreaked havoc as Ilott, and then Rinus VeeKay, hit the kerb and crashed straight into the outside wall with no time to correct the car while the front wheels were off the ground.

When interviewed by NBC TV, Ilott said he hadn’t been made aware of any track changes overnight and added: “If they did and didn’t tell us, they can pay for the damage, because that’s a joke.”

Because no changes had been made to the track configuration, IndyCar didn’t issue a series-wide memo about it. Ilott was far from happy.

How did Ilott end up fighting to stay on the lead lap?

Ilott elected to get off strategy and stop from 24th on lap two under an early caution, but immediately lost a spot in the pits to his team-mate Canapino. The latter’s stop (pit-in to pit-out) was 4.86 seconds quicker.

Ilott then pitted again on lap 6/85 after hitting a bump in the road at Turn 2 and touching the wall, which popped his tyre.

It was a relatively slow stop – where the team also had to assess any damage – and that put him he was a lap down until he got the wave-around at the next caution, brought about by Scott Dixon and Pato O’Ward’s crash on lap 20.

How did he end up in front of Canapino on the restart?

Ilott didn’t get a lot of time to do the ‘wave-around’ – which gives drivers a lap down the chance to get back on the lead lap under caution – and then by the time he had his lap back and pitted, Canapino – who’d stayed out under the caution and assumed the lead while everyone else pitted – was ready to lead the field to green flag.

This is where any blame on Ilott for ‘holding up’ Canapino is misguided, because had he had a good stop by IndyCar standards, he should have come out anywhere between three and five seconds up the road from Canapino, and therefore in no position to hold him up.

His stop on lap 25 took a second longer than his fastest stop of the day which came later – but, for reference, even that best Ilott pitstop time (from pit-in to pit-out) was the third-slowest in the field, 25th out of 27 entries.

Canapino did a really solid restart and had a good gap to Helio Castroneves entering Turn 1 when Ilott emerged on cold tyres. That was no doubt sub-optimal for Canapino.

After six corners, Canapino clipped the wall and put himself out of contention anyway.

If Canapino couldn’t cope with attacking Ilott and defending against Castroneves, it didn’t bode well for his chances of defending from charging protagonists Kyle Kirkwood, Romain Grosjean and Josef Newgarden either, all of whom were on fresh tyres while Canapino had well over 20 laps on his.

But Canapino’s biggest problem was his oversteer and poor exit off of Turn 5 onto the back straight, which allowed Castroneves to pressure him into Turn 6 when he hit the wall.

Was anyone actually to blame?

There’s a few more things at play here we haven’t got into.

Firstly, Canapino shouldn’t really have been out leading the field because he needed to pit in five-to-seven laps anyway.

Sure, he got some experience of leading a race, but there was no scenario whereby he was going to gain any advantage having stayed out that was going to hugely impact his race. Only perhaps that, had a caution come out on the restart or before he was forced to pit under green within those five-to-seven laps, he would have slightly fresher tyres but be at the back of the grid after pitting anyway.

Perhaps the only other thing to consider is that he got one point for leading a lap, but that hardly seems worth the trouble in this scenario.

Secondly, Canapino is just not ready to be put in that position.

Don’t get me wrong, his rise has been stratospheric. But having not driven an IndyCar before this season, it was too much to put on his shoulders to have him out front being attacked by IndyCar’s finest on fresher tyres in just his third race. He wouldn’t have learned so much in five or so laps before pitting that it was beneficial to him.

I have no doubt that he could be good enough to lead and even win a race in the future if he continues to rise as quickly as he has in 2023 so far. But leading a race is asking a lot even for a multiple-time tin-top champion.

Without the slow pitstop, Ilott would have been up the road and out of the way of Canapino anyway, so any suggestion this is Ilott’s fault is ridiculous.

Callum Ilott Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach By Joe Skibinski Referenceimagewithoutwatermark M76351

The Juncos team couldn’t control putting Ilott out just in front of Canapino because of that slow stop. In its mind, Ilott should have been clear until the stop ruined the situation.

You may ask why Ilott fought so hard. It’s because staying on the lead lap in IndyCar is crucial. If he’d gone a lap down to Canapino, he would have to go through the same experience of being a lap down, needing a caution to get that lap back and then pitting and not knowing if he’d come out on the lead lap still.

Staying on the lead lap would mean that if another caution came he’d catch the back of the pack and pit at the same time.

If there had been a pile-up, like there was at St Petersburg, staying on the lead lap might be worth something like 10 positions by the end of the race once many have fallen by the wayside. It’s a huge number of points on offer – especially for a driver who started the weekend seventh in the standings.

Even though Canapino was leading the race and Ilott was last, they were both basically in the same position because had Canapino pitted in a few laps – as he would’ve needed to – they’d be together at the back of the pack.

What happened in the aftermath?

Agustin Canapino Signs For A Fan Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach By Travis Hinkle Referenceimagewithoutwatermark M76367

Ilott says he received death threats following the race.

After some adjudged him to have been at fault for holding up Canapino – which we know wasn’t the case – abuse came from a small but sadly wide-reaching minority.

That’s not to blame the whole of Argentina or the Spanish-speaking world of IndyCar fans and, when it became clear Ilott had been abused, there were well wishes sent to Ilott from Argentina and further beyond.

Ilott singled out Martin Ponte, a commentator who works for ESPN and Fox Sports according to his Instagram bio, in his post-race comments, retweeting an apology of Ponte’s for how his comments were “interpreted”.

“A certain level of professionalism is needed when you hold a microphone that sends a message to 100k+ people,” Ilott wrote.

“I suggest you think about the message you want to send to people. I suggest you educate yourself on IndyCar racing and commentating to a better standard. Be kind please.”

After the race, Ilott said: “It’s an important reminder to all new and old fans/people. Respect goes both ways. Although I have thick skin and am used to this behaviour occasionally. One day it will go too far to someone who can’t deal with it as well as others.

“It’s unacceptable on any level and those who encourage it should have a real think about the consequences of their actions.

“But I would like to thank everyone who has supported me, it means a lot.”

In the meantime, Canapino posted a video absolving Ilott of blame, then issued his own words to accompany an IndyCar statement the following day.

 

“Over the last 24 hours, some of our drivers have been the target of disrespectful and inappropriate online abuse. There is no place for this behaviour in our sport,” IndyCar’s statement said.

“While fierce competition and rivalry will always be a mainstay of IndyCar racing, it’s important to showcase and celebrate these attributes with ultimate respect and concern for the well-being of our competitors.

“IndyCar is a community that should always strive to build upward with support and appreciation for one another.”

O’Ward was another person to put out his own personal message after Sunday’s race where he was also criticised for an incident, the one in which Dixon ended up in the tyre barrier. But The Race understands O’Ward wanted to support Ilott, too.

“We are all human and to judge us as anything OTHER than that is absolutely mind-blowing to me,” O’Ward said. “As if we are not allowed to make mistakes? To drop the ball? To make a bad call? In what world are these standards reasonable? They aren’t.”

What does this say about IndyCar’s fanbase and what’s next?

Kyle Kirkwood – the Long Beach winner – said he received “hate mail” after being blamed for crashing into Alexander Rossi in the pitlane at Texas. This behaviour is not new.

There’s no doubt Canapino brings a huge new crowd with him to IndyCar. As an example, the Turismo Carretera series he used to race in has more followers than IndyCar on Instagram, over 400,000. He’s immediately slotted into the top 10 as one of the most followed IndyCar athletes on social media.

Canapino’s story has inspired and grabbed the Argentinian and some other Spanish-speaking nations’ fans because of how quickly he has adapted. He was already a very famous sportsperson in Argentina before making the IndyCar switch.

Agustin Canapino Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach By Karl Zemlin Referenceimagewithoutwatermark M76390

Somewhat ironically in this scenario, Ilott is actually one of Canapino’s biggest resources. He’s likely one of the biggest reasons Canapino has adapted to IndyCar so quickly, remaining an open book and advising the Argentinian no end. Canapino told The Race as much in the build up to his Texas oval debut.

“He has been so kind with me,” Canapino said. “I am really, really grateful for him. For me, to share the team with him is a big opportunity to learn much faster.”

Ilott also races with the logos of ‘Visit Argentina’, the country’s tourism body, on his overalls and projects that message to his own followers. That’s especially valuable when Ilott is doing well, which has regularly been the case recently.

Sadly, a small minority of onlookers have created a very large problem.

The Kirkwood incident also proves that this is not a problem just brought in by new drivers or other communities.

This is a time IndyCar and its stakeholders have to look inward to battle against hate, discrimination and injustice.

IndyCar has a lot of long-standing, historically-minded fans who generally are quite good at welcoming new fans into the sport and being encouraging enough to keep them there.

Fans Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach By Chris Owens Referenceimagewithoutwatermark M76686

There’s people such as Cassie who spend mountains of personal time making guides for entry-level fans, promoting the series and the good things about it and generally making IndyCar one of racing’s most welcoming championships. It has many of these positivity champions who just want to share a truly excellent racing series.

It’s clear whether it’s old or new fans, there’s still a lot to learn.

If Ilott can take anything positive out of this experience, it’s that he, Juncos, his team-mate, his series, his competitors and his fans won’t stand for this kind of online abuse in the future.

It’s not welcome in this championship.

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