Callum Ilott is as aware as anyone that this is a short season, but a long Championship. The first nine races of the 2020 campaign take part over the course of just 12 weeks, and he knows that plenty can still happen in that short space of time. “I’m just taking it as it comes,” he says.
Ilott has just finished his dinner, put his post-feature race debriefs to bed, and sat down at the table outside of the Formula 2 office in the Silverstone support paddock. A brief reaction piece, discussing his scintillating Saturday drive, turns into a much-wider discussion on his season so far.
The conversation begins with his charge from a pitlane start to fifth, but moves on to the Championship battle, and everything that the 21-year-old has learned since first entering F2. And that’s one of the most endearing things about Ilott: in an age where rehearsed answers are commonplace within all forms of sport, he is refreshingly honest and open.
He’s in the midst of a title bid, but happy to discuss the intricacies, the ins and outs, and most of all, he refuses to ignore his own misgivings or mistakes. Crucially, he seems to learn from every single one of them.
THAT FEATURE RACE DRIVE
The first time Ilott set foot at Silverstone as a F2 driver was all the way back in 2017. He was in the midst of a campaign in the now defunct European F3 Championship, but was offered the opportunity of a one-off drive with Trident at his home race. He entered as an 18-year-old rookie, with the simple aim of gaining some experience at this level of racing.
Fast forward three years, and he arrived at Silverstone as a totally different prospect, a known entity, and a Championship challenger, the pressure of which is totally different. Yet, he seemed to take all of this in his stride, qualifying on the front row behind Felipe Drugovich.
But then, the unforgiving nature of F2 reared its head. Ilott stalled ahead of the formation lap, meaning that he was forced to start the race from the pitlane.
“It was big frustration,” he said. “I think I’ve learned that you can't change it though, once it’s done, it’s done. You can complain all your life that it’s not fair or whatever, but you can't change it.
“It was a bit strange because I didn’t really do much wrong, in terms of where I was with the throttle or anything like that. It was just that the car needs a bit of time to stabilise and I got it when the RPM was at a low point. That’s life, it happens.
“I came out the box six, seven seconds behind, my car was colder than everyone else’s, and we didn’t know what to expect. I started gaining on the others halfway through the lap and made every move possible. I can’t remember which lap it was exactly, but I passed four cars in one of the opening laps. Then, three laps in a row, I got a car into Turn 3. I was a man on a mission!”
The Briton did suffer contact with a Trident on his way around, which bent the front right of his wing, but it didn’t seem to affect him too much. He boxed early for fresh rubber, and went back on the charge, eventually finishing in P5, not far off Christian Lundgaard.
“It was a shame that not many of the moves were on the TV,” he laughed. “To only finish 10s off the lead, having started from the pitlane, tells me that I’d probably have had a very good race at the front, with no issues, but these things happen.
“Somehow I managed to claw 10 points from what could have been a disaster. As much as it’s a bit of a…” he pauses, searching for a word that’s not an expletive. “Bummer, shall we say… I made the most of a bad situation. It was great fun, and the best thing to do is make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
IMPROVED TYRE MANAGEMENT
In his rookie season, Ilott was accused of struggling with tyre management, but the Briton feels this was a slight misnomer.
“I’ve definitely been a bit better this season than what my reputation suggests,” he continued. “I don’t think I’m as bad with the tyres now as it looked like I was last year, and to be honest, I never was.
“For example, the hard tyres we used this weekend, we used them in Bahrain testing and we used them in Austria Round 1, and I have a good feeling for them – I’d know if I was struggling on the tyre or not. This year, I’ve got a bit more of a hold on that myself, as have the team - we know what to expect a bit more and it’s paying off.”
The only exception to this was in Round 3, in Budapest. Ilott started on pole, but the medium Pirellis were quite sensitive, and tricky to manage around the Hungaroring, and this allowed Robert Shwartzman to win from 11th on an alternate strategy, which very few drivers plumped for.
“In Budapest, we just went in the wrong direction – but, these tyres are new for everyone,” he explained. “As a lot of the teams have said, we didn’t really know what to think after the first race in Budapest - it was like ‘ahh, we haven’t really got it right.’
“A lot of the guys said the same thing, and even if they weren't bad, no one got it right. I think even René (Rosin, PREMA’s team principal) would tell you himself he didn’t expect that to happen. Robert ended up with this huge pace advantage which no one really calculated for. Then, this weekend, the same strategy didn't really work - it worked for (Guanyu) Zhou, but he managed his tyres in such a good way.”
WHY HE’S SO STRONG IN QUALIFYING
On the flip side, even in his maiden campaign, Ilott rarely struggled to turn on his rubber in Qualifying. He regularly qualified at the front of the grid, and even secured pole in Monza.
The Virtuosi racer has taken another huge leap forward in 2020 too. In the four rounds so far, Ilott is yet to qualify outside of the top four: a feat that only he’s achieved this year. Given the strength of the grid, that’s remarkably consistent.
I got the car very right in Quali with Charouz, but not in the races. It was a learning process that whole year, and I think that built me for this year.
“Quali is a very strong suit of mine,” he asserted. “I am quite comfortable in terms of knowing what to do, and obviously I know the circuits well.
“Last year was difficult - I got the car very right in Quali with Charouz, but not in the races. It was a learning process that whole year, and I think that built me for this year.
“This season, the team have gotten a consistent grasp on what we need from Quali, so it seems to all be working well on that side. The races are still a learning process, but we are getting it right.”
THE CHAMPIONSHIP BATTLE
Ilott made it abundantly clear as far back as February, when he sat down with us for a pre-season chat, that this would most likely be his last year in F2, if he wanted to make his Formula 1 dream a reality.
The Briton knows this season is crucial. As a second-year driver, he is expected to perform, especially in a seat as traditionally successful as the ones at UNI-Virtuosi.
But, it’s been an incredibly strange year. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly condensed the season and bunched up all of the races. This leaves far less time for development: both on a personal level, and with the cars.
Therefore, making the driver’s ability all the more relevant, in a single-make Championship where this was already heavily the case.
Sitting in second place in the Drivers’ standings, Ilott has gotten it right more often than not.
“On my side, I would say I have been one of the most consistent drivers on the grid, especially in Qualifying, but I am not too worried about it, I am just enjoying the races as they come.
I learned after the first weekend, when I was in the Championship lead, that there is a long, long way to go.
“Some of my closest rivals dropped back this weekend, some have come up. Nikita (Mazepin) has had two really good rounds, and it will be interesting to see how everything unfolds. I maybe don’t have all of the luck in the world, but I have managed to salvage what could have been really bad.
“I learned after the first weekend, when I was in the Championship lead, that there is a long, long way to go, although technically, the championship is going to be very short this year, because it goes by very quickly. There are still places for me to gain, and still places for me to lose, but right now, I’m in a better position than most.”