If ever a driver personified Formula 2, it’s Callum Ilott. Inside of the car, there is the grit, the passion and the sheer will to win, but outside of it, he is humble and down-to-earth with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour.
The likeable 22-year-old has graced F2 for two unforgettable seasons. He is a worthy vice-champion, only narrowly losing out to Mick Schumacher.
Ilott went into the season finale in Bahrain14-points behind the German and with nothing to lose. Ultimately, that’s how it finished as well, but it doesn’t tell the story of the fight the British driver put up, or the sportsmanship he showed in defeat.
“I said to the team beforehand (the final race) that this is a race where you will see me drive to the fullest,” Ilott explained. “Unfortunately, the tyres didn't last, but I think before that, I took some risks and showed what I could do. In the end, I pushed too hard, but I am really happy with the team. It was a good decision to go with them and they have looked after me and did a mega job.
“The two moments that stand out the most for me are the two races in Silverstone, at home. Going from the pitlane to P5 was, in my eyes, kind of like a hero moment where I showed everyone what I could do and the pace that I have – the stall aside.
“Then, being able to come back a week later and dominate the Feature Race, that’s something that I’ll remember for a long time.”
That the vice-champion’s career finished in 10th place in his final race does a disservice to his efforts this season. There were five poles and three memorable victories, including the first one in Spielberg and that one on home soil at Silverstone. In the end, his title bid was undone by the sheer consistency of Schumacher.
The pair are both part of the Ferrari Driver Academy and have known each other properly since 2017 when they were teammates at PREMA in European F3. Rivals on track, there’s a friendship and a great deal of respect off it. Admittedly, few words have been exchanged between the pair in the past couple of weeks, but with the title now wrapped up they’ve already spoken since.
“We were having a chat afterwards and I will quote him on this ‘I am happy that it was you that I was racing against, because if you’d have won, I’d have been happy for you.’ In the same way that I am for him right now. It’s great for Mick to be able to show that he is as good as he can be.
This is a proper sport and that’s what I love about this. You can go right to the end and have a handshake afterwards.
“Of course, I would’ve loved to win, but he’s one of the guys out there who I love to see getting a great result. All the best to him in F1. He and PREMA had an amazing year. I think we both had our own strengths and it probably equalled out quite well because I would have a really good qualifying, but then by the first corner he would be with me.
“It’s difficult when you are both fighting at the top, and yeah, you saw us having some fist bumps here and there, but it is hard to speak much at that point. Mick is one of the people here who I get along with and have a certain connection with, in a way.
“I also messaged René (Rosin) the night before and said that whatever happens, we should go for a drink. This is a proper sport and that’s what I love about this. You can go right to the end and have a handshake afterwards - well, you could before the Coronavirus.”
Ilott’s future had already been sealed ahead of the finale, with the British racer confirming in the week prior that he would not be racing in F1 next season. Instead, he expects to take on a Test Driver role in F1 next season with an eye on making the step-up full time in 2022.
Despite the prospect of a year on the side-lines, Ilott does not plan on returning to F2. He feels he has already closed the chapter on that part of his career, with little left to prove.
“Part of me would love to do it again,” he continued. “But second is only one place lower and I only missed out by 14 points. I could always give reasons why, but I don't want to give excuses. I feel like if you are in the top three or top two, you shouldn’t have to prove yourself again.
“You have got to strive for the top and that’s my new challenge. It is not going to be easy, but I have got time to do it. More than likely, I will be in the F1 paddock for almost all of the races, so if someone is ill or has an injury – which, touch wood, doesn’t happen - then I am sure that I would get a call at some stage, but I don't wish that on anyone.”
The vice-champion departs F2 having achieved a childhood dream, and he says it’s been every bit as exciting as he envisaged when watching the former GP2 series on TV as a young racing fanatic.
Ilott has taken the most poles this season and added his name to the Championship’s history books. His F2 career has been full of scintillating highs and a few crushing lows, but it’s all been a part of the journey – and it’s one that he says he will not only remember fondly, but also greatly miss.
“When I was karting as a young kid, I would always watch the GP2 races,” he recalled. “I wouldn’t really know what was going on, I just knew that they were amazing races and a bit of a lottery. Right throughout my junior career, I would always try and switch on F2 when I could between races.
I love the cars, I love the atmosphere and I love the teams, and I think you probably know that I get along with a lot of people here. Most of the time, I wouldn't say no to coming back
“I love the cars, I love the atmosphere and I love the teams, and I think you probably know that I get along with a lot of people here. Most of the time, I wouldn't say no to coming back and yeah it would be fun to do it all again with these guys – the car is so f** cool and I will miss it.
“I was testing with Charouz on Tuesday, so the race won’t be my final bit of action, but that will then be it and I will move on from there.”