“This will probably be my main year in F2, as it will most likely be my last one if I want to make the F1 jump.” Callum Ilott has yet to start his sophomore season in F2, but already has his sights set on life after the Championship. It’s not that he isn’t enjoying the ride, it’s just that he’s so focused on his ultimate goal, F1.
Perched on a step along the support paddock pit wall, pistons firing off in the background, the Brit’s attitude to life is very much lock, stock and barrel. His commitment to becoming a professional racing driver is total, and it’s been that way for a very long time, well before he made the bold step of moving away from home to Italy, at the age of 18.
Ilott’s approach to this conversation is very much akin to his approach to racing, so intent is he to focus on the now, and his future ambitions, his past achievements get a little lost in the grand scheme of things. “Oh yeah, I forgot how I got into it all,” he interrupts himself a few moments into the discussion.
Born in Cambridgeshire, his motor racing dream was forged on the same Rye House karting track as Lewis Hamilton, following an idea his father had while passing the circuit on his daily commute to work.
“I took a bit of time to get used to it,” he says, discussing his early karting days. “I’d probably say it took me one-and-a-half to two-years to get going. I started racing in Europe quite early on and I got to grips with everything really well.”
Prompted to discuss the subsequent success, he continues: “Yeah, I did, I won almost everything, except from the CIK-FIA World Cup, where I finished second. I think I won every other title.”
To say Ilott was highly rated in the karting world would be an understatement. He was a serial winner and Red Bull moved quickly to add him to their rostrum of exciting academy talents. Since then, Ilott has switched from Red Bull’s academy, to Ferrari’s.
This encompassed a daunting move to Italy, where he now resides in the small town of Maranello. Located directly outside of the Scuderia gates, just 100m from the team’s gym, he shares a flat with fellow FDA member and F2 racer, Marcus Armstrong. Although he is yet to fully grasp the language, the quietness of Maranello suits him perfectly, and he has immersed himself within the picturesque, quaint town.
“Ferrari were very welcoming and integrated me well,” he explains. “It’s very enjoyable to be around the Ferrari area. It is an incredible town – it’s sort of a town within a town. There is a lot of good food and a lot of nice people, and everyone around there loves Ferrari.
“It allows me to be focused on what I am doing because it’s not a very busy place, so there aren’t many distractions. I do go back to the UK when I get some time off, but mostly, I’m training and doing all of the normal things a racing driver would do with them in Italy.”
Despite the conveyor belt of titles he took in his karting days, Ilott is yet to win a Championship since moving into single-seaters. That’s not because the talent has dried up though, such was his promise in karting, he bypassed the usual Formula 4 categories that many of his rivals competed and won in.
For Ilott, silverware was always second to progression. He isn’t driven so much by the number of races he’s won or awards he’s lifted at this stage of his career, but more the bigger picture at play and his continual growth. Instead of F4, he made the leap straight into European F3, finishing 12th in his rookie season. Sixth and fourth in the following campaigns continued the upward trajectory, before a move to F1 feeder series GP3, at leading team ART Grand Prix, with the aim of fighting for the title.
For the majority of the season this was the case. Ilott scored a podium in each of the first seven rounds, before disqualification in Monza Race 2 - for a tyre pressure offence - seemingly derailed his charge. He was outside of the points for the first time in both races the following round at Sochi, before finishing P4 twice in the season finale. By this point, his teammates, Anthoine Hubert and Nikita Mazepin, had taken the title fight away from him and he was forced to settle for third.
Promotion into F2 followed, where he admits the initial acclimatisation was steeper than expected. “I thought that it would have been slightly easier to get to grips with,” he explained. “Bahrain was very tough and then in Baku we had some stuff with the car. By the end of the weekend it was better, but I was already starting at the back.
“Barcelona and Monaco were stronger. In Monaco, I was P2 on the grid, but we had problems and I started from the back. Once you are at the back at Monaco, you can't make up for it. But, I went from having a tough two first race weekends to actually being on the pace and very much up there.
“I still needed to learn some stuff in the races though. I think I needed to discover what I wanted from the car to help me with the race pace and I feel like I’ve discovered that now. It’s all difficult to learn, but you have to understand what you want and that’s something you can only do with experience.”
Ilott may not have gotten the point’s tally or position he had hoped for from his first season, but he has been consistently quick. He secured two podiums, one pole and several more near misses. The Briton was regularly fighting at the front in the second half of the season and – bad luck aside - it was mainly his tyre management which held him back. Ilott is far from alone in these struggles, it’s a skill all rookies need to master.
Although, technically speaking, Ilott wasn’t actually a rookie, having driven in F2 for Trident at his home event in 2017. He had also previously tested GP2 machinery, though, these were quite different cars. This aided his development as a whole, but didn’t necessarily help with the eventual step-up.
“The old GP2 car was very light, very responsive, good fun and very loud” Ilott says. “The turbo and the added downforce of the current F2 car adds another aspect to how it behaves and the complications you have as a driver to understand it. You’re all given equal cars to get the most out of though and it’s about learning to adapt.
“It is difficult with the added weight because that puts a lot of emphasis on the tyres and degradation is obviously high, but yeah, last season was a long, tough, steep learning curve.”
It was not just on track where Ilott’s development was obvious. The Briton has evidently matured throughout the season and hasn’t been afraid to ask himself the difficult questions, as brutal or as challenging as they may be at times.
While, high points have ensured the lows haven’t damaged his inner self belief. One such example was his first experience of F1 machinery, when he tested for Alfa Romeo midway through the campaign.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” he recalls. “To experience that car: the power, the downforce and the grip that it has, was incredible. It didn't end the way that we wanted, but it was an amazing experience.
If I had told myself ten years ago that I would be here, I wouldn't have believed it.
“It made me want to get back into the car even more. Beforehand, it was almost like this fantasy, but on the day, it was like ‘actually, I am really here.’ If I had told myself ten years ago that I would be here, I wouldn't have believed it.
“I know how racing works and how tough it is to stay in this sport, so to even get this opportunity, is really nice. I have got to work even harder now to continue to get these opportunities and that includes having a good season this year.”
Joining 2019 vice-champions UNI-Virtuosi for the new campaign, Ilott will be cranking up the pressure valve once more. With his eyes firmly locked on making his dream a reality, he will accept nothing less than a fight at the front in 2020.