Callum Ilott reflects on his racing season, from Austria to Sochi

Words by Gavin Caney
October 26, 2020
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It might seem odd to be writing a review while still in the season, but remember that this is no normal racing season. One man who knows that better than anyone is Adrian Flux-supported FIA Formula Two frontrunner, Callum Ilott.

Geared up and prepared for his sophomore season in FIA F2, Ilott was set to get the year underway in March when the coronavirus pandemic brought an abrupt halt to proceedings.

Following three months of isolation, virtual racing and home workouts, where the 21-year-old featured in some of the world’s biggest virtual races, including the official Formula One Virtual Grand Prix representing Scuderia Ferrari. Eventually, Callum’s racing season finally got off the mark in July – and what a season he’s had since.

“I spent all of lockdown doing everything I could to keep myself as sharp and in shape as possible for whenever racing might restart – that included fitness, lots of driving on my simulator and just mentally preparing for when the season would finally start. Arriving in Austria, I knew in myself that I had done everything I could to prepare as best I can.”

His preparation served him well as he stormed to his maiden FIA F2 victory in the Feature Race, taking the chequered flag by a clear eight seconds.

“It was a dream start to the year winning the first race. To come out the gates strong gave me a platform to really build on. Not knowing when the season would end or how many races we would have meant that every race counted for more than it ever has before, so to be on the top step from the off was the best possible way to start.”

With a win already in the bag, the Ferrari Driver Academy star took the momentum he’d built from that opening weekend and excelled in the wet weather of Budapest. Greeted with abysmal conditions in qualifying on Friday, the session was twice red-flagged but not before Ilott delivered a qualifying performance for the ages to take pole position by three tenths of a second.

“It’s not often you pull together a lap like that. It all came about as we decided to keep going in the gap when everyone else pitted again. I was fighting to find the grip the entire lap but I was confident that the car would find it so I was able to stay fully committed all the way around. I was on the limit at every corner and somehow the car was managing to cope with it!”

Tyre degradation is a huge factor in the modern era of Formula Two. Higher than expected tyre wear became Ilott’s undoing in the Feature Race as the grip from his Pirelli rubber washed away lap after lap. Similar scenes played out in the Sprint Race as well –  so extreme in fact that Ilott, along with 23 of the series’ 25 drivers, all made pit-stops to take on fresh tyres. Ask anyone and you’ll quickly discover that’s a move almost unheard of in the shorter, faster races.

Pitting from the lead of the race, the Virtuosi crew got to work but a rogue wheel nut cost Callum and the team five-seconds more and when Callum rejoined the race he was now 40 seconds behind race leader Luca Ghiotto. Ilott then had a mammoth task ahead of him to take back the lead and win. When the gaps updated after his first lap on new tyres, he was five seconds a lap faster. Game on.

Having clawed himself into contention as Ilott launched himself onto the final lap, the gap stood at 4.9 seconds. It was now or never. It became a matter of metres, Ilott edging ever closer corner-by-corner. Entering the final sector, he had broken through into DRS range and had just three more corners to make his move. Pulling out of the final corner onto the main straight, Ilott crossed the line just four tenths behind. As races go, you’d be hard pressed to find one more intriguing and dramatic.

“That was probably one of the most tense races I’ve ever been fortunate enough to take part in. Knowing what the tyres were going to do, the decision to pit was made by my engineer on the pit wall and we literally only had a one or two lap window to come in. 

On the new tyres the car came alive and once I was told of the gap to Luca, I left nothing to chance and went for it. I was having so much fun passing my way through the field but I didn’t think the win was really on the cards until I could just about see him on the horizon, and his car got closer and closer as each lap went by. 

“The win wasn’t meant to be but I was still very happy with how it went, knowing I had the speed to cut down a 40 second gap.”

Such is the competitiveness of Formula One’s feeder series, Ilott was up against it in the first of two visits to Silverstone later in the year. Returning to the Northamptonshire circuit a week later though, Ilott lit up the timing screens once more on Friday afternoon to claim another pole position. Not content with that, he then went on to dominate the Feature Race – leading from start to finish and building up a ten-second gap to his nearest rival. 

“I’ve felt really comfortable with the car all season and that’s allowing me to get the results in qualifying. Then the race on Saturday went really well too – it was flawlessly executed by the team, the tyres worked perfectly and I got into such a groove with the track.”

Fast forward to back-to-back weekend’s in Italy, the famed home of Scuderia Ferrari, Ilott set out to impress and reclaimed the championship lead after visits to Barcelona and Spa-Francorchamps in August.

Heading back to the scene of his maiden FIA Formula Two pole position in 2019, Callum was determined to make his impact felt in Monza. Another race weekend spelt his fourth pole position of the year for the Cambridge-born racer alongside his third victory of the season, this time in the Sprint Race after Dan Ticktum found himself disqualified. Taking back the lead of the championship and his status as Ferrari’s highest-ranked junior driver, all in their backyard, was a very tidy result for the Brit.

“Monza was a really positive weekend for me. I came into it with the memory of my first pole in F2 there last year so obviously my aim was to try and repeat that – which I did!

“The decisive moment in the Sprint Race was getting past Deletraz. Crossing the line second was a good result in itself and I was more than happy with it from third on the grid so I felt bad for Dan when he lost it, he drove really well but that’s racing – you win some, you lose some and you have to be there to take it when the opportunity is there.”

Taking in the Italian road trip to Mugello, Callum arrived at a circuit he had never visited or raced at before – an interesting quirk for most of the grid as well. Continuing his sublime Friday form, Callum qualified inside the top-three for the eighth time out of nine sessions.

“Mugello is one of those tracks I’d always wished I could race on. You’d watch other series there, or even MotoGP, and you could instantly tell it was a proper driver’s track, one that punishes you when you get it wrong but equally leaves with you a massive grin on your face when you get out of the car again.”

Suffering contact in Saturday’s Feature Race meant starting from 12th on Sunday and that a recovery drive was the order of the day. Delivering exactly that, a tidy drive to climb to sixth netted Ilott four more points in the championship.

“Saturday in Mugello was a frustrating one for me. However, I definitely had fun cutting my way through the field in the Sprint Race and the championship is delicately poised now as we head into the final three weekends.”

Heading east to Russia, Ilott had renewed confidence that he could return to the rostrum at Sochi Autodrom. Another top-four result in qualifying put him in prime place to achieve that and, followed by an excellent display of pace in the Feature Race, converted that to a third-place finish on Saturday morning. Hopeful of repeating his podium-claiming performance on Sunday, Ilott started from sixth and aimed to scythe his way up the order. 

However, the Brit was never given the chance. After dropping to seventh in the opening few tours of the Russian circuit, the race was abruptly red-flagged after just eight laps following a heavy collision between Aitken and Ghiotto. Such was the damage to the barriers, the race was never restarted and half points were awarded. As such, Ilott was classified seventh and picked up a solitary point for his efforts.

Adrian Flux-supported Callum Ilott reflects on his epic racing season

“I enjoyed the Feature Race in Sochi, I had fun making my way up the order. The tyre strategies brought all of us together and meant I could mount a push for the win, which I gave it my all in trying to do but sadly the tyres just couldn’t hold on. I dropped back to third and defended with all my might to keep the podium from Ghiotto.

“Sunday was over before it properly started. I didn’t make the most of the first few laps and that left me with a bit of work to do. The red flag meant I lost the opportunity to make the ground up but the main thing was that everyone was safe so hats off to all the marshals and medical crews, we really wouldn’t be able to go racing without them.”

While Ilott remains calm, the championship battle remains tantalisingly close. He trails Mick Schumacher by 22 points with just two weekends left to run – two weekends in which anything can happen. Before that though, there’s a two-month break from now until the first of two visits to Bahrain at the end of November.

“At the start of the year, it looked like we’d be lucky to get one race in let alone thirteen so, whilst it’s been full-on and a test for all of us, I’m still so happy we could. It’s been a strong season with some great success, for which I’m very grateful to the whole UNI-Virtuosi team for welcoming me so openly and providing me with a car that I know I can get the best out of week in, week out.”

“There’s now a bit of a break before the double-header in Bahrain. It’ll be a couple of months of hard work behind the scenes to make sure I attack the final two weekends with as much strength as I can. I’ll be looking back on the year, working out where I need to improve and keeping myself sharp. This championship is in the balance and I’ll be fighting it out until the very end.”