Callum Ilott talks racing accidents, tragedy and mental health

Words by Gavin Caney
September 8, 2021
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Callum Ilott pauses, takes a deep breath and prepares to answer.

It seems a pretty straightforward question to deliver a response to: are racing drivers affected after a crash or seeing a team-mate or rival have an accident? But it’s a deeply personal topic for the 22-year-old.

The Formula 1 rising star saw the aftermath of a tragic collision at Spa during his F2 days which claimed the life of his close friend Anthoine Hubert and seriously injured team-mate Juan Manuel Correa.

Ilott’s retort after taking some time to consider his thoughts shows the long-lasting effects of the heartbreaking incident. But it also begins to help reveal the psychology of racing drivers and how they deal with the inevitable dangers that come with driving at speeds of 200mph or more.

An artistic shot of Callum Ilott in action.

In the eye of the storm – how does the risks of racing effect Callum Ilott? Picture: FORMULA MOTORSPORT LIMITED

Callum Ilott opens up about the death of Anthoine Hubert

“To satisfy my own mental state I spent that whole evening and the next day analysing what happened,” the Ferrari Academy Driver said of the 2019 crash.

“In my mind I almost completely understood why it happened and it felt easier to accept it. I go through it and piece it together. I’d lost a good friend and my team-mate was fighting for his life. It was an ongoing process to deal with it. 

“You can’t change what happened but he’d (Anthoine) changed me – not because of the accident – but because of how he was, how he influenced people and I took quite a few lessons from him. I took it upon myself to make changes, inspired by him. 

“Everyone says ‘you’re doing it (racing) for him’, but I’d rather take the lessons that he gave me as it’s a greater impact than doing it for him. It can happen to anyone and you have to take every chance and moment you get in life, that was one of the lessons I took. It helped change my values and understanding of some things.”

A cockpit view of Callum Ilott showing only his helmet.

What goes on inside Callum Ilott’s helmet during a race? Picture: FORMULA MOTORSPORT LIMITED

Karting isn’t the safest but neither is rugby, says F1 talent

Like almost all professional drivers, the Cambridge-born talent started out in karting where he “enjoyed the speed” rather than feared it. His biggest concern was making mistakes. 

Even though he saw people roll their karts and break their collarbones, his safety was more of a concern to his mum than himself as he continued to calculate and process the risk – a method that remains to this day.

Ilott said: “A lot of possibilities have to come together and at least nine times out of 10 you can get away with a crash and maybe one time you don’t.

“Karting wasn’t the safest thing but then you could say neither was rugby at school, all it takes is someone to do a high tackle or you fall funny and you could be in hospital or a wheelchair for the rest of your life. Anything can happen but I don’t look at things in a negative way.

“When it’s someone close to you that has an accident there’s obviously emotion attached to it. But it’s all facts and statistics for me. At the end of the day you’re in this sport and you’re in this position. If the stats were a bit higher then I think I would be concerned but at the moment you just hope it doesn’t happen to you. A lot of improvements continue to be made in terms of safety too.”

Callum Ilott getting to grips with another track.

Being a professional racing driver has taken Callum Ilott far and wide. Picture: FORMULA MOTORSPORT LIMITED

Alfa Romeo reserve relives dramatic Formula 1 test crash

So what happens when it’s you who is involved in an accident? When you have a massive smash that leaves you seriously injured or feeling incredibly lucky to be alive?

Ilott, a reserve for Alfa Romeo, had his biggest crash while testing for the team two years ago. He’d just set his best lap of the day at Barcelona on his F1 test debut when the rear snapped in a fast right-hander and sent him careering into the barriers at around 130mph.

“You have to crack back on,” admitted the 2020 F2 runner-up. 

“Whilst you’ve got time you can feel sorry for yourself and punish yourself. It can be a greater lesson than moving on. For one week I don’t think anyone could really talk to me. Physically I was almost completely fine, I had a bit of pain in my back, but it was all mental. To me it was more related to my career. 

“It was a big moment to have and then to have that end result, in crashing, so I was more worried about my career. In one or two weeks I was back in Formula 2, it was a distraction to get going again. You can get out of the spiral and get on with what you’re doing. You learn your lesson and take the best side of it.”

Callum Ilott puts his finger to his head while wearing a helmet

Callum Ilott has the finger on the pulse when it comes to his mindset. Picture: FORMULA MOTORSPORT LIMITED

Being a passenger unsettles the Ferrari Academy starlet

The Adrian Flux-sponsored driver says it takes him within three corners to know the limit, within 5%, of the vehicle he is operating.

And he is sure that’s what sets professionals aside from anyone who steps behind the wheel of a car.

“Depending on the car and conditions, I will drive to how I feel safe,” concluded Ilott, set to make his IndyCar debut in America next weekend.

“On an Autobahn in Germany in the wet, I won’t go above 150kmh (93mph), at risk of aquaplaning. In dry, I can push to 300kmh (186mph) easily and as long as there’s no traffic I won’t worry. I’m aware of limits. I’m very happy to take a car to 300 and wouldn’t bat an eye, I’d quite enjoy it. If I was in the passenger seat, and someone took it to 300, I’d be very nervous.

“I’ve been on track days with friends and I’m helping them out a bit and straight away they go out and I’m like: ‘Woah, woah, woah, woah, you don’t realise how close you are to the limit already. You can’t push that much more and control the car’. A lot of people can drive but it’s always the last little bit and understanding what to do when it’s not perfect conditions.

“It’s very natural with us because we train. A marathon runner knows what pace they can run at all the time and what will last them until the end of the race. It’s the same as a cyclist – if they start to push over the limit they know when they’ll drop off at the end. 

“I wouldn’t say we’re wired differently, racing drivers just know the limits of what we’re in and what we can do a lot more than other people. We’re very aware of the limits of each car we get in. It’s all calculated and you can feel and understand where that is and it automatically enters your brain. My body will say ‘that’s your limit’ and you just know depending on the conditions.”

Callum Ilott walking through the paddock in his Ferrari t-shirt

Callum Ilott enjoys some time away from the driving seat. Picture: CALLUM ILOTT INSTAGRAM

What is professional racing driver Callum Ilott afraid of? 

So does anything scare a man who flies around a track knowing one slight mistake could see him hurtling towards a tyre wall, giant slab of concrete or a huge metal barrier at high speed?

I don’t like the unknown,” added Ilott who is dreaming of an F1 seat in 2022.

“When I was younger, I don’t mind it so much now, but when you’re snorkelling and you get to the edge of the reef and there’s the drop off – you’re staring down and you think ‘what the hell is down there, how far does it go?’ 

“It’s not the dark, but what’s inside it? Your mind becomes the enemy. Whatever you think is down there, is down there. That’s something I’ve gradually got used to because I’ve learned why. I don’t like spiders either, but I’m not scared of them.”

An aerial view of Max Marzorati

A bird’s eye view of Max Marzorati behind the wheel. Picture: SUBMITTED

British F3 ace Max Marzorati relives big karting crash

Another driver backed by Adrian Flux – who has a long-standing association with motorsport – is Max Marzorati.

The British Formula Three Championship driver had his first serious accident as a teenager. But like Ilott, all he was concerned about was how long it would take him to get back behind the wheel. 

Marzorati said: “When I was 15 I was involved in a big karting crash, the incident had ripped my left thumb apart and I had to have surgery. The only thing that was going through my mind however was when I was going to be able to get back in a kart. 

“People were saying to me ‘it’s a blessing as you can focus on your exams’ and I was thinking they were trying to finish me off. The doctors said it should take about six months to recover but I was so determined to go racing again that I did it in two or three. One of my teachers at the time even said if I ever needed time off just to let her know because of the trauma of the incident, the only trauma for me though was I wasn’t able to go racing. 

The first time I got back in the kart I was a little rusty but I was back baby and I couldn’t have been happier. The huge leaps forward for the sport in terms of safety are for everyone’s benefit, however for me the intensity and thrill of the racing with all of its risks is part of why I do it.”

Track day insurance with Adrian Flux

Adrian Flux currently sponsor a host of stellar names including Ilott, Marzorati, Jason Plato and Alex Brundle.

If you get the chance to pretend to be any of them at a circuit, we have track day cover to suit while you’re behind the wheel.