Callum Ilott secured his maiden single seater victory during race two at the French circuit of Paul Ricard at the beginning of April, and is hoping it leads to more triumphs with Van Amersfoort Racing in 2016.
The British racer is in his sophomore season of the FIA European Formula 3 Championship this year, and he admitted that the victory in France was a confidence boost to the teenager.
“Obviously it’s a really good feeling to win my first Formula 3 race, especially with it being one of the first races of the season,” said Ilott to The Checkered Flag. “It gives me great confidence for the rest of the year and it also gives the team a bit of a boost.
“We had a tough start to the weekend with the fire. It wasn’t looking good but VAR’s hard work paid off.
“After achieving a podium last year I wanted to win this season. Of course I was really very happy but I didn’t have much time to celebrate as we still had another race to prepare for!”
Ilott’s weekend in France could not have began in a worst way, with a fire on his car threatening his participation before the ThreeBond with T-Sport team lent the team a spare tub to enable the British racer to compete, which he was grateful for.
“It was an up and down weekend for sure,” revealed Ilott. “With the fire on Thursday, we didn’t know if we were even going to make it out at all for the race. The T-Sport guys kindly lent us a spare tub and after an all-nighter, we got out half way through practice.
“The guys worked so hard, but with so little time to set the car up it wasn’t looking like we’d be in contention. With the grid penalty for the engine change on top, I thought it wasn’t going to be our weekend for getting a result.
“To come away with a win was a real achievement, not just for me but also for the engineers and the mechanics, the whole team.”
Ilott made the move to Van Amersfoort Racing after racing with the Carlin team in 2015 for his first year of car racing having stepped up from karting, and admits the Dutch-based team has a different mentality to that of its British rivals, and feels they have the potential to challenge perennial pacesetters Prema Powerteam.
“It’s slightly different being in a non-English team and I’ve already had that experience from my karting days,” said Ilott. “It is a different mentality.
“VAR is undergoing a lot of changes with investment, new engineers etc. It has a plan to change and improve a lot of things to challenge Prema, and I’m pleased to be part of it. The guys have been listening to what I’d like and with me having more experience in F3 than my team mates, they are listening to what I want, that’s a real positive.
“The good thing is that the team being Dutch the guys all speak a really good level of English so you can have a conversation with any of them. Speaking or understanding Dutch is pretty hard for me but I am starting to pick up some of the words and their meanings!
“It has made a commitment to succeed with investment and people and that VAR had decided that this is its year of change and for it to consistently challenge for wins and the championship. That’s the same set of objectives for me.”
In a team that includes the famous surnames Piquet and Newey, Ilott feels he has already made the other three drivers, Pedro Piquet, Harrison Newey and Anthoine Hubert take note about his intentions this season, although he does expect the four drivers to learn from one another during the year.
“Already I feel I have put my mark on the team,” said Ilott. “Being the second year driver I have knowledge of the tracks with the other drivers able to share my data.
“We can learn from each other, like Anthoine’s knowledge from doing 2.0 Renaults at Paul Ricard, for example. So at places like that, we might be focusing on his data. There are lots of things we can learn from each other. We are fortunate that with four cars running you collect a lot more technical data.”
Ilott feels his rookie season with Carlin was a good one, finishing on the podium during the round at the Nurburgring and finishing every race, but hopes to put everything he learned together in 2016 to have a strong, consistent season.
“Overall it was a good rookie season, especially coming straight from karts,” reflected Ilott. “Looking back I think I could have done a little more preparation for the season but I’d set a personal target of a podium and I achieved that.
“I was also classified in all my 33 races, I think I was the only driver to achieve so I think the end result was good.
“Looking deeper I did really well at some tracks especially when we were racing in difficult conditions but it just didn’t all come together and that’s what I want to show this year.”
Despite it being his first year of car racing, Ilott did not feel overwhelmed by the big jump up from karting, but felt he lacked something that the more experienced drivers had, including Antonio Giovinazzi, who was part of his Carlin team last year and challenging for the title.
“Generally I see Formula 3 as just another race car,” said Ilott. “It does have a little more downforce but at the end of the day it wasn’t that hard to get the basic feel for it.
“What I lacked last year was that last little bit which is what Antonio Giovinazzi was consistently capable of finding. I was still building up the feeling of how the car reacted to my inputs and he could take two hundredths out of me in every corner. He simply had that extra feel for the grip with the downforce. I’ve worked hard on that and I think Ricard showed we’ve improved.”
Ilott was part of the Red Bull Junior Team programme in 2015, but did not retain the backing of the energy drinks company into 2016, but thanked Dr Helmut Marko and Red Bull for the opportunity to race in the colours of the Red Bull Racing in 2015.
“It was a great opportunity for me but unfortunately it didn’t lead to a longer-term relationship,” revealed Ilott. “I probably wouldn’t have made the step up without them suggesting it and putting it forward so I’ll always be thankful for that and all the other opportunities Dr Marko and Red Bull provided.
“Looking at my own performances, I probably was trying too hard in the middle part of the season but I‘ve learnt from that and got a better understanding of looking at the bigger picture.”
Ilott revealed that returning to European Formula 3 racing was not his only option for 2016, having tested both GP3 and Formula V8 3.5 machinery during the off season before opting to return for a second year with the motivation to demonstrate his skill at the sharp end of the field this season.
“There was always the option of GP3, which is very strong this year because of all the guys who have gone there,” said Ilott. “They have a good grid.
“Formula V8 3.5 was an option too. I felt it would have been a bit of a risk because of the changes to the series but the racing is really good and I like the cars. It has good drivers too but the grid is not as substantial in 2016.
“I learned a lot of things in my first year of racing cars and I feel it would have been a shame to move on without demonstrating this when everything is put together. That’s ultimately why F3 made sense for this season.”
Looking ahead to the rest of 2016, Ilott believes he can be a threat for the championship to break the Prema Powerteam stranglehold, but knows Van Amersfoort Racing will not be the only strong outfit giving it a go, pointing out the strengths of Hitech Grand Prix in particular.
“I definitely feel that I can give Prema a run for their money this year,” said Ilott. “For sure Prema has got four very strong drivers and we know from the past, it can put a very strong and competitive car on the track.
“Ricard has shown them that if I wasn’t a potential threat, I am a potential threat now and I will be throughout the season. They are strong but you never know what will happen. I do rate the Hitech Racing guys too. I expect them to have a good season.
“I hope to get at least top three in the championship this year or possibly even win it. Of course the ultimate goal for any racing driver in single seaters is to get to F1.
“That has always been the goal but we’ve seen in recent times, just how hard it really is to get to F1. It would be fantastic to race at the highest levels, so if that was in an LMP1 or P2 car I’d be very happy.”