European Formula 3 Championship front runner Callum Ilott is one of the United Kingdom’s brightest young racing stars.
At just 17 years of age, he is already tearing up the competition on a continental level with two race wins and three podiums in 2016.
After a tough opening season last year which saw him part ways with the Red Bull junior programme, Ilott made the move to Van Amersfoot Racing during the winter, following in the footsteps of Max Verstappen. Since switching he has become a series front runner and a team leader to rookies Pedro Piquet and Harrison Newey, and currently sits fifth in the championship with nine races to go.
The Checkered Flag.co.uk caught up with Ilott to discuss his 2016 season so far and his career moving forward.
TCF: You’re currently fifth in the points with just three more circuits to visit. Have you met your preseason expectations so far?
CI: “I’m a little behind where I thought I’d be at the start of the season, to be honest. I was aiming for top three in the championship from the start, so that’s what I’m going to push for in the remaining races. We had a good first weekend at Paul Ricard because we came away with a win, despite a car fire during practice. The team struggled a bit with the tyres at round two in Hungary, but we bounced back with a podium at Pau on the street circuit.
For me, the Red Bull Ring weekend was the best because we struck a huge haul of points and left the circuit in high spirits. The team has been brilliant so far and the speed has been consistently there so I’m confident of a strong finish to the season.”
TCF: So it’s been a bit of an up and down ride so far?
CI: “We’ve definitely had some weekends go better than others. The one at the Norisring was pretty tough because we had to change engines after an engine change in practice – that gave us a 3×10 place grid penalty. I went out and reached the top two in each of the qualifying sessions, so it could have been an easy 70-odd point weekend but instead we were stuck in the mid-pack and had a crash. It was disappointing because I felt I had an opportunity to show my real pace – all I could think about was moving forward – but unfortunately I moved forward a bit too quickly and took both myself and the leader out of the race. Still, I’m here to learn and I took a lot away from that weekend.”
TCF: What’s the toughest circuit on the European F3 calendar?
CI:” Zandvoort, probably. I took pole there recently at the non-championship Masters event; it’s definitely the biggest physical challenge out of all of the circuits we race on. You don’t get much of a break because it’s a constant mix of corners. You have to qualify well there because the only real overtaking spot is at the start.”
TCF: It must have been a big boost to get a win at the Paul Ricard opener, following a winless year in 2015?
CI: “Yeah, relief was the overriding emotion when I crossed the line. I was also a bit surprised to be honest. I was expecting to get good results this season but I didn’t think we’d have the speed in the race, especially considering the team had to replace lots of key components after the fire. The guys worked 36 hours straight overnight to get the car race ready which is a phenomenal effort.”
TCF: What is your new working environment like at Van Amersfoot Racing?
CI: “Every team operates a little differently. I think VAR is very focused on the engineering side because every piece of equipment we have is extremely well developed. Despite being a Dutch team it’s comprised of a lot of people from all sorts of countries so it’s nice to have that cultural aspect too.”
TCF: How does working with VAR compare to working with Carlin last year?
CI: Both teams have their strong points, they have both been in the category for a long time so know their way around an F3 car. I’ve think I’ve benefited as a driver to have got to work with different teams. It is only my second year racing cars so I still can learn and I can do that by working in different teams and with different engineers. I loved driving for Carlin, we never had any problems and that meant I finished every race.It was a good team like VAR..
TCF: How much of a risk was it to go straight from karting into the Red Bull junior programme?
CI: “It was a risk, yes, but a risk I felt I had to take. Being in the junior team was my only option last year so I took it. In the short term it was a big risk because when I didn’t quite get the results I lost my backing, but when I look at this year it’s clear that 2015 gave me the preparation for stronger run on the championship.
Starting in F3 was beneficial I think, to get used to the aero and other things. If you look at the F3 field this year, those who came up from a season of F4 in 2015 have struggled more than people like myself, even though we’ve all been racing cars for the same amount of time. Despite losing the Red Bull backing, I’m better off in the long run. I got to benefit from a year of their support and they enabled me to make the jump. I will always remember and appreciate the contribution they made.”
TCF: We saw you at the Strakka Racing garage during the WEC 6 Hours of Silverstone in April. Is sportscar racing something you’d like to tap into?
CI: “I built a relationship with Strakka during my days in karting, and during my progression to cars I did some Formula Renault testing with them as well. Yeah, I went to Silverstone this year and got to see how the team works. I was with Strakka partly because I wanted to get a feel for the WEC event and partly because it’s the only team that would let me have a look around! It would be great to drive for them in LMP2 one day…you never know what’s going to happen.”
TCF: A lot of young single seater drivers are now looking to pursue a career in sportscars. Is this something you have thought about or are you fully committed to getting a seat in Formula 1?
CI: “I’m a very open person so I’d be totally comfortable racing in sportscars. The chances of anyone getting into Formula 1 are very slim, no matter how good you are. Even if I was winning everything, I would still question if it would be possible for me to reach it.
If I got the opportunity to compete in sportscars I would definitely take it. I want to keep the options open for as long as I can, so I’ll try to stay in single seaters as long as I can. Of course, it would be a dream come true to race in Formula One. But at the moment, it’s more about learning. The more I race the more opportunities will arise, so that’s the plan for now.”
Ilott will resume his European Formula 3 campaign at the Nurburgring on September 9-11.