NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Callum Ilott first laid eyes on Indianapolis Motor Speedway the way so many drivers have over the years – with a commercial airline flyover.
“Landing the first time,” he said. “Probably the end of August, early September (last year) to come to do the seat fit for the (NTT INDYCAR SERIES) races at the end of the year.”
His reaction to the sight of IMS laying quietly beneath the airplane: “It’s pretty big. We don’t have anything like that in Europe.”
The 23-year-old Englishman was impressed but not intimidated during the Indianapolis 500 Open Test on Wednesday and Thursday. After working through the mandated Rookie Orientation Program on Wednesday, Ilott delivered the day’s third-fastest lap at 226.308 mph in the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet. Thursday, he was back for more with a top lap of 226.596 mph, good for 17th overall out of 31 drivers.
Not bad for a European road racer making his first laps in anger on this iconic oval.
“It’s super impressive, but I think you hear a lot about it,” Ilott said of IMS. “Driving it is one thing, but I think driving it on (Sunday, May 29 in the 106th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge) with all the people here is why you guys keep coming back to it.”
Ilott is one of the most intriguing drivers in this newcomer class. As a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, he served last year as a Scuderia Ferrari Formula One test driver and was one of Alfa Romeo’s F1 reserve drivers. In 2020, he finished second in FIA Formula 2 – behind current F1 driver Mick Schumacher – with three wins and five poles. Clearly, Ilott has credentials, and it’s fair to say many in F1 are interested to see if his rise through the sport continues in the U.S.
So far, so good. After acclimating himself to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES last year with participation in the final three races, Ilott has looked confident and comfortable in 2022. He completed all 100 laps in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg before handling his first oval race March 20 in the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, finishing a career-best 16th, only a lap off the winner’s pace.
Ilott said having a race weekend at Texas prepared him for what he experienced in this week’s Open Test at IMS.
“It makes it a lot easier coming into an event like this,” he said. “I think here you’re running closer to the walls. In one way, it’s a bit more technical; in another, it kind of makes it a bit easier, as well.”
As many drivers have said over the years, completing the three-stage rookie program, which has graduated and controlled speed requirements, was more difficult than turning the hot laps he did later. He called some of those early laps “nervous and sketchy.”
“In one way, (the rookie program) works quite well that you kind of find your lines and find the route of the track, but then at some point when we were crossing over and running above 215 (mph), I had a few moments,” he said. “That was a bit where I got nervous and sketchy. I came (to the pits) and needed to solve that.”
Conor Daly jokingly took credit for his friend’s early IMS success based on the long conversation they had at dinner last week. However, more significant help has come from 2014 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, who doesn’t have a ride for this “500” but has served as something of a consultant to the driver still learning the ropes without benefit of a teammate on a team with only one “500” start (with Kyle Kaiser bumping Fernando Alonso out of the field in 2019).
Hunter-Reay attended the pre-race test at Texas to help Ilott get dialed in to the nuances of oval-track racing, factors that are especially important at the often-fickle conditions present at IMS. For example, where Wednesday’s session was relatively damp and cool, the sun came out Thursday and significantly warmed things up. That requires adaptation.
“It’s just all the small things, all the little details to look for when you come into the corner, how the car should feel, the (driving) lines around here, things like that,” Hunter-Reay said. “Look at the wind direction, look at the projected (ambient and track) temperatures and try to have a plan for where that goes over the day.”
Ilott called it “amazing” to have an Indy 500 winner assisting him in his IMS debut, and he seemed pleased with how all the pieces have come together.
“Obviously, we’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “But so far, so good. I seem to pick up the ovals fast enough, but I need to kind of continue that.”
Official “500” practice begins Tuesday, May 17.