How one commuter’s view through a train window triggered a journey to international racing success. By Simon Arron
The surname might be unfamiliar, but then there is no family background in motor sport. “My dad used to commute to London by train and happened to notice the Rye House kart track as he was passing,” says Callum Ilott. “He thought it might be fun, so I went along to try some rental karts and he later bought me one of my own. It became a weekend lad-and-dad thing.”
There were no ambitious career plans at first, just the simple purity of combat. Ilott competed in club races for two years, then stepped up to national championships before branching out into Europe.
“I didn’t have all that much success in the UK,” he says. “I was about two years younger than most of the guys who were doing the winning, but I learned a lot from them. As I stepped up into faster karts, I felt more at home. The quicker I’ve gone, the more comfortable I’ve felt – I just hope that trend continues.
“Max Verstappen was one of the drivers I faced in 2013. I was quick, but didn’t have much experience at that level and the others were often able to take advantage in the races – another useful lesson. I had a strong 2014, winning a couple of major titles, and that summer Red Bull approached me. I was invited to meet Helmut Marko at Silverstone and he arranged for me to do an F3 test with Carlin. That’s how I got the break that enabled me to switch to cars. I was 15 when I met Dr Marko and didn’t really know what to expect, because you hear so many things. I found him very interesting – a bit of a character. He was very clear about what he expected. I got my first bollocking after a bad test in Austria, but he was very honest and direct – and you can’t fault him for that.”
At 16 Ilott graduated directly from karts to F3. He recorded one podium finish en route to 12th in the championship – not enough to keep him on the Red Bull roster. “I felt I did a good job some of the time,” he says, “but it was a tough year – with 35 drivers on the grid, many of them with solid experience – and Red Bull obviously thought I’d underachieved. I received the news by email, though I had a sneaking suspicion beforehand. Perhaps they signed me prematurely, but the experience has done me no harm.”
Ilott switched teams in 2016, moving from Carlin to Van Amersfoort, and scored his first F3 win during the opening meeting at Paul Ricard – despite an engine fire that interrupted a pre-race test and forced him to switch to a 2012 tub. He was second to Lance Stroll in the standings early in the campaign, but his title hopes faded as the year went on – particularly after a forced engine change earned him three 10-place grid penalties at the Norisring.
There was a second victory, though, at the Red Bull Ring.
“Somebody suggested it would be funny if I did well there,” he says, “because Dr Marko usually hands out the prizes. I duly won the first race – but he was absent. I finished second the next day, though, when he was there, and on the podium he said to me, ‘It seems you’re better off without us’.”
Ilott stays in F3 this season, and has joined Prema, the Italian team chasing a seventh straight European F3 title. Does he feel any extra pressure as he seeks to emulate Roberto Merhi, Daniel Juncadella, Raffaele Marciello, Esteban Ocon, Felix Rosenqvist and Stroll? “It doesn’t really make any difference,” he says. “I’ve given up my A-level studies to focus on racing – I can always go back to education later – and will see how this year goes. If I do well it will hopefully open some new opportunities. I would love to try my hand at sports car racing one day, particularly Le Mans, but for now my goal is to get as far as I can in single-seaters.”