Callum Ilott’s participation in opening practice at the Portuguese Grand Prix underlined exactly why he could be a high-risk, high-reward option for a Formula 1 seat in 2022.
Ilott waited a long time for his grand prix weekend debut, after awful weather conditions denied him the opportunity at last year’s Eifel Grand Prix.
He was meant to drive for Haas then. He is Alfa Romeo’s reserve driver now. And his appearance in FP1 at Algarve typified why he’s a fascinating candidate for a Ferrari-backed F1 drive next year.
P17 in the times, a little over four tenths shy of regular driver Kimi Raikkonen, may not scream “stick me in F1!” but it’s the smaller details of Ilott’s FP1 debut that showcase the potential shortcomings and the obvious potential.
On the ‘bad’ side were a couple of clumsy switch changes and an unconvincing low-fuel run on fresh softs that he admits he “completely got caught out by”. On the ‘good’ side was clear progress from start to finish, an impressive late run on used softs, and glimpses of the aggression that have always made him a fun, if not that well-rounded, driver to watch.
“It was not so easy to start with,” Ilott said. “The track was very similar to last year and the characteristics and some of the difficulties. It caught us out a little bit in the beginning.
“Obviously I was still taking it easy as well, so it was interesting to experience it.
“But once I was up to speed a bit with the tyres, I think I finished the run on the hards one tenths off of Kimi which was not too bad at the time, then we went to the softs, and I completely got caught out in the beginning by how much grip, and also getting the tyres in. So yeah, I struggled a bit there.
“Then we came in, rebalanced, and I think with the tyre mileage I had I didn’t do a bad time.
“Overall, we’re building consistency, I was very happy with the session, got through all the run plan that we needed to, and discovered the limitations that we had as a team and as a driver as well. Lots learned from my side, I think lots learned from the team.”
While this was Ilott’s first FP1 opportunity he has now got a reasonable amount of F1 mileage under his belt.
He was driving a 2018 Ferrari last week in preparation for his Alfa opportunity, having got behind the wheel of the SF71H at the start of the year as well.
But the last time he drove a contemporary F1 car, which also happened to be with the Sauber-run Alfa team, he crashed heavily at Barcelona.
So in tricky, low-grip conditions in Portugal and practice time reduced compared to previous years, it was imperative that Ilott did nothing silly on Friday standing in for Antonio Giovinazzi. It would have caused the team a big problem and almost certainly snuffed out any outside chance he has at convincing Ferrari to position him as Giovinazzi’s full-time replacement next year.
There was no sign of that during his first 11-lap run even though the car looked quite a handful on hard tyres. At one stage Ilott even managed to back the car into Turn 11, locking the rears and sliding on the run to the corner from the long right-hand Turn 10. He had another moment a few corners later, too.
Ilott admitted he was “struggling a little bit with the balance” and in addition to wrestling the car a little bit he also needed to clarify a switch position for a brake setting change – “is that on the multi-B or the rotary?” – and looked slightly heavy-handed while making a couple of other tweaks on the steering wheel.
In those moments a driver can easily look slightly overwhelmed by the complexity of driving a modern F1 car. Ilott should have little problem with that given F1 cars are not a new experience to him anymore but it was a problem that occurred a few times – he also compromised the start of his first push lap on softs as he lifted halfway through the final corner rushing a power mode change.
That prompted the nudge on his cooling down lap that it is “important to be flat in 14 when you start your lap”, to which Ilott started to reply and then stopped himself, adding “it’s OK”.
“It’s also good to get the experience of changing that, towards the end as well I got a bit more comfortable,” he said afterwards. “But obviously having the test last week in the Ferrari I’m used to some different positions. I needed to get used to it again.”
Like the issue he had getting the most out of the fresh softs, this was not an example of a driver instantly looking very comfortable in new surroundings. And perhaps a harsh assumption would be Ilott needed to do his homework slightly better. But it’s not the end of the world.
He nailed his prep for the remaining soft-tyre laps, which indicates he was not making exactly the same mistake twice, and there were other signs of growing confidence too: a more aggressive approach to the pitlane, for example, and an excellent final run on the same set of softs.
That was assisted by a small set-up change but after regrouping Ilott looked much more confident and precise behind the wheel. It was best exemplified by an aggressive but controlled entry into the fast right-hander that starts the lap – a corner he’d wobbled through every time on new tyres and sailed well wide at on his final lap of the first run on softs.
Speaking of wobbles, he joked afterwards that his head was like the “Churchill bulldog” – the nodding mascot of a British insurance company – down the start-finish straight, as his crash helmet was buffeted around by the air at high speed. Ilott suggested it was probably a consequence of his positioning compared to Giovinazzi not quite matching how the team has designed the airflow to pass over the driver’s helmet.
It’s something he expects to make some changes to address next time – he’s set to take similar duties at Paul Ricard – which is the story of much of his FP1: this is not a one-off and things will be better next time. The ‘good’ needs to be harnessed while the ‘bad’ must be swiftly learned from and improved.
In the context of a maiden FP1 outing there probably was more good than bad. Crucially, Ilott described himself as “a lot more comfortable, a lot more in the window with everything” at his best and in between runs felt himself “able to see the potential and where I can take it from there”.
Ilott’s speed has never been in question. What has sometimes been a doubt is his capacity to bring it all together. He didn’t even quite manage that in Formula 2 last year, falling short of the title to Haas driver and fellow Ferrari Driver Academy protege Mick Schumacher.
The opportunity at Alfa, alongside his Ferrari work, is a chance for Ilott to prove he can round off the rough edges.