Lewis Hamilton maybe the first F1 champion from Hertfordshire but there could be another one who is coming up fast…
Ask a child what they want to be when they grow up and chances are they’ll probably reply astronaut, train driver or racing car. For any of those careers, it’s not that easy to know how and where to start.
There isn’t a train driving school or a race driving GCSE. Sometimes it helps if you come from a family connected with that profession but if not, it’s down to passion and determination to break into the profession you’ve always wanted to do.
It’s that drive that has seen teenager Callum Ilott get behind the wheel and mark himself out as one of Britain’s brightest talents in motorsport. Just 19, he’s already been racing cars for three seasons but reaching that point wasn’t simple.
“Motorsport is perceived as an inaccessible sport and it’s not obvious how you get started,” says Ilott. “It’s not like football is it where there is a local club in nearly every town. You can head down to the pitch and start kicking a ball. For motorsport you need special kit, a car or kart and somewhere to drive it.”
Ilott’s chance bizarrely came after his dad spied the Rye House kart track out of the window of his commuter train. “Dad likes motorsport but only really as an enthusiast, he didn’t race like Nico Rosberg’s or Max Verstappen’s dads did. His train from Bishops Stortford goes past the Rye House kart track. He thought I’d like to have a go in a kart.” adds Ilott.
“We had no idea of how you got started racing a kart so we just turned up and asked for a go,” adds Ilott. “I was genuinely hooked from the first drive. I loved the feeling and of course, the speed.”
Speed has followed Ilott ever since.
A rapid rise through karting saw him quickly fill the trophy cabinet at home, culminating in the prestigious European KF title. Success brought Ilott to the attention of Red Bull and the drinks company swiftly signed Ilott up to make the switch to car racing before he’d finished his GCSEs. “I was 15 and they got me into F3. That was a bigger leap than many karters make as most would do F4 first. I had to learn fast!” jokes Ilott. By the end of the year, Ilott had recorded one podium, and finished 12th out of the 35 on the grid that year, but the Red Bull bosses, renowned for their ruthless culling of driver contracts didn’t keep Callum on their programme. “Red Bull gave me the opportunity and whilst it didn’t work out then, I’m grateful for the chance that they gave to me.”
After the 2016 season where Callum scored three wins and wowed onlookers with a stunning drive on the fast but extremely narrow streets of the former Portuguese enclave of Macau as the highest finishing Brit. For 2017, Ilott moved to Prema team where he’s already won five times this year before he heads back to Macau again, aiming to lift the GP de Macau and F3 World Cup crown in November.
“Macau is an incredible challenge,” explains Ilott. “It’s so quick yet there is no margin for error, you literally are skimming the barriers several times a lap. There are a lot of crashes which ends up with big repairs for the mechanics. If you’re not careful and keep crashing, you can become a bit unpopular as the lads would rather enjoy the Macau nightlife as opposed to be stuck working late into the night fixing the car. But if you hook up a good, quick lap, it all starts to flow, you slot into the zone and the speed just keeps coming. It’s an amazing feeling. Those sorts of laps are very special and you sometimes get out of the car and can’t quite believe what you did.”
Ilott’s performances on track have been matched by improvements he’s made off it. “The F3 cars aren’t that physical to drive because they down generate a lot downforce,” claims Ilott. “But I stepped up to an F2 car at the British Grand Prix in the summer. That’s got around 650bhp, no power steering and the races are longer so you need a bit more upper body strength. At the start of this season, we created a kind of Ninja Warrior obstacle course to train on so I’d be ready for such cars. It’s a more fun way to train than doing everything in the gym.”
Looking to the future, Ilott’s got his sights firmly set on F1. After Lewis Hamilton, can another driver from Hertfordshire make the grade? Ilott believes so. “Despite it not being simple to know where and how to get into the sport, you still see a lot of Brits get to the top levels of motorsport,” adds Ilott. “Not just in F1 either but in World Endurance Championship which includes Le Mans and Formula E, the championship for electric racing cars. There are actually quite a few Brits that are a similar age to me coming up and have the talent to do the job in F1 but there are very few openings now with just 10 teams. On and off track, I’m doing everything I can to make sure that I’m one of the ones to get there. That means developing my driving, the physical side, working on the commercials and networking with the teams and managers. The next few years are critical but I believe I can do it.”
With such drive and determination don’t bet against more trophies heading to Hertfordshire in the not too distant future.