A crushing victory on Saturday was the highlight of a rollercoaster weekend for Callum Ilott in the penultimate round of the FIA European F3 championship. Friday’s free practice at the Red Bull Ring had seen Ilott top the times, a significant turnaround for the Prema Team from the previous Nürburgring round. Ilott carried that strong pace into the first qualifying session and was consistently among the fastest runners before edging ahead of team mate Maxi Gunther in the dying moments with a time that was 0.016 seconds faster. The team’s joy at locking out the front row was short-lived when it identified significant damage had been inflicted on Ilott’s chassis and it would not be fit to race the next day. Prema made the decision to switch the chassis meaning the team’s mechanics were in for a long night to install Ilott’s existing engine into the new tub, thereby avoiding a grid penalty. With the new car finally assembled at 4am, Ilott was quick to praise the team and returned the gesture by plying the mechanics with Espressos throughout the next day. “The circuit’s kerbs are notorious for inflicting damage and luckily we came prepared just in case. The guys worked really hard overnight to make sure I was back out on track,” says Ilott. “The least I could do was re-fuel them with the strongest coffee I could find.”
With no track time to test the rebuilt car, Ilott headed to the pole spot on the grid not knowing how its set up would suit the Spielberg track. Sporting a different clutch pedal to his regular chassis, Ilott made a cautious getaway from pole leaving him open to attack from the fast-starting Joel Eriksson. Eriksson harried Ilott through the opening lap looking for a way past but Ilott remained composed as he got to grips with a chassis he hadn’t driven since May. Never headed, Ilott was able to capitalise on improving tyre performance and started to build an advantage and by lap ten, he was already a second ahead. With apparent ease, Ilott continued to stretch his lead and by the flag he had built up a cushion of nearly two seconds over the Swede. Following pole, the dominant win was also topped by securing the fastest lap of the race, ensuring a clean sweep for the Brit.
“A win was the best way to thank the guys who worked until the early hours to make sure I could take up my pole grid slot,” adds Ilott. The win also closed the gap in the championship standings with Ilott moving back into third overall before Sunday’s double header.
Starting fourth for Sunday morning’s dry race, Ilott was again cautious off the line, slipping briefly to fifth before swiftly moving back up to fourth after running side by side with fellow Brit Jake Hughes. Ilott closed the gap to the third-placed Force India F1-backed driver Nikita Mazepin and began to put him under pressure, as the pairing left the other Force India-supported driver, Jehan Daruvala, behind with a 1.1 seconds by lap seven. Ilott worked to reduce the gap to Mazepin, and pressure him from close behind, but, hindered by brakes that were prone to overheating, Ilott finished fourth as the highest-placed Prema driver.
Sunday’s final race saw Ilott start third. A tricky getaway with the unfamiliar clutch left Ilott covering off Mazepin’s line but lacking the momentum as the train moved through Turn One. having lost ground to Mazepin and Aron, Ilott then went on the offensive at the series of quick left hand turns halfway round the lap. Running initially three abreast, Ilott then passed Mazepin and stayed alongside Aron on the outside. As the pair took Turn Seven, Aron not seeing Ilott to his right, ran wide, clattering into Ilott and forcing him off the track. The ensuing wild ride over the gravel launched the car into the air and the damage was too great for Ilott to be able to continue the race and was forced to retire.
“I’m really gutted not to score points in the last race as up until then, we’d had a good weekend and I had closed the gap to second in the championship. Finishing in the top three is now going to be a little tougher but I enjoy Hockenheim and love a challenge. Despite being forced to retire in Race 3, I outscored all my team mates again and I am really pleased that we also increased Prema's 90 point lead in the Team Championship, which we are aiming to win for the seventh time.”
Ilott himself now has 297 points, standing 36 points from third and 42 points from second in the title standings. The final round will see the championship head back to Germany on the 14th and 15th October competing at Hockenheim.