Callum Ilott ended his 2023 NTT IndyCar Series campaign the same way he started it: finishing fifth in a chaotic race with a jumbled up leaderboard.
Ilott ran as high as third with 13 laps to go in the Grand Prix of Monterey at Laguna Seca. After Alex Palou moved by on the main straight, Ilott was now trying to salvage every position possible with a damaged car.
With just over three laps to go, Ilott lost control of the #77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet in Turn 9, running in the gravel trap outside the corner and losing fourth place to Will Power.
With Christian Lundgaard and Alexander Rossi now on his heels, the 2020 Formula 2 championship runner-up had to fight hard to keep fifth place in the final few miles of the race. Ilott remained firm and kept his position, rewarding himself and his team after 95 hard-fought laps.
Ilott's race began with contact as he hit the rear of Kyle Kirkwood's car. The Floridian slowed for the contact in front of him at Turn 2 that Ilott could not see from his position. The contact damaged Ilott's front wing assembly, forcing an early pit stop.
That put Ilott onto an alternate fuel strategy, allowing him to run long for his next stint. However, Ilott was caught out on track by the full course yellow for Marcus Ericsson's stalled car in Turn 2. By having to pit under yellow, Ilott fell from third to 17th place for the next restart.
At the field approached Turn 11 on the restart, Will Power hit Benjamin Pedersen, causing the #55 A. J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet to spin. As Ilott went outside of Pedersen to avoid the spinning rookie, Power's right front wing endplate grazed Ilott's left rear tyre, causing Ilott to spin. Although several cars overtook Ilott, only one of those cars was for position.
The JHR crew refueled Ilott again since he was at the tail end of the field, letting him run longer under green. Ilott climbed up to eighth place on the next stint, but David Malukas's beached car in the gravel trap at the exit of Turn 3 brought out another full course yellow, making Ilott pit again under Caution.
On Lap 59, Ilott spun as he made the left hand turn to get onto the main stretch of pit road. Ilott had no idea what happened as he sat facing the wrong way on pit road before pointing his car in the right direction.
“I don't know! When you're on the pit limiter, it should have been fine,” Ilott said after the race about his pit road spin. “I think the curve and the dust and it just, it just went on me. Luckily I kept the engine running so it wasn't a big, big issue, but a bit of a wild one.”
The JHR crew gambled on more yellow flag laps and refueled Ilott each of the next two laps since he was at the tail end of the field. Their gamble was two-fold since some drivers were on different strategies and would have to pit if there were more full course Cautions.
A few laps later under the yellow for Tom Blomqvist and Santino Ferrucci's stalled cars at Turn 11, Ilott moved up to eighth place after eight cars pitted. On the restart, Ilott passed Palou on the outside heading to Turn 11 before another Caution period interrupted the race. The next restart set the tone for the rest of Ilott and Canapino's races.
Ilott went around Canapino's outside at Turn 11 for what was effectively the lead of the race. However, Canapino remained alongside Ilott as the pair headed to Turn 2. The Argentinian hit the curb at the Turn 2 apex, causing the right front wing of the #78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet to hit Ilott's left rear.
While Ilott was now in fourth, the left rear of his car sustained damage and Canapino's right front wing was structurally compromised. That front wing hurt Canapino's final stint as he fell to finish 14th.
“From there it was, it was a tough one to drive,” Ilott said. “It just, it was all over the place with the rear. So that kind of made the last stint a pain in the ass and I lost the lead because of that. Yeah, it's a crazy race. So I can't say that it's too bad compared to some, so I'll take it.”
Once Romain Grosjean and Pato O'Ward pitted under the race's final Caution period, Ilott moved into third place behind eventual race winner Scott Dixon and Scott McLaughlin. After the restart, Ilott had to save fuel with a damaged car until the end of the race, barely making it across the finish line before running out of fuel on the cool down lap.
Ilott ended the season with a pair of fifths and a ninth at Texas Motor Speedway back in March. The fifth on Sunday put Ilott 16th in IndyCar points, just one point ahead of David Malukas. But Ilott wants to look at what can help the teams' performance ahead of an anticipated return to the JHR squad.
“I think we definitely need to improve the one-lap pace,” Ilott said. “That's going to be massive for us if we can do that. I think pit stops for the team is a big area because this race day we're good. I mean, we did a lot of them, but we needed to work on that the other weekends. And being able to kind of put all of that together and slowly work on everything else, I think the results will come.”