Consistency delivers the points needed to challenge for a top three place in the championship
With a third place topping a trio of top four places at the Nürburgring this weekend, Callum Ilott closed the gap to third overall in the 2017 FIA F3 championship battle. At a track where the whole PREMA Powerteam struggled to match the pace of its rivals in both the wet and dry, Ilott was the best-scoring driver in the team; amassing 39 points whilst his three team mates all combined, managed just 12. Crucially, Ilott sliced 32 points from the gap to third place in the championship and is now just five points and within striking distance of rival Joel Eriksson.
Friday’s qualifying, held in archetypal and changeable Eifel conditions saw the British driver encounter a mystifying mix of pace over the lap and an unusual mechanical issue when his gearbox slipped into neutral. The quick-thinking Ilott managed to get the car going again and found clear track space to go on to be the quickest driver in the second and third sectors of the track. This contrasted with being over a second slower in the first sector of the lap to leave Ilott third on the grid.
The opening encounter on Saturday saw the action again take place in wet conditions. Ilott made a better start to get up into second but was immediately under pressure as he initially struggled with grip relative to the others around. Jake Hughes enjoying a competitive weekend, was able to move past and then Joey Mawson slipped past on lap five. Undaunted, Ilott fought hard to claw back the gap and mount a challenge. After a Full Course Yellow was thrown for an incident with Pedro Piquet, Ilott was able to attack the Australian before an attempt at the final chicane saw Ilott forced to dive down the escape road as Mawson also cut the chicane. On the penultimate lap, Ilott was back and challenging again and managed to edge ahead before being squeezed through the chicane. The pair emerged side by side but having lost momentum, Ilott was passed by fifth-placed Tadasuke Makino at the line. With Makino however penalised for an earlier infringement, Ilott was elevated to fourth in the official results.
Qualifying for Races Two and Three saw Ilott leave it right to the dying moments of the session to claim two front-row slots, including pole for Race Three. Struggling for grip during most of the qualifying session Ilott was down in 19th position with a couple of minutes left on the clock. With his Prema teammates also suffering badly, Ilott managed to find a way to deliver two good laps when it counted. “Many of us were left scratching our heads after qualifying with the times and positions of a number of drivers not where you would normally expect them to be,” says Ilott. “I was lucky that my last two laps came together as it was looking really bad for me up until then.”
It was cool but dry for the first race on Sunday morning. Air temperatures hovered just above 11 degrees as Ilott made a good getaway to attack pole sitter Jake Hughes on the run down to Turn One. Ilott, like his team mates, once again suffered an early lack of grip that led to him running wide at the end of lap two and into clutches of Lando Norris. Powerless to prevent him from getting past, Ilott was down to third position. With the tyres deteriorating after just two laps of competition, Ilott focussed on holding on to the podium place and drove skilfully to maintain a buffer to Honda protégé Makino. “Having such severe tyre wear, so early on in the race, meant that was one of the hardest races this season,” says Ilott. “We just lacked the pace to fight for the win this time yet we did manage to grab 15 points at a time when we really needed them. That was really important when we didn’t have the speed.”
Sunday’s final encounter underlined the difficulties faced throughout the entire weekend. Ilott again made a good getaway from pole but an early safety car meant Ilott had rivals Norris and Hughes right behind. Ilott made a good restart but again was beset by an early lack of grip that was needed to pull away. Norris was able to take advantage of extended track limits by running completely off the track at Turn Four to get past and then with no answer to the traction of the Hitech cars out of the corners, both Hughes and his team-mate Ralf Aron also passed Ilott. Nursing his frustration, Ilott then managed the situation over Jehan Daruvala, pushing when he could to hold onto fourth in what became a quiet race for the young British driver.
“This weekend in either the wet or dry, we just couldn’t compete on pace and it was all about playing the consistency game and getting as many points as possible,” adds Ilott. “Despite some frustration from the races, I’m now just five points from third and I have taken 33 points off the gap to second and we still have six races to go. I’m still fighting!”
The championship now heads to the Red Bull Ring in two weeks’ time, a track where Ilott scored a win, second and fourth last year.