Thursday, September 22, 2022

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Juncos Hollinger Racing's 2022 Season

The second 2022 IndyCar Wrap-Up takes us to the only full-time single-car team that participated this season. Juncos Hollinger Racing ran the final three races of the 2021 season with frankly no success beyond getting a car on the grid, as it used that time as a glorified test program. Some of the growing pains showed early this season, but JHR found impressive speed over the course of the 17 races, though the results didn't always reflect that.

Callum Ilott
Ilott was on the grid for the final three races of 2021 as the Brit got a feel for an IndyCar. The Ferrari Driver Academy member ran the full IndyCar season, making his debut on ovals as well as a number of other circuits. There were plenty of pains, both physical and mental, but Ilott showed great promise and exited the 2022 season as one of the leading prospects. 

What objectively was his best race?
Ilott was eighth in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis after qualifying seventh and spending much of the race in the top ten despite the changing conditions. It was a big breakout for the Brit.

What subjectively was his best race?
There were many impressive results this season. I think Iowa was Ilott's best weekend period. He started both races in 22nd but ended up 12th in Saturday race and on the lead lap in 11th in the Sunday race. Considering Ilott had no oval experience entering this season, the fact he was competing for the top ten in both Iowa races is quite remarkable. 

What objectively was his worst race?
It would be 32nd in the Indianapolis 500, which left him with a broken wrist and kept him out of the car for Belle Isle.

What subjectively was his worst race?
There weren't many bad days for Ilott. The season ended on a sour note when an engine failure took him out of Laguna Seca after starting second and possibly being in line for another top ten finish. He had some tough runs early in the year as the team struggled for speed, but the team had it at most races. I think Toronto was disappointing because he started seventh and front wing damage sent him into the turn three runoff, but he was able to recover to finish 14th. 

He also had second round qualifying appearances at Barber and Mid-Ohio. At Barber, he spun in turn seven and beached the car. He was losing position on worn tires but he was better than 25th. At Mid-Ohio, he lost an engine 57 laps into the race while in contention for a top ten result. Not his fault, but still a bummer nonetheless. 

Callum Ilott's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 20th (219 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 2
Laps Led: 7
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 6
Average Start: 15.375
Average Finish: 17.5

An Early Look Ahead
Juncos Hollinger Racing has announced it is retaining Ilott and will expand to two cars for the 2023 season. Things are moving in the right direction for this operation. 

Ilott may have had an average finish of 17.5, 21st among IndyCar regulars, but he was much better than that, and we saw it in qualifying. Ilott made the second round of qualifying in six races and ended the season starting on the front row at Laguna Seca. The race pace didn't always transfer over, but he had good performances considering how new everything was to him this year.

JHR showed its limitations. There were plenty of races where Ilott made the second round and then went backward. Those weren't terrible drop offs and he remained in the middle of the field, but it is an area this team will need to improve on next year. 

Ilott showed he is a driver for the future. He looked good at many places, including ovals. At Texas, he got in as many laps as he could, and he didn't have the greatest pace there. He was notably slow late in that race, basically surviving to get to the finish. At Iowa, Ilott was a threat for a top ten finish. That is encouraging for a rookie with no oval experience prior to this season, especially when you consider Ilott broke his wrist at the Indianapolis 500. We have seen many drivers get hurt and be spooked. For Ilott, we didn't see him slow down after that. 

We must acknowledge that Ilott's long-term outlook in IndyCar isn't with Juncos Hollinger Racing. Many teams were sniffing around this kid during the season. If he makes even a marginal improvement in 2023, it will be unlikely he will return to JHR for 2024. A bigger team will sign him. He is primed to be a race winner and champion. JHR knows that. Its building with Ilott and hoping to be better situated when the post-Ilott era begins. 

This group will expand to two cars, which is good in theory. JHR was the lone single-car team in IndyCar. Single-car teams are always fighting uphill. A second car should do wonders. However, this is still a small organization. It is going to need to hire more people while also managing the shortcomings we saw in 2021. While doubling the number of entrants, it could increase the chances at success, it could also increase the number of failures. 

It remains unclear the direction JHR will go with the second car. It could repeat what it did with Ilott and hire a European developed driver. There is plenty talent out there that could lift this program and catch out the rest of IndyCar, but there is a chance a new driver comes in with a new car, new tires, new circuits and cannot get a grip on IndyCar in year one. If it is someone with no oval experience, that could be a further setback and a mental roadblock. 

There are veterans out there that could lift the team, but it is a risk joining a new team that is adding a second entry, which hasn't shown consistent success yet. Not to mention this team isn't loaded with funding. In terms of just attracting a driver, I am not sure which veteran JHR would appeal to. It doesn't feel like a top tier driver, but someone who has been an average IndyCar driver. The foundation has been laid that JHR could challenge for the top fifteen in the championship with Ilott. Whomever they hire for the second car should at least match Ilott's potential. 

We will get plenty of answers in time. For now, JHR is heading in the right direction and will be looking for greater success in 2023.