*Anirban Aly Mandal
Formula 1 can sometimes be a cruel mistress, and talent can only get you so far. However, to even have a chance to showcase your abilities, one must have deep pockets. There have been many fairy-tale stories in F1, though, with the likes of Esteban Ocon, Pierre Gasly and 7-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton stepping up to Formula 1 given their humble backgrounds. However, when you see potential greatness being denied an opportunity due to an inherent defect in the system, it becomes necessary to speak up and raise the alarm.
One such youngster is Callum Illot. The British racer has had one of the most successful junior careers; his numbers alone make a persuasive argument about why he deserves a Formula 1 seat. He’s participated in Karting, the Toyota Series, GP3 Series and Formula 2, to name a few. In all of the categories mentioned above, Illot proved himself to be one of the biggest contenders to usurp a Formula 1 seat soon. He substantiated his claim to a seat in the premier motorsports series by displaying a stellar performance all year long in the 2020 FIA Formula 2 Championship. He narrowly missed out on the title to 2021 Haas F1 Team driver Mick Schumacher by a margin of 14 points. He even took the championship battle to the last race in Bahrain. However, the 2021 Formula 1 seat did not materialise, thus giving birth to one of the most perplexing conundrums of the 21st Century: Why isn’t Callum Illot in Formula 1?
Well, the answer to this is something undeniable but immensely unfair and hard to digest. Callum Illot is one of the best out there - no doubt, but he does not carry the same plethora of sponsorship money as a Nikita Mazepin or isn’t a commercial blockbuster like Mick Schumacher. Don’t get me wrong, the aforementioned haven’t diluted their credibility or right to their seat just because they had favourable odds against them, but not seeing Illot get a seat he so unprecedently deserves is almost heart-breaking. The simple fact remains; talent isn’t everything to propel you to Formula 1; teams look for money that they can invest into the car to develop it. I mean, we can’t even blame the teams because Formula 1 doesn’t run on Driver merit alone. If this were the case, we would have seen a 3-way title fight this year between Hamilton, Verstappen and Leclerc. Another aspect of this unfortunate instance is that politics play as important a role as money in Formula 1. Illot was pipped to take a seat at either Haas or Alfa Romeo, given that he is a Ferrari Academy recruit. However, Alfa decided to stick with Antonio Giovinazzi for reasons we can only speculate. Antonio is Italian, by the way.
In the past, there have been many ‘pay drivers who have proved their salt, the most famous of them being the all-time great Ayrton Senna and the undisputed king Michael Schumacher. But it is hard to reconcile that, being a solid performer and a potential World Championship contender as Illot is, he has to sit on the sidelines and potentially watch his career race away into oblivion.
I write this today because, even after all his exploits, Illot finds himself without a race seat for 2021. He will not return to F2 this season, and elsewhere, the opportunities are either already grabbed up or too ‘expensive’. The world today harps on inclusion and equal chance; hopefully, we see some breakthrough in our beloved sport too. However, this seems like a tall order given the complexities of the sport and the stringent budget requirements.
Fingers crossed, Callum Illot does not become the one we let get away.
*Anirban is an Associate Editor at Global Sports Policy Review and a law scholar from Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad.
(The image used here is for representational purposes only)