Herts motor racing stars: F3's Calum Ilott and Rye House Raceway
PUBLISHED: 17:57 18 June 2016 | UPDATED: 12:47 13 July 2016
Aged 17, Callum Illot of Bishop's Stortford already has 11 years' racing experience and is shaking up Formula 3. Damion Roberts spoke to the rising star and the owners of the Hoddesdon racecourse where Illot began his career in the tyre tracks of F1 champ Lewis Hamilton
Think about the life of a racing driver and the image conjured up is probably one of fast cars and far-off destinations, not of a teenager studying for his AS levels while clinching a maiden win in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship.
But that’s the life of up-and-coming star Callum Ilott (pictured), who spoke with me about his career just minutes after finishing a day’s studying at Haileybury College in Hertford.
‘It’s a bit of maths and physics,’ he explains. ‘And it’s linked to my racing, so it’s good to understand it. I’m either racing or at school, there’s not much time for anything else.’
The 17-year-old’s hard work is clearly paying off. Following last year’s debut in single-seater racing, which saw him finish 12th in F3 and become the only one of 35 drivers to finish all 33 races, the Van Amersfoort Racing star went into his second season looking for wins.
It didn’t take him long. In fact, he had his first on the opening weekend when, following a fire and borrowing a chassis from a rival team, he clinched his maiden victory at Circuit Paul Ricard, France.
‘The heat shield in the car stopped working and the heat spread to other parts of the engine. It was too close to the exhaust. We went to do a practise start and it started smoking. I had to pull over to the side. I was trying to stop it as it was rolling backwards. It wouldn’t go in gear as it had burnt through a gear cable. I sat in it for an extra 20 seconds. But it was perfectly fine.’
His unflappability is striking – a calm and confident young man who started out like many in his sport racing karts.
‘My dad works in London and takes the train. He goes past Rye House (Kart Raceway) on the train and suggested one day that I have a go.’
Ilott was a quick learner and aged 12 won the U16 Formula Kart Stars British Championship. He then started driving on the continent. ‘I was 14 and in England. You couldn’t really drive as a senior until you’re 15 or 16. I had to race internationally’. He finished third in the German Junior Kart Championships.
More success followed before he joined the Red Bull Junior Team and also raced in the Toyota Winter Series in New Zealand. All this before his 17th birthday.
Now embedded in Formula 3, his eyes are set on a rise up the starting grid if his year pans out well. ‘A lot more things will open up for me if I win the championships,’ he says.
F1 drivers had better watch their rear view mirrors.
THE TRAINING GROUND OF STARS
Every July around the time of the British Grand Prix, everyone and his dog turns up at Rye House. ‘Sky, the BBC, ITV, Japanese TV, German TV – they all go to the grand prix and want to come here and see where it all starts,’ says John Huff of Rye House Kart Raceway. And it’s easy to see just why people want to broaden their knowledge and indulge their senses at the place where it all began for the likes of triple world champion Lewis Hamilton.
It’s not just Hertfordshire’s own son who has gone on to Formula 1 having honed his skills on this 1km of tarmac in Hoddesdon. Former F1 drivers Johnny Herbert, Jenson Button and Damon Hill have all raced karts here, and in the 1970s, people like world karting champion Terry Fullerton were regulars to the track. Jacques Villeneuve landed a helicopter so he could give a custom-made kart a once-over around the track, while even the great Ayrton Senna came to this corner of Herts once, if only to pick up an engine.
This course is steeped in racing history. It began life in the 1930s as an entirely different circuit on the site of a former speedway track before eventually taking on its current form. Huff explains: ‘It was an oval shape, but around the early 1940s when American bomber crews were stationed in the UK, they pretty much invented karting.
‘They were building things to go up and down runways, little ladder frames with a wheel in each corner and a lawnmower engine. It then turned into more of a mainstream sport.’
David Coulthard has described the course as the ‘Silverstone of karting’, while sections of its track, such as Elbow and Pylon 1 are, Rye House says, ‘as well regarded by karters as Paddock Hill Bend, the Tamburello and the Rascasse are to F1 followers’.
If you think ‘kart track’, then the image conjured up is of tyre walls, sheds and overalls. This is how Rye House once was, but not any more. It’s much different now. And it’s a preconception that managing director Ryan Musk and marketing manager Christine Taylor are happy to dispel.
When Musk’s family took over 12 years ago, they went about upgrading the facilities and turning it into more of a family venue.
The centrepiece is the main track, but there is now the Rye-Assic Adventure Park, where during my visit a group of girls were enjoying a birthday party. There is also laser combat, a nine-hole crazy golf course, private meeting rooms, a café, outdoor viewing balcony, small bowling alley and a new reception area which opened at Easter.
It is here where parents can sit or stand in comfort and watch their children, as young as three, on the smaller, junior track. For nippers, there are electric karts and the young drivers can get kitted out in racing suits for the full experience.
There’s also a chance for children aged five and upwards to participate in the Cadet Club. Run by Musk, it is where world karting champion Enaam Ahmed started out.
And there is another preconception that the owners are keen to dismiss: that you have to have plenty of money to race. ‘Hamilton has smashed that myth,’ says sales manager Huff. ‘You can bring your kids down here and for half the price of a computer game they can experience real racing.’