How the Ilott-JHR partnership ended in divorce

If the split between Juncos Hollinger Racing and Callum Ilott was treated like a divorce, the paperwork filed by both sides would cite “irreconcilable differences” as the reason for the dissolution of their marriage.

The change in relationship status wouldn’t have been necessary if more care had been taken — more empathy shown — during a tumultuous season, but nonetheless, I’m convinced the termination of this relationship is what’s best for all involved.

How we got here and how they move forward requires a lot of unpacking. Having monitored the situation all season, the twists and turns that led to this unfortunate outcome were never necessary, but before we venture down that road, let’s start with the more immediate question of whether Ilott has a realistic chance of racing next season.


I called around to the IndyCar teams with known vacancies and struggled to find anything for Ilott that would be considered an upgrade from JHR. Andretti Global, which has yet to declare its intentions for its fourth entry, said it doesn’t have any openings. A.J. Foyt Racing could be a destination for Ilott, who would seemingly hold a lot of value on the Penske side of the new Penske-Foyt relationship, but the Foyts need funding to be attached to anyone who might drive its cars in 2024, and Ilott is a paid professional, not someone who brings money to a team.

The only hope I can summon for Ilott next season is with Dale Coyne Racing, and even that comes with caveats. Coyne is by no means lacking in driver options, and in the case of at least three prospective pilots, they have significant budgets to bring to the team. Ilott is tons better than any of those on Coyne’s short list, so Coyne faces a question of how competitive or how well paid he wants to be next year.

If it isn’t Coyne or Foyt, it might be IMSA, WEC, or SRO in a bridge year for Ilott, who turns 25 next week.

If only Juncos and Ilott split soon after the contentious September 10 season finale. As one team principal told me, “The timing is really unfortunate because if [Ilott] was free to have a month ago, he’d have been taken.”

And if that timing was back in summer, we might be referring to him as Andretti’s Ilott or Arrow McLaren’s Ilott or Ganassi’s Ilott. Even if the end came in early October, I’d bet Ilott would be strapping into the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy as Rinus VeeKay’s new stablemate. Instead, he’s entering an IndyCar driver market that’s almost barren.

If nothing materializes next season, Ilott should have better options in 2025, but that’s a long way off and a lot of things could change in the meantime.

And who will replace Ilott? I’ve been convinced for the better part of two months that Romain Grosjean is headed to JHR, and I won’t be surprised if he’s confirmed as the new driver of the No. 77 Chevy.

I first had Grosjean replacing Agustin Canapino in the No. 78, but sponsors were recently found to keep the Argentinian in the seat. Still, I continue to hear the Swiss-born Frenchman is inbound at JHR. We’ll know on Thursday, and if it isn’t Grosjean, who is represented by the same manager as Ilott, I have no idea whose name will be on the car.

The combination of Ilott and JHR held immense promise as the team made a surprise return to IndyCar after a two-year hiatus. From 2017-19, Juncos Racing generated a headline or two, but never threatened the top teams and had to rely on paying drivers at most rounds.

To ensure their new venture was unlike the last, Ricardo Juncos and new partner Brad Hollinger went searching for a driver to lead the team on its return to IndyCar in 2021 who could bring something fresh and exciting to the renamed program.

Ilott was the perfect pick to spearhead Juncos Hollinger when the revitalized team made its debut late in 2021. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

The single-car team, which struggled to attract championship-caliber staff in every area of the building, was fortunate to acquire Formula 2 star and Ferrari Formula 1 test driver Ilott, who was signed to run three late races as a precursor to embarking on a full-season campaign in 2022.

New to the car, tracks, and oval racing, llott was as good as advertised, especially with such a daunting learning curve to overcome. Across 16 races, he produced eight finishes between eighth and 15th for the small outfit on the way to placing 20th in the championship.

JHR expanded to two full-time entries in 2023 with 15-time Argentinian touring car champion Canapino as Ilott’s teammate. Ilott’s road racing expertise was complemented by a major rise in oval prowess where a fighting run to ninth at Texas and a 12th at the Indianapolis 500 were signs of his year-to-year growth. While Ilott didn’t love ovals as a rookie, that changed in his second season as he found his groove and was always one to watch.

Boosted by an opening charge to fifth to start the year on the streets of St. Petersburg, and another fifth to close the season on the Laguna Seca road course, Ilott improved to 16th in the standings with the No. 77 Chevy, one spot behind Graham Rahal and one ahead of new Arrow McLaren driver David Malukas.

Canapino also impressed as the open-wheel and oval rookie finished 21st in the championship in the No. 78 Chevy, and as a tandem, the JHR drivers ensured their entries would receive $915,000 Leaders Circle contracts from IndyCar for placing inside the top 22 in entrants’ points. Those are the positives to chronicle from the 2023 season.

The parting of ways, as I understand it, was in motion for weeks and mostly stems from the fallout of the social media attacks Ilott received from some of Canapino’s fans, which made for two of IndyCar’s ugliest moments of the year.

And for the sake of absolute clarity, Ilott bore no responsibility for the social media attacks.

The first, at the conclusion of April’s race at Long Beach, came when he was blamed for impeding Canapino and was also attached to the cause for his teammate’s crash, which came after Canapino briefly led the race when he inherited the lead as most of the field pitted and resumed behind his No. 78 entry. The blame for the latter came despite being uninvolved in his teammate’s meeting with the wall.

The furor raised towards Ilott, which he largely attributed to a hysterical commentator on the Latin American IndyCar feed, inspired all manner of online threats from an element of Canapino’s fan base towards the No. 77 driver and his family.

In response — more than 24 hours later — IndyCar posted a message that rebuked the aggressive online behavior. Ilott’s team followed suit with a message of its own on April 18. The race took place on April 16.

To say Ilott felt exposed and inadequately supported by his team throughout the inflamed affair would be a gross understatement, and that feeling returned a few more times before the season was over.

Being bombarded for days by his teammate’s fans on social media was troubling for the 24-year-old; JHR could have rushed to Ilott’s defense while at Long Beach, but chose to take its time, weighing in on Tuesday. It had the look of pouring a bottle of water on a house that had already burned to the ground. JHR’s bizarre handling of the situation generated more questions than answers, which undermined the strong relationship it had with its lead driver.

When it happened again, in September at Laguna Seca, JHR took the lead on trying to calm the storm, but once more, the response was late — more than 24 hours after the checkered flag — and by then, the motivation to fight for Ilott in its messaging was gone. In a half-hearted post, the team tipped its hand.

In an interview with RACER, Juncos absolved Ilott of any blame in the contact with Canapino but didn’t let him off the hook for the social media side of things. It’s here where JHR’s labored and seemingly disinterested posts after Long Beach and Laguna Seca received the context they were missing.

What Ilott and others saw as a serious problem to be addressed with vigor and immediacy was viewed by JHR as something akin to a non-issue — a byproduct of cultural differences where Ilott and the aggrieved took the attacks in the wrong way.

As Juncos explained, threatening social media posts are normal forms of venting and posturing in his native Argentina, and he vehemently opposed the notion that Ilott received actual death threats. By responding to the threats — and incorrectly perceiving their intent — Juncos believed that Ilott was guilty of unnecessarily fanning the online flames and authoring his own anguish. Juncos’ bold perspective on the matter did little to defuse the situation.

Juncos chided Ilott for failing to ignore the negative posts, and through JHR’s frosty treatment of Ilott and the Laguna Seca situation, the mending of fences between team and driver that happened progressively over the summer was torn down to the roots.

There was a third scenario that created unnecessary tension and stress between Ilott and JHR that further destabilized the relationship, and that was at the Indianapolis 500.

In the days following Long Beach, when the series conducted its Indy Open Test and 33 of the 34 Indy 500 entries ran at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ilott rang the alarm bell. The No. 77 chassis JHR prepared for the Indy 500 was extremely slow, posting the 31st-fastest speed with a best lap of 220.911mph. Canapino was marginally faster in 27th with a top lap of 222.162mph, and while both cars were lacking pace, only Ilott was in danger of failing to qualify for the race if a solution wasn’t found.

Leaving the test, Ilott’s pleas to prepare a different chassis were ignored, and once official practice got under way in May, the No. 77 was 34th and last, slower than the brand-new No. 50 Abel Motorsports entry. Ilott improved to 32nd the next day, but his renewed call to conduct a chassis change was met with the same disinterest. By Fast Friday — the last session to prepare for qualifying—the mood had darkened in the No. 77 garage.

Ilott and Juncos engaged in a heated conversation where everything from parking the car, to replacing Ilott, to Ilott refusing to continue were said to be exchanged. A decision was finally made to build a different chassis for Ilott to try on Saturday. This came after seven meaningless laps were turned that wasted Friday; the car was duly parked and the rest of the day was surrendered to the commencement of a new chassis build.

The late nature of the decision meant valuable time was wasted in the rain-shortened week, and with one car guaranteed to be bumped from the field of 33, the disastrous handling of the slow-chassis saga — one that was called out on April 20 — placed Ilott in the crosshairs of those who were at risk of failing to qualify for the series’ biggest race.

Ilott’s impassioned persistence was ultimately rewarded. The spare chassis was faster and allowed him to capture 28th on the grid, one spot behind Canapino, which locked both JHR cars into the field on the opening day of qualifying. With the limited amount of practice running left on the schedule, Ilott and his No. 77 engineers kept working and found more speed that allowed him to fire from 28th to 12th in the race.

Lost among the fanfare for first-time Indy winner Josef Newgarden and the frustrations expressed by runner-up Marcus Ericsson, Ilott and JHR put on a proper show at the Speedway and generated the team’s best finish to date at the 500.

Although Ilott was eventually vindicated, the underlying issue of the team disbelieving its lead driver about the chassis problem after the Open Test, and again, day after day during Indy practice, spoke to a fundamental issue at play.

After a mostly rosy debut season together, their sophomore campaign had a pair of troubling moments in consecutive months where basic support for and trust in Ilott was lacking. Leaving May, all was not well with the No. 77 program.

Adding to the complications, Ilott was on the shopping lists of a few high-profile teams, but Juncos wasn’t interested in letting him go. Rumblings in the paddock suggested Ilott wanted out after the messy April-May encounters, but Juncos was unmoved and clung tightly to Ilott, who was under contract through 2024.

In addition to the well-documented social media-related rifts that developed between JHR and Ilott, there were also serious divisions between the driver and team about how to address chassis problems early in the month of May.  Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

Similar interest in Ilott was expressed by rivals in the summer of 2022, which wasn’t warmly received by the team, and the renewed outreaches in 2023 only contributed to a growing suspicion that departing JHR was something Ilott would gladly entertain. For a loyalty-driven character like Juncos, this would be a problem.

Having come under fire from Canapino fans after their contact late in the Laguna Seca race, Ilott took to social media to post in-car footage that provided clear evidence that he was not at fault for the collision that broke his teammate’s front wing. Although Ilott obviously felt the need to defend himself — after his team failed to do so — by posting the video, the act came across internally as breaking ranks with the team. Frustrations were now flowing in both directions.

Juncos runs his team in a manner that has more in common with Team Penske than any other IndyCar outfit: There’s one way, one truth, and it’s the team’s. Some organizations are more accommodating and welcome being challenged, but JHR isn’t in that group. Just as Penske’s drivers fall in line and wouldn’t dare oppose their leader, Juncos operates JHR with the same expectation of devotion from his tribe.

Whether we agree with JHR’s stance or wholly reject it is immaterial; it wasn’t seeing Ilott in the same sympathetic light as his family or his fans, and in a hierarchical team sport like motor racing, the team owners’ opinions are the ones that carry the most weight because they choose who remains employed. This might be hard for Ilott supporters to reconcile, but the ordeals were never about who was right or wrong.

It defaulted to the Golden Rule: Those who have the gold make the rules, and they did.

In the weeks that followed Laguna Seca, attempts were made to mend the deep fractures that ran throughout the relationship. To continue in 2024, Ilott would need to align his views with JHR and defer to the team if he received more attacks from his teammate’s followers. Considering all that happened last season, the edict was the opposite of what was expected and only served to reinforce the notion that Ilott and JHR saw the world in very different ways.

Both sides wanted to receive fealty and respect under conditions the other was unwilling to agree to, and in the end, there was no common ground left to build upon. After the bruising and emotionally exhausting year they endured, this was a marriage that couldn’t and shouldn’t be saved.

This should signal to Juncos and Hollinger that profound internal fixes are required if the team wants to be more than an occasional threat, and jettisoning Ilott isn’t a cure-all for the shortcomings that emerged last season.

The things that differentiate a Penske or a Chip Ganassi Racing — winners of 14 of the last 15 championships — from the rest are chemistry and code. All the title contenders have big budgets and talented staff and heavy firepower in the cockpits; those aren’t the areas where differentiation is found.

The real strength of a Ganassi or Penske squad comes from constant fine-tuning of their rosters, and from its members holding each other accountable for their attitudes and output. This is what separates perennial title winners from those who routinely make less from more. The greats are distanced from the goods by how its people are led, and how well those people function as a unified team.

And once a problem is identified by a championship-worthy team, it’s treated like a deadly poison to be neutralized with haste; anything less would risk its spread throughout the body. But that’s not what happened here. In 2023, JHR operated as two teams — two warring factions — while allowing interpersonal wounds to grow and fester, and that’s why the Ilott and JHR story reached a premature end.

Take the wildly differing views held by Ilott and Juncos on the pair of social media attacks, the testy disagreement in May over the source of Ilott’s lack of speed, the judgment of the team that Ilott handled himself incorrectly in all three trials, and the team’s confidence that Ilott would leave in an instant if he could, certainly after 2024, and you have the main ingredients in the recipe for their divorce.

What a depressing end to one of IndyCar’s great underdog stories.

Story originally appeared on Racer