RACER takes a look at each full-time NTT IndyCar Series team ahead of the new season’s launch this weekend at St. Petersburg, continuing with Juncos Hollinger Racing.
2022 Entrants’ Championship (1-25):
21st, No. 77 Chevrolet with Callum Ilott
No. 77 Chevrolet with Callum Ilott
No. 78 Chevrolet with Agustin Canapino (R)
It’s a big year ahead for the upstarts at Juncos Hollinger Racing as the punchy outfit owned by Ricardo Juncos and Brad Hollinger have doubled in size to run the returning Callum Ilott and rookie Agustin Canapino.
(Since it took a little while for some folks to get the pronunciation of the Englishman’s last name down last year, it’s ‘Eye-lot’. Juncos was kind enough to help with the pronunciation guide for the Argentinian’s first name: ‘Ah-goo-steen.’)
Lifelong road racer Ilott was anything but a fan of ovals when he arrived in the series, and if his quick exit from the Indy 500 with a bone-breaking crash said anything, it was how the Briton would need more time to find his oval comfort zone. Runs to 12th and 11th at the Iowa doubleheader showed how Ilott made swift progress in a matter of months, so there’s a reason to feel encouraged about his potential as an oval sophomore.
Armed once again with technical director Yves Touron providing overarching guidance and race engineer Steve Barker plugged directly into making the performance calls, all of the people who turned the No. 77 Chevy into a problem for the bigger teams at a number of rounds are back to continue the trend in 2023.
It’s the expansion to a second car for touring car phenom Canapino where Juncos and team manager Vince Kremer took a really smart approach to the project. Rather than go searching for an all-new crew to staff Canapino’s No. 78 Chevy, JHR split the No. 77 crew and placed half on the No. 78 so the rookie’s entry would have strong mechanical underpinnings. From there, the team hired or promoted from within to add the other 50 percent to Ilott’s car and the 50 percent to complete Canapino’s.
Unlike Ilott’s timing stand, the No. 78 is a new-look assembly of talent with race engineer Charlie Ping in charge of the car along with a new systems engineer hired straight from university and Juncos set to be on Canapino’s radio.
WHAT THEY NEED
It might seem like a strange place to start, but if Ilott can make a big leap on ovals, he’ll make a similar leap in the standings.
True, there are only five ovals on the calendar, but with finishes of 16th at Texas, 32nd at Indy, the two good Iowa results of 12th and 11th, and a close of 21st at WWTR as a rookie, some of Ilott’s worst finishes — as one might expect — came on the tracks where he lacked the most experience. Cleaning up those three poor oval results would do wonders for him this season.
Ilott was at his finest on the road courses, qualifying inside the Firestone Fast 12 on five occasions. His front-row start to close the season at Laguna Seca — returning to a track he drove the year before — was another indicator of how good Ilott is and what he’s capable of producing with a bit of circuit familiarity.
Qualifying was a broad problem area for JHR as the No. 77 started 14th or worse at 10 races, and when that happened, the odds grew long for Ilott to finish in a position that rewarded his effort. So on top of improving the oval results, becoming a regular threat to make Fast 12s and Fast Sixes is where Ilott’s fortunes would change in a major way.
If JHR can unleash more qualifying speed for the No. 77, Ilott could become a regular disruptor among the more heralded entries. The idea of an Ilott with full knowledge of every track on the schedule and a faster car to operate is tantalizing. For those who love giant-slaying programs, there’s vast potential for Ilott and the No. 77 Chevy to be that team this season.
The good news on growing to two cars is the team will have a second set of data to look at and potentially use to benefit the No. 77. The bad news is that with Canapino being new to top-tier open-wheel racing, new to oval racing, and new to the tracks on the calendar, Ilott and Company can’t expect the Argentinian to contribute much on the engineering side during his debut season. Next year? Absolutely. In 2023? Not so much.
So that means Ilott will, in most ways, continue functioning as a one-car team until Canapino is able to offer the kind of feedback and insights that complement the sister car. Although Canapino has a long to-do list with all of the aforementioned things to learn, I have him as a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors right behind Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Armstrong.
Thanks to his age — he’s 33 — and the supreme experience he’s amassed while winning a dozen-plus touring car championships in Argentina, Canapino arrives in IndyCar with a ridiculously deep foundation to stand upon. Yes, he’s as big of an IndyCar novice as we’ve had in forever, but he’s not a young kid who needs to learn how to race, how to debrief, or how to function as a top-tier professional.
I’m not proclaiming Canapino is as good as triple Australian Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, and I say that because we’ve yet to see him race an IndyCar in order to provide us with an informed opinion, but I will say that he brings a number of related attributes and achievements to JHR that should ease his big transition — as McLaughlin did — while trading fast touring cars for faster open-wheel machinery.
As we saw in Spring Training, Canapino had no problem running in front of a few fellow rookies and rivals, and while that won’t always be the case this year, I think he’s going to surprise people with how well he performs. There will probably be some days where he’s firmly at the back of the field, but I don’t think that’s going to be the norm. Even if it’s fighting with newcomers Sting Ray Robb and Benjamin Pedersen over the final positions, I expect Canapino to impress us more often than not.
If we’re lucky, Ilott and the No. 77 crew will be a regular thorn in the sides of the title contenders while Canapino builds his IndyCar database. As an avowed lover of underdogs, JHR could be among the most fun teams to root for this season.