With the full-time IndyCar grid filling up for this coming season, one of the more intriguing pieces of news is that Chip Ganssi Racing has acquired the services of former Marussia Formula 1 driver Max Chilton in 2016. Chilton was announced as Sage Karam’s replacement in the #8 car, despite the latter having an impressive rookie campaign in 2015.
Whilst it was clear that Chilton hardly set the world alight during his time in Formula 1, although he was given the somewhat tricky task of being the late Jules Bianchi’s team mate, his switch to America has been somewhat solid and impressive so far. Chilton made the unusual change to Indy Lights (one step down the ladder from the main series) for 2015, but in doing so he has learned most of the tracks he will be racing in this year, and it has more importantly given him significant practice in oval racing – something he never did in Europe. In addition to this, he won his second ever oval race, which was at Iowa, which immediately raised alarm bells. Chilton claims he was contacted by all bar one IndyCar team after that win (it is safe to assume that he was not contacted by Team Penske). He also stuck it on pole position at Laguna Seca in the final round of the season. Whilst Chilton only finished fifth in the standings (and fourth out of the rookies), it is worth noting that he missed three rounds – not starting at Indianapolis’ superspeedway and missing the double-header at Toronto to race Nissan’s botched LMP1 effort at Le Mans. In typical Chilton fashion, he was able to bring the car home on all bar one occasion during the season.
Whilst it would be unwise to overlook the fact that Chilton brings substantial backing (and it’s somewhat concerning that even the top IndyCar teams need to resort to that), his previous F1 experience and his almost instant impact on the ovals must have made him an attractive proposition for Ganassi. His year in Lights will almost certainly help him avoid the sort of traps which the likes of Stefano Coletti, Rubens Barrichello and Mikhail Aleshin faced when they first joined the series. Also working in Chilton’s favour is the experience in his team mates. Both Tony Kanaan and reigning champion Scott Dixon have seemingly endless experience in IndyCar and both will help the Briton in his rookie year. In his role as advisor, Dario Franchitti will be pretty much on speed-dial too.
In his rookie season, Chilton’s primary objective should be to win the Rookie of the Year honours, where (as he is the only other full-time rookie to be announced so far) he will be challenging Dale Coyne Racing’s Conor Daly for that honour. Whilst challenging for race wins and the title may be a tough ask, he can also help Dixon and Kanaan in their respective title challenges. However ultimately, a smoother transition to the series compared to his predecessors should be expected. Chilton is by no means the fastest guy on the grid, and that may compromise him in qualifying, but it is possible to deliver some strong results through consistency, keeping it clean and through some smooth driving – things which Chilton has a strong reputation for. He will be a fine fit in IndyCar, and his fanbase from his time in F1 will only do the series good internationally.