Max Chilton knew he was facing a challenging adjustment as a 2016 rookie in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Now that the 25-year-old Englishman has experienced a full year with Chip Ganassi Racing, he looks back and credits 14 starts in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires in 2015 with helping him prepare for the jump.
“I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed (2016), but it was a big, steep learning curve, even though I still think I made the right decision by doing Indy Lights briefly – not all the races but for the most part of the championship in 2015 to learn the oval racing,” Chilton said. “Coming out of Formula One, to go into INDYCAR and straight into an oval at the Indianapolis 500 is, I think, too much of a shock for anyone. I think that was the right decision.”
Chilton’s 2016 season became a constant adaptation to that learning curve. His best finish came in the second race, seventh at the Phoenix Grand Prix on the tough 1.022-mile Phoenix Raceway oval.
“Last year, Race 2, Phoenix, I finished seventh and we qualified well. At Iowa, I qualified fourth, outqualifying my teammates who have years of experience. I don’t think that would have been possible if I wouldn’t have done Indy Lights the year before.
“And I think last year I showed my skill on the sort of tracks that I enjoy, like Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen, the fast-flowing, fairly smooth racetracks which I’ve been used to in GP2 and Formula One. I got into the (Firestone) Fast Six at Watkins Glen. We had a few technical problems in the race. At Elkhart Lake, we qualified seventh and were running really well and then we ran out of fuel.
“There’s lot of things which could have gone right last year which went wrong, and that’s why I’m back to have another bite of the bullet and see if we can get some decent results.”
Chilton’s other top-10 run in the No. 8 Gallagher Ganassi Racing entry was 10th in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen. He finished 19th in the series points.
Now comes another adjustment as Ganassi cars switch from Chevrolet to Honda engines and aero kits in 2017.
“Obviously Ganassi has worked with Honda before, but it’s still a big change for them because they’ve put a lot of man hours the last few years into Chevrolet,” Chilton said. “Now they’ve switched up back over to the Honda. I think we’ve made the right decision, especially (for) the Indianapolis 500, basically the thing everyone wants to win and that’s the stronger engine to have.
“It’s got to be about maximizing everything: road courses, street courses and then the ovals. It’s a busy year. As I say with INDYCAR, it’s a very short season but it’s very intense. You’ve got to make sure you’re organized with your driver side and also the team organized, where they finish a race, at debrief they pop in and they’re ready and onto the next one.”
Chilton is also eager to improve his results on temporary street courses. He’ll have a quick opportunity to do so, as the first two races of the season are on street circuits – the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg a week from today (noon ET, ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network) followed by the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9 (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
“The area I want to work on is the street-course races and actually think that’s one of my strengths,” Chilton said. “But last year it wasn’t the case. That’s definitely an area, if I want to have a good shot at a championship, I’m going to have to improve.
“I think with the Honda … the lower-end, bottom-end torque is definitely a lot stronger than what I’ve been used to last year. On the street course, I think that’s important, so that should help us.”
Chilton was at somewhat of a loss to explain stronger 2016 performances on ovals compared to road and street courses, upon which he had more experience. Aside from seventh on the Phoenix oval, he was 13th in the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono’s tri-oval, 15th in the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and 15th in the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.
His best results on street and road courses were the 10th at Watkins Glen, 14th in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and 14th in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
“I don’t really understand why, but it definitely seems to be the case,” Chilton said of the oval trend. “I won at Iowa in ’15 in Indy Lights. In my second race (last year), I qualified well at Phoenix and raced well. Actually, I think as a rookie at Indianapolis, I did all right with 15th, but (race winner and fellow rookie Alexander) Rossi made that look a bit sort of average.”
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