Max Chilton doesn’t believe in a sophomore jinx. If anything, the 25-year-old Brit believes returning to the same team for his second Verizon IndyCar Series season promises nothing but better days ahead.
Chip Ganassi Racing announced Wednesday that Chilton would return to drive for the 2017 season and that Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. would serve again as primary sponsor on the No. 8 entry. As a series rookie this year, Chilton showed potential by qualifying better on average than fellow Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly, but poorer race results left him behind those two in the point standings.
Chilton remains confident that the return to familiar surroundings with Ganassi next season will pay dividends.
“It's hugely important to have that continuity,” Chilton said on a media teleconference. “I know from my experience of being in single-seaters now for over a decade, it really does help. To at least have the same team engineer – the engineer is the one you work most closely with – so it's nice if you get on with him to keep that relationship going and ideally try to keep the crew the same. Sometimes you have to tweak it here and there. It's hugely important.
“When everyone knows how to work with each other, you keep that going. That's why time and time again, you see an ex-champion, he's a multiple champion, has been with the same team for many years. You don't have to spend that time learning each other. You just know what each other want sometimes without having to say too much.
“I'm looking forward to going into my second year with the No. 8 crew.”
Chilton showed flashes of potential throughout his rookie campaign in 2016. He qualified eighth and finished seventh in the second race of the season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway, in his first Verizon IndyCar Series attempt on an oval. The former Formula One racer also posted a career-best starting effort of fourth for the Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway, another short oval and site of his first win in Indy Lights presented Cooper Tires in 2015. He drove to a 10th-place finish in the penultimate race of the season, the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen at Watkins Glen International.
Chilton’s average starting position for the 16 races (13.9) bettered Rossi (14.3) and Daly (18.1), but it didn’t always translate into strong race finishes. The transition from F1 to the Verizon IndyCar Series was a tougher learning curve than maybe he expected.
“Last year was probably one of my biggest years in motorsport,” Chilton said. “Even though the speeds are similar to F1 and the cars aren't hugely different, it's the American way of racing. The racetracks were all very new to me, the street circuits incredibly bumpy and tight, the oval racing is incredibly fast and close.”
Chilton’s return to Ganassi assured the same driver lineup for the team in 2017, along with four-time series champion Scott Dixon, 2004 champ Tony Kanaan and six-year series veteran Charlie Kimball. Chilton pointed to the benefits of gleaning from their wisdom.
“With my teammates, even Charlie, the least experienced, he's got six years,” Chilton said. “You can really see that makes a difference. Then you have Tony and Scott. I think they're going into their 15th or 16th year of INDYCAR (actually it will be Dixon’s 17th season and Kanaan’s 20th). It just pays so well to have that experience in your team.
“I'm looking forward to sort of hopefully doing better myself next year, and they can learn from me as well. There was a time last year where the speed of our No. 8 car was actually really good, especially toward the end of the year. We're going to hopefully keep that momentum of the speed going into next year and hopefully we can learn off each other just as much.”
Perhaps the biggest adjustment for Chilton is CGR’s manufacturer move from Chevrolet to Honda. He intends to get acclimated to the Honda engine and aero kit when all four team cars test at Sebring International Raceway on Friday.
“It's a big change next year for us, obviously, going to the Honda,” Chilton said. “I have yet to drive the Honda car, so I'm looking forward to driving it at Sebring on Friday. Ganassi engineering-wise are one of the best teams out there, if not the best. They're going to try and get a grip on the new package as quickly as we can.”
Now that he is no longer a series rookie, Chilton has his sights set on achieving podiums and victories.
“I need to get on the podium,” he said. “I feel like if we get the speed better, we're in the closer part of the field at the front, then you're going to have things come your way. I feel like as soon as we get a podium going, the rhythm will just keep flowing and hopefully we'll get a win.
“I really, really do want to get a win next year. If we're doing that, we're sort of in contention for a good year in the championship. Just to get a good start and keep the momentum going, that is my goal. I think that definitely is achievable. With a top team, I've now got a year's experience under my belt.”