His goal for 2017 is specific and, perhaps more important, realistic. Max Chilton wants to finish a race on the podium. It’s simple, forthright and plainly within reach.
After all, during his rookie season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, with minimal experience in the car and almost no experience with most of the tracks, Chilton showed speed. He finished seventh in his first oval race at Phoenix, a notoriously merciless venue for newcomers. At Watkins Glen, he made it into the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying. He qualified fourth at Iowa, another demanding short oval. At Road America, he was in the mix before running out of fuel.
“Last year wasn’t as bad as it looked,” Chilton said, listing the highlights. “Our pace definitely improved toward the end of the year.”
So the first priority of his second season? Finishing among the top three in a race. Once there, Chilton will reset the goal to winning a race.
“I know I’m good enough to get podiums and eventually race wins,” Chilton says. “I know I am, and I think other people believe that, too. I’ve just got to do it. It takes time. This is one of those championships where experience pays. If that takes me a couple of years, I want to stick that out. Obviously, if you’re doing that regularly, you want to keep doing it because by then you’ll have a chance to win a title.”
None of that is unrealistic when you consider Chilton’s background. He was just 15 years old when he landed in British Formula 3 and – being under the required age of 16 – had to be granted a special dispensation to compete in the 2007 season opener.
From there, he advanced to GP2, the top ruing of the European development system below Formula One. That led to a test with F1’s Force India in 2011. The following season, Chilton was a reserve and test driver for Marussia, and made his F1 debut in 2013. There, cleanliness became his forte; he’s the only F1 driver to finish all races in his rookie season. From those first 19 races, he expanded the streak to 25 races without a DNF in 2014.
“I had quite a quick read,” he explained. “I felt young at the time I reached F1, but now Max Verstappen (who made his F1 debut at 17 years, 166 days) makes me feel quite old.”
When Chilton went from F1 to Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires (the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder leading to the Verizon IndyCar Series) after the 2014 season – a move met with side-eye glances – he enjoyed it more than expected. “I sort of fell in love with the American way of racing,” he said. “Hopefully it’s the start of a flourishing relationship.”
His teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing – Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball – think it will be a flourishing relationship. But they empathize with Chilton, saying his path to Indy cars – because of the lack of experience, limits on testing and a talented, veteran field – is more daunting than the ones they followed.
“All the guys who are still at it now started pretty young, so we’ve been doing this for 15, 20 years,” said Kanaan, entering his 20th year of Indy car competition after he spent two years in Indy Lights. “It’s hard to come in as a rookie and beat guys like that right away, especially when you’ve never seen the tracks and don’t have much testing to prepare. I think Max will have a much better year this year. The second year, with more experience and knowing the tracks, will be a lot more beneficial to him.”
Add to that Ganassi’s offseason switch from Chevrolet to Honda and Chilton faces more obstacles. However, after his first test with the new package earlier this month at Sebring, Chilton is enthused about the possibilities.
“It was definitely a relief compared to what I was expecting,” he said. “There’s no doubt that Honda has a fantastic speedway package and a very good engine that seems to have a lot of bottom end. We noticed that when we were Chevy drivers. Trying to keep up with the Honda out of slow-speed corners is very, very difficult. Instantly after our first run, all four of us came in and said, ‘Wow!’”
Chilton made the best of team owner Trevor Carlin’s offer to compete in Indy Lights in 2015, finishing fifth in the final standings despite competing in just 13 of the 16 races. The following year, he was a Verizon IndyCar Series rookie.
“He’s done really well,” said Dixon, starting his 17th season in Indy cars. “He’s always learning from the three of us. If he makes a mistake, he’s a smart person and understands not to do the same thing twice. For some of us, the transition was a little different. I did two years of Indy Lights. I think the biggest difficulty for Max is probably street courses. When you’re racing in Europe, you really don’t get a chance to drive a car like this on street courses. It’s hard to get the confidence to know the car is going to stick.”
The culture in INDYCAR is beneficial to Chilton’s development in the series, as well. The F1 teammate rivalry dynamic is rarely seen here. At Ganassi, Chilton relies on Kanaan, Dixon and Kimball – along with retired champion Dario Franchitti, now a team driving coach – for advice.
“From what I’m used to, your teammate is often your archrival,” Chilton said. “Here, it’s not like that at all. Yes, you want to beat your teammates; that’s how you measure where you are. But here, everyone wants to help. They’re always asking if I need anything. They’re asking me for advice and I’m asking them. You bounce things off each other and I’m not used to that.”
While a season without DNFs is difficult to come by in Indy car racing, Chilton’s reputation for bringing cars home is largely intact. He failed to finish just two of the 16 races in 2016, a clean effort for a rookie.
“We had a few DNFs last year, which is frustrating, but INDYCAR is closer than the other championships I’ve raced in,” he said. “You’re in the mix a lot more. The accidents happen a lot quicker in INDYCAR. It’s harder to have records like that. It’s part of the way of American racing.”
He pauses, considering the realistic goal he’s set for 2017 against the backdrop of more long-term goals. He pleased with what he’s undertaken and wants to go beyond his immediate goal and someday move into the realm of championships.
“This is a great opportunity to return,” Chilton says. “I want to keep giving American racing and INDYCAR a shot.”