SEBRING, Florida – Julian Robertson won’t be quitting his day job anytime soon. He’s just adding more weekend responsibilities to an already extensive workload.
Robertson, Chip Ganassi Racing’s technical director who oversees the team’s Verizon IndyCar Series and sports car programs, will serve as race strategist for Max Chilton’s No. 8 Gallagher Honda this season. When the season opens March 12 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Robertson will be speaking directly to a driver during a race for the first time in years.
“It’s been relatively straightforward so far,” Robertson said during a break in a test session today on Sebring International Raceway’s short course. “The first race weekend is probably going to be a lot more interesting.”
The private team test included drivers from Ganassi, Team Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Dale Coyne Racing, AJ Foyt Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Andretti Autosport will test Wednesday.
“Julian is probably one of the most experienced people in the paddock,” Chilton said. “He’s also English, like myself, so there’s that sort of connection, straight away. I got to know Julian pretty well last year. He’s one of those friendly, bubbly, extremely knowledgeable characters. You ask him a question, and I guarantee he’ll have an answer for it. That’s someone you want on your timing stand. In the heat of the moment, experience pays.”
Meanwhile, Robertson adjusted to his new role with positive early reviews.
“On race days, we need quality people making big-time decisions from the timing stand,” said Mike Hull, CGR’s managing director. “We had an opportunity on Max’s timing stand to do that with Julian. I think it’s the right move and especially the right move for Max. He’s ready to have that experience of being guided through an entire race season. He can now keep his head above water. He doesn’t need a life vest anymore.”
Robertson, who joined Chip Ganassi Racing in 1993, has held a variety of engineering positions in the company, most recently as engineering manager, overseeing the team’s programs that compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. It’s different – but not that much – from what he’s done before.
“It’s been a while since I’ve spoken specifically to a driver during a race, but I’ve always been on a timing stand discussing strategy during every single race we’ve ever done,” Robertson said. “It’s not like it’s totally new and I’ve never done it before, I just haven’t been the guy on the microphone. I’ve been one of the guys in the background the whole time.”
For the past few years, Robertson’s role during races was primarily on Tony Kanaan’s No. 10 car, although he did float among the team’s other two cars, driven by Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball. This year, he’ll be exclusively focused on Chilton’s strategic effort.
So far, as much as early testing can tell, it’s going well.
“It’s not too bad,” Robertson said. “It’s more the interacting with the driver aspect of it – knowing what the driver needs to hear, giving him the right information in the right format. It’s the same thing you get when we get a new spotter. It’s trying to speak to the driver in the way he wants to hear it. That’s true in my position also. I’m trying to get the information across in the best manner possible.”
Robertson was Jimmy Vasser’s engineer when he won the CART championship in 1996 – the first of what are now 11 Indy car drivers’ titles for CGR. From there, Robertson became a chassis engineer with the team, then became the engineering leader, overseeing the team’s open-wheel and sports car programs and working with engineers at Honda and Ford.
Now, along with all that, he’s calling plays for Chilton.
“When you have people of quality and merit and integrity, they define the culture very clearly at Chip Ganassi Racing,” Hull said. “They’re clearly a part of how we define race strategy. For Julian to step into this role with Max Chilton is a great step for him and his growth and our job.”
Chilton, a 25-year-old former Formula One driver from Reigate, England, is entering his second season with Chip Ganassi Racing. Last year, he finished seventh at Phoenix and 10th at Watkins Glen, along with a fourth-place start at Iowa. Perhaps the most telling statistic, though, relates to Chilton’s reputation for clean driving: He was running at the end of 14 of the 16 races.
“Last year the tracks were all pretty much new to him,” Robertson said. “The racing was totally new to him. Coming to INDYCAR from Formula One is a big change. Now, I think we’ve got a pretty strong opportunity to build on that. He’s fully up to speed and familiar with the tracks and has worked with the crew a lot more. There’s more continuity with the crew, which is always a good thing.”
The adjustments for Robertson are subtler than those faced by Chilton in 2016. Before, he was used to speaking among a group of engineers during races. Now he’s speaking directly to the driver while he’s racing.
“Before when I was on the timing stand, I was just talking amongst the crew and amongst ourselves and maybe to the driver while he was in the pits,” Robertson said. “Speaking to the driver while he’s on track is different. You have to do it at the right time and in the right manner. You have to get the information across quickly.
“The amount of information you need to feed the driver is important. There’s a line. You don’t want to be talking so much that he zones you out. Similarly, you don’t want to be so spare on the information that he doesn’t know what’s going on during a race. You’ve got to give the driver enough information that he’s aware of the situation.”