EX-F1 man will become a rare grand prix
Max Chilton will become the first British Formula 1 driver to switch to the American Indycar Series for 12 years after signing for top squad Chip Ganassi Racing this year.
Former Marussia racer Chilton has inked a deal to join the multiple title-winning squad to handle a Chevrolet-powered car alongside team-mates Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and reigning champion Scott Dixon. Ganassi has won six titles since Indycar and Champ Car merged in 2008.
Chilton, 24, contested a part season in the Indy Lights category last year alongside driving for Nissan with its troubled GT-R LM NISMO LMP1 Le Mans project. He finished fifth in the Indy Lights points despite missing three races.
The last British F1 driver to tackle Indycar was the late Justin Wilson, who was killed in an accident at the Pocono Raceway round last year.
“I’m the first British F1 driver since 2004 to go across to Indycar, Justin was the last,” said Chilton. “There have not been too many in the last 25 years and Nigel Mansell was the first in that period. I don’t know if I will start a new wave going across, but people will start looking at Indycar in a new light.
“I remember saying I’d never do Indycar but then I gave Indy Lights a go and it went on from there. So I’m really excited.
“I’ve got the best opportunity to do well with Ganassi. Dario Franchitti has been a big influence and as he still works for Chip, he will be at a lot of races helping me.
“I’m fully aware that people will expect me to be at the front and I’m really looking forward to it because I’ve had several years of not having a car I could win in. The last time was GP2 in 2012, and I won then and I have no problem believing I can win races.
“There’s added pressure [because I have switched from F1], but I haven’t had that pressure for a few years because expectations in the car were low [at Marussia]. Some tracks will be very hard, especially the ovals, but the tracks I do know give me a few races and I’m quite confident I can go for some victories and some podiums this year.”
Chilton readily admits that his deal to join Ganassi is a late one, which will leave minimal time for pre-season testing.
He will have just five days to acclimatise to the Chevrolet-powered Dallara DW12. Chilton said: “[The lack of] testing is the one hindrance I have. I had the option to test at the end of last year with one team, which I didn’t take. But I probably should have as it ended up taking so long to get the contracts done [for the Ganassi move].
“I won’t test until February 10, and the first race is in March so I have a few days in a car I’ve never driven before, three of which will be on an oval. It will be tough but I’m pretty sure I’ve got enough
experience to learn the car’s cues and be ready for [the first race in] St Petersburg [on March 13].”
A season in Indycar will offer Chilton a mixture of street, permanent and oval circuit races. He adds that the challenge of handling something new on unfamiliar territory is exciting.
“I love street tracks – there are five on the calendar – five streets, five ovals and five road courses so it’s a good split. I’d rather more races on [road and street] tracks because that’s the way I’ve been educated in racing but it’s nice to try something new.
“I’m a very accurate driver, so street circuits suit me. I’ve always said on street circuits treat the walls as your friends and get as close as you can.”
Preparation can pay
Chilton says his part-season in Indy Lights with the British Carlin team can pay off this year when he moves into the top flight of American single-seater racing.
“Lots of people gave me respect last year for stepping down from F1 to Indy Lights as it’s a big drop,” he added. “People thought ‘fair enough, he’s willing to drop down and have a go’. A lot of people aren’t willing to do that. People like Stefano Coletti [multiple GP2 Series race-winner] went into Indycar [last year] and didn’t do a great deal [he finished 19th in the points] and I think at times he will have thought ‘I wish I’d learned in Lights cars first’.
“Last year wasn’t brilliant in Lights, mainly because it wasn’t my full focus. When I was working with Nissan I had that to concentrate on and I did 28 trips across the Atlantic last year.
“I had my first win [at Iowa], and Nissan was over by then and I knew I was pretty strong. I could have won [the season finale at] Laguna Seca too, but I made a mistake and turned in too early for the Corkscrew and took a valve out of my tyre. I was a lot stronger during the second half of the year when I had nothing else to worry about and I could focus.”
F1 door still open
Chilton has also reiterated that he hasn’t turned his back on Formula 1 completely.
The Briton contested 35 races with the Marussia team between 2012-2014, but failed to score a point as the team struggled financially as one of the newer outfits on the grid.
Chilton had options to continue in F1 after 2014, but opted to look elsewhere due to the financial strain of the sport.
“Whatever people say, anyone in the back 10-12 cars on the grid is expected to bring vast amounts of money. And I couldn’t,” he says. “My backers had done F1 for two years. I would have felt bad for them doing it again because it was at the back.
“Instead I can go off and do things like this where teams are willing to bring a sponsor to you. You go to a top squad like Ganassi and they bring sponsors. They are more welcoming.
“I won’t ever say F1 is off the cards. Say I win the Indycar Championship and a top or midfield F1 team contacts me then I’d love to do it. It was my goal since I was a kid. But you have to be realistic sometimes and just move on.”
Additional reporting by Edd Straw