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Max Chilton anxious for road courses to avenge slow start to 2017

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While Scott Dixon has gotten the Chip Ganassi Racing Teams/Honda reunion off to a strong start in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, his teammates have been less fortunate.

Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball have each been involved in two incidents in both of the first two races.

Meanwhile series sophomore Max Chilton has been stuck in a weird spot altogether. The Englishman has had improved testing pace to where he nearly led the series’ open test at Barber Motorsports Park last month and qualified seventh at St. Petersburg, but endured an anonymous weekend off pace in Long Beach.

The driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Honda was caught out by the Kanaan/Mikhail Aleshin contact and yellow flag at St. Petersburg when in a top-10 position and fell to 16th there; retirements helped turned a frustrating 20th place start into a respectable, if still unsatisfying, 14th place at Long Beach. It leaves him 19th in points through two races, although just six points behind 10th place.

With Chilton having excelled most on the permanent road courses last year – he qualified 11th at Barber, seventh at Road America and sixth at Watkins Glen – a turnaround in fortunes is due on the agenda for the likable Englishman, who turns 26 on Friday starting this weekend.

“I think you’ve nailed it on the head to be honest,” Chilton told NBC Sports last week. “The Long Beach weekend put a spanner in the works – I don’t have the answer why we didn’t have the pace we did elsewhere. I’d made the Fast Six or close a couple times last year. Then we were P2 at the Barber test, and was quick at Sonoma.

“We were very quick at St. Pete and got screwed at the race, but Long Beach we had no pace. We tried changing the car every time we were out. It was a head-scratcher. Drivers do get weekends like that. It was a good weekend for us. The result wasn’t the end of the world, so we got some points. It’s a weekend to forget. Hopefully we have stronger weekend in Barber.”

Chilton has adapted to the street courses in IndyCar although admits he could do without Detroit, easily his least favorite track on the calendar. But he has a natural affinity for the permanent road courses and provided the Honda enhancements that have come to start the year continue, he thinks Barber could be the sign of a needed turnaround.

“I’ve always quite liked street circuits and done quite well on them. But the American ones are so different,” he said. “Detroit, I’ll admit I don’t like it there! I just don’t get to grips with it. It’s too much a rallycross track.

“But I’m looking forward to these ones – Barber, Elkhart Lake’s Road America, Watkins Glen, the fast, flowing tracks I was brought in up. Barber for me is such a great event, not just a great track. It’s’ a fantastic atmosphere, and there’s plenty of people in RVs. The track is absolutely pristine – like you want any event to be. I’ve been watching The Masters. It’s not a million miles from Augusta. If I owned a race course, that’d be the one I want.”

Chilton’s had a slight change to his timing stand this year with Ganassi technical director Julian Robertson taking over as strategist, working in tandem with engineer Brandon Fry. The two have meshed well in spite of the tough results thus far.

“He’s fantastic. It helps that he’s a fellow Brit so we bounce off each other well,” Chilton said. “His knowledge is mind-blowing. But because he’s been Ganassi that whole time, he is their IndyCar team. He works very well with Brandon to come up with the strategies. Brandon now has someone to help make the decision with strategy. He’ll say something. It’s always better to have two than one.”

Chilton hailed the Honda’s fuel economy and low-end torque as the noticeable improvements he’s picked up on so far.

The Reigate, England-based native still commutes to and from the U.S. as he did in 2016, preferring the comforts of home instead of a more regular relocation. Chilton said he’s already accomplished five or six of his planned 13 intercontinental trips this season, and with his wedding to his fiancé Chloe on the horizon in August, that’s taken up a bit of his planning.

Beyond the road courses, Chilton is bullish on having a good month of May and with Honda, he’s optimistic that’s more possible.

“For us, Indy’s the one for us. A good Indy for us would mean the rest of the year really doesn’t matter.”

Fernando Alonso completes first test with United Autosports

Photo: United Autosports
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Two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso enjoyed his first outing with United Autosports, with whom he will contest the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona, in their Ligier JS P217 LMP2 chassis.

The McLaren Formula 1 driver completed the test at Motorland Aragon in Spain alongside co-driver Phil Hanson, who will be a teammate with Alonso at next year’s 24-hour Daytona enduro. Filipe Albuquerque, a former GT class winner at the Rolex 24, was also on hand to help Alonso and the team ahead of Alonso’s first run in an LMP2 car, which comes only a couple days after he made his LMP1 testing debut with Toyota. Albuquerque races with Mustang Sampling Racing in IMSA, but will return to United’s European Le Mans Series program for all but one race in 2018.

“I had a great first test with United Autosports. Obviously, we are on a really tight schedule between now and Daytona, but it was nice to jump in the car for the first time,” said Alonso, who will rejoin the team at the official Roar Before the 24 test on January 5-7.

Alonso added, “There’s quite a few switches and things to study so it was important to do this initial shakedown before Daytona, so I could fully learn about the car. I’m happy with everything – the car felt great and the team were fantastic. The atmosphere here is wonderful, like a big family, so today has been amazing. I cannot wait for Daytona.”

Team owner Zak Brown, who also serves as executive director of McLaren Technology Group and helps lead the McLaren Formula 1 effort, shared Alonso’s enthusiasm and was not surprised he was able to acclimate himself relatively quickly.

“Fernando’s first test with United Autosports went awesome as expected. He is a world champion and it is a pleasure to have him in our car,” he said of Alonso’s debut with the team.

Alonso is currently schedule to contest the Rolex 24 with the aforementioned Hanson and McLaren test driver Lando Norris.