Max Chilton makes intriguing career shift with Nissan LMP1 move

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One of the stories I’ve been monitoring closely this offseason is the development of the new Dallara IL15 chassis and what it can mean for the growth of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.

The addition of Carlin Racing, I pegged as perhaps the most important story for IndyCar during the offseason, because it showed the investment of a high-caliber international team joining the U.S. shores.

Max Chilton was confirmed to a test and development program for Carlin over the winter, and impressed during Indy Lights testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway and NOLA Motorsports Park.

From his tests thus far, he was the proverbial big fish in a small pond, and as a driver with nearly two full years of Formula 1 experience in the bank, he provided an excellent measuring stick for those drivers seeking to advance into the Verizon IndyCar Series this year.

However, hopes of him becoming the first former F1 driver to race in Indy Lights since Hideki Noda and Naoki Hattori did so in 1997 appear to be dashed with his confirmation this morning to Nissan’s GT-R LM NISMO LMP1 program in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Frankly, his signing to Nissan is a surprise, and it’s something of a disappointment – for the moment – for Indy Lights, if he doesn’t undertake any Lights races or a full season.

Plenty of ex-F1 drivers make the switch to LMP1 machinery, but it often takes time to adapt.

Any of his contemporaries – count Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Alex Wurz, Stephane Sarrazin, Mark Webber, Lucas di Grassi, Andre Lotterer and Marc Gene among those with past Grand Prix experience now racing in LMP1 full-time this year – have all had years to hone their craft and develop their skills in this type of machinery.

Chilton, as a full season rookie in a developmental, outside the box program, with a less than amazing F1 career on his CV will likely enter with lower expectations. He was consistent and finished his first 25 races consecutively, but in qualifying, outside of Suzuka 2013, he rarely dazzled.

The better example for Chilton to measure up against this year will be Nico Hulkenberg, who is dovetailing his full season with Force India in a two-race trial run with Porsche in its third 919 Hybrid at Spa and Le Mans.

These two F1 drivers are newer to the rigors and style of endurance racing; setup compromise is essential, and you have to get on well with your co-drivers in order to achieve success.

It is Chilton, though, and not Jenson Button, Adrian Sutil or other potential candidates who is the latest F1 veteran now headed to LMP1.

“I’m honored to have been asked to join a manufacturer as prestigious as Nissan in a championship that is growing year on year,” Chilton said in Nissan’s release.

“Le Mans has always had an amazing following and to be racing there as a works driver is a dream come true. My aim has always been to race at the highest level and the technology that has gone into the Nissan GT-R LM NISMO is as impressive as a Formula 1 car. Having met with the team and seen first-hand the dedication and desire to win that exists within this project I can’t wait to get on track.”

Will Chilton earn more press for his WEC shift than perhaps winning races on his own in Indy Lights? It’s likely, given the wider scale of coverage WEC has gotten and will continue to get this year, given the level of manufacturer involvement and given how Nissan is shooting to upset the apple cart with its car design.

Still, it’s a surprise signing that will test how well Chilton adapts to endurance racing, and if he doesn’t race, it would open up one of the better remaining seats in Indy Lights.

Whether dinner or driving, Montoya and Cameron fast friends at Penske

Courtesy of IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dane Cameron’s reaction to being told he’d be paired with Juan Pablo Montoya on Team Penske’s DPI Acura didn’t signal the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“I sign my contract with (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric, and he says, ‘We’re going to put you with Montoya,’ ” Cameron told NBCSports.com, pausing to laugh. “I’m thinking ‘Did I do something wrong? Is he mad at me? Why is he giving me that guy? This is going to be a lot of work.’

“At first I wasn’t really sure what I was in for because (Montoya) definitely has a bit of a reputation. I was like, ‘Oh man, how is this going to go?’ ”

Actually, it’s gone really well.

VIEWER’S GUIDE: Five things to watch in the 2020 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona

Entering this weekend’s season-opening Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, Cameron and Montoya are the reigning champions of IMSA’s premier division. In their second year together, the No. 6 duo scored victories last season at Mid-Ohio, Detroit and Laguna Seca while finishing on the podium in seven consecutive events.

But it’s easy to understand why Cameron initially might have had reservations about a working relationship with Montoya.

Over a Hall of Fame career spanning more than two decades, the outspoken Colombian famous for his cutthroat indifference and swashbuckling sizzle has been embroiled in controversial rivalries with many of the world’s greatest drivers while blazing a winning trail in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One.

Cameron, meanwhile, is a low-key native of Sonoma, California, who is the first three-time champion of the WeatherTech Series (since the IMSA merger of 2014) but whose professional driving experience is limited nearly exclusively to sports cars.

Yet since their first conversation – Montoya called Cameron while he was driving home from signing that first contract with Penske – their rapport has been strong, and as simpatico as they are behind the wheel, they also get along famously off the track.

“We have such a good relationship,” Montoya told NBCSports.com. “It’s amazing how well we bonded. We really created a friendship. We have massive amounts of trust in each other. Whether he makes a mistake or I make a mistake, there’s no judgment. We always seem to be there for each other, and we complement each other really well.

“I like going to dinner with this guy, put it that way. That doesn’t happen often.”

Cameron said his teammate’s loose and playful style immediately was a welcome relief. During one of his first media appearances with Team Penske’s IMSA driver lineup, Cameron was nervous about maintaining the team’s well-coiffed image of professionalism.

But as Montoya and teammate Helio Castroneves traded barbs about turning gray or graining weight, Cameron suddenly felt at ease.

“Juan’s a good guy to break the ice when it’s getting a little stuffy in the room to have a little joke or make fun of Helio coloring his hair just to lighten the mood,” Cameron said of Montoya. “If things are tense, he’s good. It’s silly and childish but fun. That helped me get more comfortable for sure

“He’s probably a little more brash than I am and likes to pick on people and have some fun, but I like to enjoy myself, too. If everything’s really serious, and you’re miserable, it’s tougher to perform in the car. If you’re enjoying yourself and surrounding yourself with the right people in a good environment, then things come together a lot easier.”

Cameron and Montoya never met before joining Team Penske’s relaunched sports car program two years ago. The team used the same formula for filling each of its Acuras: Pairing an IMSA champion with an IndyCar star.

Ricky Taylor and Castroneves were aligned in the No. 7, and Montoya was teamed with Cameron, who had won the 2016 DP title with Action Express Racing.

The No. 6 Acura in testing for the Rolex 24. Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud will share the car this weekend at Daytona (courtesy of IMSA).

“With (Cameron) winning the championship, we knew Montoya would have respect for him,” Cindric said. “We saw pretty quickly that (Montoya) could learn from (Cameron) in this form of racing. It’s been healthy. We’ve never had any problems with them.

“It’s good to see them have success and Montoya get another championship. He was so close to the IndyCar (title) with us, it was good to get one with him.”

Montoya, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and Cameron will be paired with another Indy 500 champion at Daytona as Simon Pagenaud joins their Rolex 24 entry for the second consecutive season. Montoya and Cameron still are seeking their first endurance victory, and Pagenaud bring the resume of a former American Le Mans Series champion.

The trio will split the driving over 24 hours while also compromising on myriad details, such as the positioning of the seat and pedals. Hitting a setup that can suit each driver’s style with optimized speed is among the biggest challenges in sports car racing.

“You have to find the right balance between standing up for what you really want and what you really need so you can perform and then maybe give up here and there on certain things that aren’t bothering you,” Cameron said. “When you find the right partnership and the right guy to be with, it really can push the program to the next level.”

Said Montoya: “It’s crazy that we always want the same things out of the car. We keep helping each other. And it’s funny because when I’m really happy with the car, he struggles a bit. And when he’s really happy with the car, I struggle a bit. And we kind of found that middle ground where we know it’s good. I can make it work here, and he can make it work there.”

Each has their own track-specific strengths, too. Montoya is a three-time Rolex 24 winner who excels on the Daytona road course, where Cameron still is seeking his first win. It’s the opposite at Sebring International Raceway, where Montoya says, “I know I suck, and Dane’s freaking unbelievable.”

Such brutal honesty is part of what makes Montoya a good teammate.

“He just wants to have fun and drive race cars and really isn’t into drama,” Cameron said. “Sometimes he can’t bite his tongue, but that makes everyone love him at the same time. We just found a really great way to have fun at the racetrack and become closer friends away from the track.

“He’s just the right guy.”

Juan Pablo Montoya (left) and Dane Cameron celebrated after winning at Laguna Seca last year (courtesy of IMSA).