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.