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IndyCar 2016 driver review: Max Chilton

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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series driver-by-driver lineup. In 19th place and the third-ranked rookie this season, was Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

Max Chilton, No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2015: Indy Lights
  • 2016: 19th Place, Best Finish 7th, Best Start 4th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 2 Laps Led, 13.9 Avg. Start, 16.1 Avg. Finish

Max Chilton seemed to combine the 2015 seasons of Sage Karam, his predecessor at Chip Ganassi Racing, and James Jakes, a fellow Brit who made it over to IndyCar, in his maiden season in IndyCar. It wasn’t particularly memorable, it fell short of expectations, but yet it wasn’t as bad as it seemed – it was just made worse by the fact in a super deep 22-car field, someone has to finish 19th in points.

Like Karam, where Chilton actually did best was on the ovals. He starred early at Phoenix, followed up his Iowa Indy Lights win with a career-best qualifying of fourth (but spun out of the race), did a solid job at Indy to bounce back from a qualifying day crash and made it through his first go-around at Pocono and Texas by finishing both.

Where he was underwhelming and probably underachieved – I’d imagine by his own estimation as well as mine – was on the permanent road courses that should have been his bread and butter. I’d have expected more than one Firestone Fast Six run, and at least one or two podiums. Instead, it took until Watkins Glen for him to even get his first – and only – top-10 result on said course this year. Whether it was poor luck, poor strategy, poor pit stops or a combination of the above Chilton was never in the frame as much as you would have thought.

The nadir of his year was Detroit, a double DNF weekend where a steering rack broke in race one and he was caught up in another accident on the opening lap of race two. Otherwise, the usually safe pair of hands didn’t have another DNF all season.

Chilton’s a likable guy once you get to know him. He has a good wit, a solid sense of humor and doesn’t take himself too seriously. His IndyCar-aoke routine with Matthew Brabham going into Indianapolis was a funny moment. He quickly established a good working rapport with the Ganassi team and worked to soak up every fiber of information he learned from Dario Franchitti, which was a canny move. He also appreciated the level of competition in IndyCar; qualifying well is a sign here of your ability level, and this was an opportunity he was never afforded in F1 owing to the machinery deficit.

He and I joked throughout the year about our propensity for bumping into each other in airports – usually his “adopted U.S. home of Chicago O’Hare” – but I wonder if a more permanent move to Indianapolis this year might have helped him.

I’d like to see him back, though, because he has the ability level, he’s a good teammate – that was witnessed not just at Ganassi but also with his support for his Indy Lights team, Carlin, throughout the year – and he does want to get better.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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