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.