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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Max Chilton

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. Max Chilton made a significant improvement in performance and final finishing position this year.

Max Chilton, No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

  • 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
  • 2017: 11th Place, Best Finish 4th, Best Start 6th, 1 Top-5, 6 Top-10, 64 Laps Led, 12.6 Avg. Start, 12.2 Avg. Finish

Max Chilton’s second season in IndyCar was a solid, serviceable leap in performance from year-to-year – under-the-radar but sufficient enough to prove his proper place on the grid after a mixed first season.

Chilton enjoyed an excellent month of May, with a great run from 14th to seventh in the Indianapolis Grand Prix, and an even better Indianapolis 500 when he led a race-high 50 laps before fading to fourth place by the checkered flag. Four other top-10 finishes between seventh and ninth provided a good improvement versus 2016.

Crucially, where Chilton also impressed this year was in showing his passion for racing in the series – something you might accuse him of lacking if you didn’t know him any better given his affluent background and appearance.

When Chilton was frustrated, it was because he’d felt he hadn’t got the chance to showcase what he could do. Getting taken out at Phoenix and getting parked at Pocono were two moments where he felt aggrieved at the circumstances as he’d been retired for reasons outside his own control. Finishing fourth at the ‘500 annoyed him, as well, because it fueled his motivation to want to win the series’ biggest race after getting that close. The two DNFs at Phoenix and Pocono cost him critical points, and considering he was only seven out of the top-10 at year’s end, they loomed large. His only real mistake of the year came at Gateway when he lost the rear end of the car in Turn 4.

Now married to his lovely bride Chloe, Chilton managed to make a more positive impression on the paddock in his sophomore season and was arguably Chip Ganassi Racing’s second most consistent driver in its foursome this year ahead of Tony Kanaan, although Kanaan had higher upside and ultimately better results. In an expected Carlin team situation, Chilton has the potential to flourish even more than he did this year.

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

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