An offseason of preparation gave Carlin a chance to play catch-up in analyzing what was learned from its initial year competing in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Max Chilton cites that work when explaining how his No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet was unofficially quickest in a Feb. 8 preseason test at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where Indy cars haven’t raced since 2004.
That’s also why the 27-year-old English driver speaks with modest confidence about what his team can achieve in the upcoming season. He likens the situation to when he raced for Carlin in the GP2 Series and improved from 20th in 2011 to fourth in 2012.
Chilton finished 19th in the point standings last season, Carlin’s first in the series after extensive success in European open-wheel junior formulas and a successful plunge into Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, the top level of the Road to Indy development ladder.
“The expectations are we need to prove we’re a top-running team,” Chilton said during the recent INDYCAR Media Day in Austin, Texas. “Obviously to do that, you need to be at least qualifying in the top 10 regularly. With doing that, you’re obviously going to have bad days but you’re going to have good days where you can come away with a top-five or top-four result, which is what we definitely need to progress.
“That’s the aim at the moment. You’ve got to constantly be up at the front. That’s what we did in GP2, always regular top-fives and you come away with a good championship result.”
He returned to the United States from England over the winter to a confident team, an overwhelmingly positive vibe that usually makes the former Formula One driver a bit wary.
“I’m always a little bit skeptical because it’s sort of like sounding like an F1 team where you promise the world and then you get to the race and nothing happens,” Chilton said. “You doubt it. But then we got to Laguna and we clearly had made a step forward. Their hard work over the winter has made a big difference.
“We seem to leapfrog quite a lot, so we’re putting pressure on ourselves a little bit. But pressure makes diamonds.”
Optimism from the preseason Laguna Seca test was tempered by the open test at Circuit of The Americas last month, where Chilton ranked 22nd out of 25 cars. As he reminds, it’s still a steep learning curve trying to adapt to such a competitive series. There are good days and bad.
Chilton made his series debut after finishing fifth in Indy Lights for Carlin in 2015. He was 19th as a rookie for Chip Ganassi Racing, then improved to 11th in 2017 before rejoining Carlin last season.
“It’s not easy coming into INDYCAR,” he said. “I think we probably slightly underestimated how hard it is, especially with how short of a season it is. It’s March through basically August, you’ve got very little testing and you’ve got very little time to learn everything. In your first year, it’s actually very hard to actually learn anything.
“So I think that’s what those winter months have done for us. It’s actually us analyzing everything, learn from it and move forward. It’s quite hard in INDYCAR to progress forward in a season. You have to do it in the winter and then progress the next year. Hopefully, fingers crossed, we can do that this year.”
The closest Chilton came to a top-10 finish last year was an 11th in the first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear doubleheader. It wasn’t what he expected after delivering six top-10 results with Ganassi the previous year. His best series race to date was the 2017 Indianapolis 500, where he led 50 laps and finished fourth.
“It’s critical for us this year to get some wins or at least some podiums,” he said. “Yeah, looking forward to it. Obviously, I’m getting more and more comfortable in America. I just can’t wait to get some success with Carlin. I’ve always enjoyed winning with Carlin more than anyone else because they’re part of the family.”
Despite not having oval experience when he started racing in the U.S., he reminds that his only Indy Lights win was on an oval at Iowa. Though his experience is on road and street courses, that Indy 500 result on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval still resonates.
“Weirdly, I’ve had my best success and my nearly biggest career-changing moment was leading those 50 laps at the Indy 500,” Chilton said. “That’s not luck. That was learning from greats like Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon) and Tony (Kanaan). Yeah, we got unlucky (at the end), but that’s part of the 500. People have lost on the last corner.
“I’ve learned from it – I know if I’m in that position again, what I could do differently. My first win over here was in Indy Lights on an oval. Even though I don’t feel comfortable on an oval, it naturally suits my smooth, calm driving style.”
The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series opens on a temporary street circuit with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Practices begin Friday, with NTT P1 Award qualifying Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 110-lap race on Sunday (12:30 p.m., NBCSN). Click here for the full weekend on-track schedule.
All NTT IndyCar Series practice sessions and qualifying will stream live on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold. For information on how to subscribe to INDYCAR Pass at the discounted price of $49.99 for the season, click here.