Max Chilton had worked his way to the pinnacle of international open wheel racing – Formula One – by 2013. But, when his F1 career took an unexpected turn, his next move was across the Atlantic, toward the top level of American open-wheel racing via a prominent racing ladder: the Mazda Road to Indy and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. In his first season, Chilton embraced his new surroundings, earning the first oval victory of his career and dedicating that win to his fallen F1 teammate.
Signed by Marussia F1 after completing its Young Driver Test, Chilton set a record in 2013 as the first rookie to finish every race. He returned with Marussia in 2014 but missed the final three races of the season when the team entered administration and closed its doors.
As Chilton explored his options, his uncertainty grew – until Trevor Carlin called. One of the most successful teams in junior motorsport, Carlin has won championships in all the major series including British F3, Formula Renault 3.5, FIA European Formula 3, GP3 and GP2. Many of today's most successful drivers have passed through Carlin's doors, including Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Will Power, Charlie Kimball, Takuma Sato, Graham Rahal and Josef Newgarden. With more drivers looking to America, Carlin announced its entry into Indy Lights in early December of last year. Suddenly, Chilton's career took a turn toward the States.
"It was a bizarre year for me," remembered Chilton. "For the last 12 years, I knew in July or August what I'd be doing the following year: you have a goal for what the next step in the ladder will be. But when you've been to the top, and then you suddenly come out of it, it's difficult to know where you should head with your career path. It got to late December and I still didn't know what I was doing. I was signed by Nissan for the LMP1 program in the World Endurance Championship but I wasn't sure where that would go. I knew Carlin was going to America with Indy Lights and Trevor asked for help developing the car, so I started doing the testing."
One thing led to another and when the time came for Carlin to announce its driver line-up for the season opener, Chilton was on the roster alongside fellow Englishman, 2013 European F3 Open Champion Ed Jones.
"I enjoyed driving the car, so when Colin (Hale, team manager) asked me to come to the first race, I told him I would," said Chilton. That first weekend did not go as planned, however, as Chilton went out early after an incident in race one and finished just off the podium in race two as Jones took both race victories.
"I had a bit of a disappointing weekend in St. Petersburg, even though we were quick. I had a crash in race one, so I wanted to do the next race just to prove I was quick. It just sort of carried on from there. I did all the races bar Toronto and the oval at Indianapolis, when I had a fuel problem. It was a drawn out and bizarre year, but I enjoyed racing in America and that's what kept me coming back race after race."
Jones also won the Long Beach race, but Chilton caught up rapidly, earning podium finishes at Barber Motorsports Park, the Indianapolis Grand Prix, Mid-Ohio and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (where he also scored both pole positions). But it was his breakthrough victory on the oval at Iowa Speedway that put a stamp on the season for the young Brit. Coming mere days after the passing of former Marussia teammate Jules Bianchi (who had been in a coma following a crash during practice at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix), the Iowa weekend marked the moment Chilton came to terms with that most American of racetracks: the oval.
"Winning at Iowa was perfectly timed," said Chilton. "I did all the pre-season testing but missed all the in-season oval testing. So I was behind guys like Ed who had tested on the ovals, and way behind the guys who had raced on them before. But for some reason, I started to get my head around it at Milwaukee. I qualified 10th, near the back, but was one of the quickest in the race, getting up to sixth. I thought maybe I was starting to get it. Iowa was the next weekend and I was quick straight out. You do get this feeling occasionally in racing where you think a track suits you, and I felt comfortable at Iowa. It was a bit of a dream weekend, especially since it was tied in with Jules' passing. It was nice to be able to dedicate that one to him.
"People think that because you're a Formula One driver, you should be winning everything but it's harder than people think. I was expecting myself to get up to speed pretty quickly but it was more competitive than I thought it would be. But I know that if it had been my main focus and if I'd done all the races, we would have been in that title fight, especially with the double pole at Mazda Raceway."
Chilton has echoed the sentiment expressed by many drivers who come to the States from the highly intense racing atmosphere in Europe – the racing in America has found the balance between competition and enjoyment. Add in the oval success and could Indy Lights be the vaulting-point the 24-year-old has been looking for into the Verizon IndyCar Series?
"Racing in America is very friendly, but it's still competitive. Everyone chats with everyone and has fun, and that's what brought me back, along with Indy Lights and the whole ladder system, from USF2000 and Pro Mazda and then on to IndyCar. Since I was already in Indy Lights I thought well, maybe I should think about doing IndyCar next year. Indy Lights has actually done me quite well; if I go straight into IndyCar, I'll be ready for the ovals, because I've already won on them and I seem to get up to speed pretty quick.
"I've had every team bar one contact me in recent months, though a few teams contacted me right after my win at Iowa. It was pretty unheard of, for a European driver to come over here and do well on ovals. People know that I'm young, I can be quick on ovals and I can do well on the road courses. It proves that the ladder system works. If I hadn't done Indy Lights, I wouldn't have been contacted. It's the same for people in USF2000 getting calls from teams in Pro Mazda. That's the way it works. People appreciate that I'm young, I'm professional and I have experience in different parts of racing and I can bring over some of the European market, in terms of sponsors."