News came out today that Chip Ganassi Racing hired Max Chilton for the fourth IndyCar seat in the 2016 season. This came as a surprise to some, but if you think more broadly about the Ganassi program and their involvement with Ford, it shouldn’t be. Before we get into the sportscar tie-in, let’s take a look at the IndyCar deal.
The #8 machine was driven primarily, but not exclusively, by Sage Karam last year, and although he showed himself to be quick, he was also inconsistent. He was also the center of some criticism from his fellow drivers for being overly aggressive. We can debate whether Sage was too aggressive or not in the forums, but there’s no doubt that he had pace. What he did not have was significant funding. Comfort Revolution has been a long-time partner with Sage since his days in USF2000, but the support is not at a level necessary for funding a full-time ride. It was announced last month that instead of racing in the #8 for Chip, he’ll be driving the #24 Gas Monkey Garage Special for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in the 100th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, and with newcomer to IMSA, Lexus and F Performance Racing, in a limited GTD season with their Lexus RC F GT3.
This left a lot of speculation as to whom would take the #8 driving duties. Of all the names bandied about, Max Chilton’s was probably the least mentioned, so it was a surprise to many when the announcement came early today that he was in for the full 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
“I couldn’t be happier to join Chip Ganassi Racing’s Verizon IndyCar Series program. This organization is built on winning and their 11 INDYCAR Championships back that up. Chip is the kind of team owner that every driver dreams of working for in their career. He’s accomplished so much in so many different categories over the years, and I can’t wait to start driving for him.” — Max Chilton, #8 Chip Ganassi Racing
Let’s take a broader look at Ganassi’s efforts in motorsports right now. We know that he’s heavily involved with Ford Racing with his twin IMSA efforts in Daytona Prototypes and GTLM. Chip Ganassi Racing has been working closely with Ford to develop the newly redesigned FordGT with the specific goal of winning at the 24 Hours of LeMans. Of all the currently available drivers suitable for an IndyCar ride that could also step right into a top-level sportscar team should they bring four GTs to France, Max Chilton has the most experience. He’s been a full-time driver in Formula 1 (yes, it was Marussia, but it was still F1), he ran strong in Indy Lights and scored his first win on the high-banked oval of Iowa Speedway, and he was involved in the unfortunately ill-fated Nissan LMP1 effort. In the official press release, Chip Ganassi clearly references Chilton’s multi-disciplinary background as a reason for his selection.
“Max is a talented young driver who has driven a number of different disciplines already in a short time. He brings a good deal of experience to our Indy car lineup and we’re looking forward to him being part of our four-car team in 2016 and making a big contribution.” — Chip Ganassi, Owner, Chip Ganassi Racing Teams
So why Max Chilton? I believe that he represented not only a solid open-wheel driving talent to have in his IndyCar program, but also a valuable driver to have in reserve for the Ford GT Le Mans program. Keep in mind Scott Dixon’s famous nickname for his boss, “Cheap” Ganassi. Why hire two drivers when you can get both roles done with one driver?