February 19, 2016 / 5:07 PM / 2 years ago

Chilton goes from F1 tail-ender to 500 contender

Max Chilton of Britain drives his Nissan GT-R LM Nismo number 21 during the Le Mans 24-hour sportscar race in Le Mans, central France June 13, 2015.Stephane Mahe

(Reuters) - Max Chilton will go from Formula One tail-ender to Indianapolis 500 contender in May after joining the Chip Ganassi Racing team that have put four cars in Victory Lane over the last 16 years at the famed Brickyard.

Chilton, who never finished higher than 13th in two seasons with F1 minnow Marussia, will drive for an IndyCar glamor team that includes former Indy 500 winners Scott Dixon (2008) of New Zealand and Tony Kanaan (2013) of Brazil.

But Chilton, who set a Formula One record when he became the only driver to finish every race in a debut season, admitted that IndyCar might only be a pit stop in his racing career, saying he has unfinished business in F1.

"The one thing I have learned since coming to America is you really don't know where life is going to take you and you should never say never," Chilton told a conference call ahead of the IndyCar season opener on March 13 in St. Petersburg, Florida. "I remember saying I would never do IndyCar and now here I am.

"I'm not going to say I'm never going to go back to F1. If I suddenly do amazingly well in IndyCar and it gives me the opportunity to go back to F1 I would jump at it because F1 at the end of the day is my goal.

"I still have lots of unfinished business there because since a child I wanted to become a podium finisher or race winner but that didn't happen because of certain circumstances the car you are in."

That will not be the situation in IndyCar where Chip Ganassi is one of the elite teams alongside Penske Racing and Andretti Autosport and can provide Chilton with top equipment.

Since 2003 the tree teams have combined to win every IndyCar drivers championship with Ganassi drivers taking six of the last eight crowns including last season's title won by Dixon.

Formula One drivers making the jump to IndyCar have often struggled on the treacherous high-speed ovals that are unique to American open wheel racing but Chilton has proven a quick study having won a race in the IndyCar feeder series at the Iowa Speedway oval from the pole last season.

Still the Englishman admits it is going to take time to get up to speed in IndyCar.

"I am rookie, I know I have experience in one of the highest categories in the world but they are still taking a risk with me, it is going to be a steep learning curve," said Chilton.

"I have been in a car the last few years, especially in F1 where you could have the race of your life and still finish in the middle or back of the pack.

"It's nice to know if you perform well then you've got the car that can give you the champagne at the end of the race."

One of the biggest adjustments Chilton has had to make is life off the track.

In F1, drivers lead a very cloistered existence largely cut off from fans but in IndyCar the public swarm pit lane and the garages where drivers constantly interact with the public taking requests for autographs and pictures.

Chilton has also been shocked by the camaraderie in IndyCar where drivers treat each other like fraternity brothers as opposed to the catty rivalries found up and down the F1 paddock and even within teams.

"It is quite eerie how welcoming everyone is," said Chilton. "I understand the team being welcoming but the drivers, I'm not use to that.

"The drivers get along, (in F1) there might be a couple you sort of have as mates but IndyCar is so welcoming all the drivers seem to be best mates and don't seem to have other friends.

"Their best friends are their rivals on the track. That has sort of taken awhile for me to get my head around that."

Editing by Frank Pingue

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