Young pretender

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He didn’t collect any titles on his way up, but Marussia’s British rookie glows with confidence

With Ed Foster

Despite a six-hour, subzero game of golf two days prior to our chat Max Chilton is looking refreshed when he walks into the country club where we’re meeting. “It was so cold I could hardly hold the club!” he says as we sit down to talk about the prospect of making his Formula 1 race debut with Marussia.

There’s been plenty in the news about the team’s 2013 season, as the arrival of Chilton and team-mate Luiz Razia has meant that F1 stalwart Timo Glock has had to seek a new life in the DTM. The German has been quoted as saying that the team will struggle with so little experience, while others have pointed out that Team Lotus used six drivers in 1960— including Jim Clark and John Surtees — and they had a combined total of only seven Formula 1 World Championship finishes to their names before then. It wasn’t exactly the most experienced team on the grid…

All this is far from Chilton’s mind. This year, at the age of only 21, he’s realising a childhood dream of racing in F1. Some have said it’s too early for him to make the step into the top echelon of the sport, but that’s not very likely to faze the brother of BTCC race winner Tom. Making big jumps has been part of his make-up since he started racing.

In 2007, at the age of 15, Chilton moved from the entry-level T-Cars series into British Formula 3. A daunting prospect until you recall that he also raced an LMP1 car with his brother that year in the Silverstone 1000Kms. “I was quite young so it was pretty interesting,” he admits, now with orange juice in hand. “We actually nearly got on the podium, but we had a rear suspension failure that dropped us to sixth. It was a massive jump from F3 [not to mention T Cars], but my brother had already raced it so he gave me all the information I needed. It’s a big shock when you first step into a car with lots of downforce and good brakes. All cars do similar things, though, don’t they? They’re either going to understeer or oversteer. It’s just a case of finding out where the limit is.”

Chilton freely admits that he progressed too quickly to get the eye-catching race wins and championships that many of his fellow F1 drivers managed on the way to the top of the sport, but does that mean he’s not ready? Marussia’s technical consultant Pat Symonds doesn’t think so. “What impressed me during the first test was that we did a long race run and at the end of it he had the soft tyres on. Jerez is very hard on tyres and by the end the car was very slow. We wouldn’t have put him in that position in a race, but we were doing a little experiment. We brought him in, put on new tyres, took some fuel out and told him to see what the car could do. That’s not easy because he had been pounding around all day and we’d suddenly given him a car that was five seconds a lap quicker. In order to cope with that you need natural ability — you’ve got to know when to put your foot down — and he’s got that.

“He came in after that run and said, ‘The car’s good’. Well, it’s not. I’ve never known a good car! It was good because he probably wasn’t pushing hard enough. He’s not the finished article by any means, but he’s a bright kid and will fit in well with the team.”

So what of the inexperience? Surely two rookies will struggle to give the level of feedback that Glock might provide? “There’s so much data on the cars now, and so many engineers to help you work through it that it’s not such a big issue,” says Chilton. “Before the tests are over I think we’ll be more than ready and almost in the same position as the team was last year. Obviously Timo was very experienced and gave great feedback, but I’m pretty confident that after a few more tests Luiz and I will get there.

“The aim, as always, is to get into the midfield, but it’s important that you set yourself a manageable goal. If you achieve that, it’s time to set another. You mustn’t start setting a million goals because you won’t know what you’re aiming for. As a team we all understand that this year’s first aim is to score some points. We’ve got to be realistic, though, and in the first two races the target will be to get both cars to the chequered flag with no issues.”

This year’s car is the first Marussia to be designed using both CFD and a wind tunnel, unlike previous examples, which were designed using only CFD under the instruction of former technical director Nick Wirth. There were no early signs that the car would challenge the midfield, but there are signs that it’s a step forward. Either way, it’s easier for Chilton to start his Grand Prix career at the back of the grid than the front. “I think I could have handled it if I had come in among the midfielders,” he says when I mention this. “Even the legends of our sport had to start lower down and work their way up, though. I think it’s important to start like that because you learn to get the very best out of everything and you can concentrate on becoming the best driver possible. When you’re at the front of the grid it should all be natural.”

Talk soon turns to the matter of being a pay driver in F1. Chilton, who has enjoyed his father’s financial and moral support throughout his career, gives a wry smile — he’s no doubt been asked about this many times before. “People have always brought sponsors into F1 and some of the biggest names in the sport’s history have paid to get in. Some of them are my heroes so I just don’t see it as an issue. Most of the drivers wouldn’t be on the grid if someone, at some time, hadn’t put money behind them. I try not to pay too much attention to it all really. I know I have the ability to drive just as well as anyone else; I just need a bit more time in an F1 car to prove that.”

Yes, Max Chilton is on the F1 grid because he’s brought some money, but he wouldn’t be there if he didn’t also have some ability — especially with the wise head of Symonds helping to make decisions.

Chilton might not have won championships en route to the summit, but his two race victories in GP2 last year were proof enough that he deserves a chance. It’s now up to him to prove he merits an F1 seat in the long term.