Today we move onto our second installment of Open-Wheels’ 2018 team reviews, this time taking a look at Carlin’s freshman season in IndyCar. Moving straight into full-time competition after years spent in the Mazda Road to Indy, it was a challenging season for Carlin that will offer more hope in the future.
After finalizing two full-time entries into the Verizon IndyCar Series championship late in December 2017, Carlin was running a bit behind schedule from the offseason’s outset.
While the team had Chevrolet engine support and two formidable drivers in third-year driver Max Chilton and experienced veteran Charlie Kimball, Carlin had obstacles to face that would prove to be a real thorn in the side early on.
The team’s intentions were announced less than three months before the season opener in St. Petersburg while the British outfit received their universal aero kit bodywork after pretty much every other team had their pieces.
Unfortunately, those factors certainly showed during the season’s early stages.
Carlin was off the pace during spring testing at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, mustering fast laps in the bottom third of the field for both practice days. When the group arrived in Florida for the first race of 2018, it was clear they were still getting their sea legs while other teams were prepared for a fight.
At the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Chilton would qualify 20th with Kimball slotting in at 21st. The race would only be marginally better with each driver picking up one spot from their qualifying efforts: Chilton placing 19th and Kimball finishing 20th.
In April, though, Carlin had some brighter moments to offer hope for the rest of the season. At Long Beach, it was Chilton who qualified 15th in the 24-car field before he followed that up with a 13th-place start at Barber Motorsports Park.
They were the best qualifying efforts for Carlin to date, and Kimball grabbed the team’s best finish at Long Beach when he went from 23rd all the way to a 10th place finishing position – the team’s first IndyCar Series top-10.
Despite both drivers not seeing the checkered flag at Barber – Kimball exited in a lap 10 crash while Chilton had electrical issues – the month of April set the stage for Carlin to improve even further in May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
My First May
Arriving at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the team’s first month of May in INDYCAR, Carlin had two respectable bullets in the chamber. In 2017, it was Chilton who led much of the Indianapolis 500’s second half before eventually settling for 4th place in just his second start on the IMS oval.
Kimball was no slouch either, entering the race with seven Indy 500 starts under his belt with a best finish of 3rd in 2015 to go with four top-10 runs.
While results at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 12 weren’t the most pleasing to the eye – Kimball finished 20th while Chilton was 16th – the team finished each lap of the race and did not tear up any equipment that had to be repaired before Indianapolis 500 practice began in just a few days time.
In the week leading up to ‘500 qualifying, Carlin was the team on everyone’s watch list to miss the cut and be eliminated from the 33-car field during time trials.
The team struggled through four up-and-down days of practice before Saturday’s first round of qualifying would determine their fate.
When the time came to perform, Carlin stepped up and made the cut with relative ease while veteran teams such as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing saw their hopes evaporate.
Not only was Carlin in the field for the 102nd running, but they also improved their times on Sunday to start 15th (Kimball) and 20th (Chilton).
Scorching-hot temperatures offered great challenges on race day for the rookie team, but while veterans such as Helio Castroneves, Sebastien Bourdais and Danica Patrick all crashed on the slick track, Carlin’s duo would bring each car home safely with a pocketbook full of data to use when they return in 2019.
Kimball finished on the lead lap in 18th while Chilton was just two laps down in 22nd.
And just like that, Carlin finished their first month of May with no damaged race cars and a ton of experience to build upon.
A Summer Springboard
Following Indy there were many bright moments and many tough finishes for Carlin to endure. The team faced multiple Jekyll and Hyde scenarios of qualifying well and finishing poorly or qualifying poorly and fighting to finish well through the season’s midpoint.
At Detroit in the first doubleheader race, Carlin put Chilton into the second round of qualifying when the British driver slotted in 10th – only to finish 20th by the end of the day while Kimball was just ahead in 19th.
For the second race of the weekend the duo couldn’t muster a qualifying spot any better than 17th, though it was Kimball would fight tooth-and-nail to finish 8th for the team’s best result to date.
Kimball would pick up another top-10 at Texas while Chilton finished closely behind in 12th, the 8th time for each driver that they were running at the finish of a race in 2018. In races at Road America and Iowa, the team would mingle with middle-of-the-pack finishes while still completing all but 11 laps of competition.
In Toronto, a lap 34 crash would give Chilton his 2nd DNF of the season while Kimball turned in a wonderful performance to finish 5th, another first for the team in IndyCar Series competition. It was a reward for the team’s hard work – and growing pains endured – from earlier in the season.
Kimball even led a lap during the Honda Indy Toronto, another first for Carlin.
“I’m just really proud of the Carlin guys.. they fight and work so hard, weekend in and weekend out,” said Kimball after the race. “They’re the first ones here in the paddock in the morning and the last ones out at night. We struggled a little on Saturday, but on race day we were able to bring it.
“I’m really pleased to bring home Carlin’s first top-five in the Verizon IndyCar Series and my first top five of the season.”
While finishes at Mid-Ohio the next race weren’t of the same caliber, Chilton did notch the team’s best qualifying effort of 2018 when he made the Firestone Fast Six and would qualify 6th in his No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet.
Finishing with a Foundation
The final four races would provide Carlin with their greatest challenges of the season as the schedule concluded with a superspeedway (Pocono Raceway), a fast intermediate oval (Gateway Motorsports Park) and two beautiful and technical road courses (Portland International Raceway and Sonoma Raceway).
At Pocono, the team struggled to find the balance they enjoyed in Indianapolis 500 qualifying as both drivers placed 19th or worse in the 22-car field. The two did improve on their starting positions by avoiding the savage lap 6 crash that claimed five cars and running clean races to the tune of 9th for Kimball (his 4th top-10 of the season) and 13th for Chilton.
Gateway would prove to be a thorn in the team’s side as they fought ill-handling cars to two finishes outside the top-15, though a bounce back at Portland would be in order as Chilton led 10 laps in the season’s penultimate race while Kimball finished 7th for yet another top-10.
With 25 cars on the grid for the season finale at Sonoma, Carlin never came to grips with the Northern California track and were off the pace in both qualifications and the race. Kimball would finish 22nd with Chilton just ahead of him in 21st, bidding farewell to Sonoma Raceway in the last IndyCar Series race at the track.
Despite lacking pace, though, the team kept both cars in one piece and accumulated as much data as possible to be used in 2019. That seemed to be the hallmark of the team this year, which should pay dividends for next season.
Some have called for driver changes at Carlin for 2019 considering the points finishes of 17th for Kimball and 19th for Chilton, but those lines of thinking are impatient and short-sighted. Each should receive equal opportunity to prove progress can be made in 2019 and I expect the team can compete on a greater scale next season if they can continue this general trend upwards.
Carlin was better than Juncos Racing – another team going full-time in 2018 – and showed resiliency plus a couple of fine strategy plays during races to offer a glimpse of promise for this team. There is a foundation to build upon for team owner Trevor Carlin if they can be consistent with a process through the 2018-19 offseason and on into St. Pete in March.
Expect Carlin to find a podium finish in 2019, but until then, good job from Chilton and Kimball to maneuver through a challenging 2018 with a first-year team. The expectations will be a bit higher the next go-around.
All images by Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR.