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McLaren and Magnussen come full circle

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Andrew Benson | 09:55 UK time, Friday, 19 March 2010

Formula 1 is often a brutal, unforgiving world, and it is certainly not known for its sentimentality, but every now and again something happens to remind you that there is room for humanity and warmth in the harshest of sporting environments.

McLaren, regarded by some as a cold and clinical team, have recently signed up to their young driver programme a 17-year-old Dane called Kevin Magnussen. And while such information would normally not rate a mention here, there is a poignant story, laden with irony, behind this latest move.

Magnussen's father is the ex-Formula 1 driver Jan Magnussen, himself a product of the McLaren young driver programme, who made an impressive F1 debut for the team as a replacement for an ill Mika Hakkinen in the 1995 Pacific Grand Prix and went on to race for Stewart Grand Prix for a season and a half in 1997-98.

Despite his association with McLaren and triple world champion Jackie Stewart, the elder Magnussen did not make much of a mark in the F1 history books - he scored a solitary point, for finishing sixth in Canada in 1998, his final race before he was sacked. But all who worked with him agree that things should not have turned out that way.

Jan Magnussen's Stewart at the 1997 Italian Grand PrixJan Magnussen's F1 career fizzled out after just 18 months. Photo: Getty

Jan Magnussen had a quite brilliant career in the junior formulae, including taking more victories in the year he won the British Formula Three championship than Ayrton Senna did in his 11 years before.

Stewart, whose F3 team Magnussen drove for, hailed him as the greatest talent to emerge since Senna, and hopes were high that he would become a major F1 star.

But Magnussen was as undisciplined and naive as he was talented and he drove then McLaren team boss Ron Dennis, a man famous for his fastidiousness, to distraction.

Eventually, against Dennis's advice, Magnussen flew the McLaren nest, to join Stewart for their debut season in F1.

In the car, there were flashes of what many thought Magnussen should be capable of during his brief grand prix career, but when his driver was still struggling by mid-season 1998, Stewart lost patience. At the age of 24, Magnussen's F1 dreams - and the hopes of those who had invested in him - were over.

Those who are interested can read an extensive article I wrote on what went wrong in Magnussen's career, courtesy of Motor Sport magazine. The first two pages are here and the final two here.

Suffice it to say on this blog that all involved - including Magnussen himself - admit they could have handled the situation better, and that he could - should - have gone on to win races, even championships.

Despite his failings, Magnussen was an immensely likeable man, and that - coupled with a sense of unfinished business - has clearly played a part in McLaren's decision to sign his son.

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh told me: "Jan was a great talent that we didn't get the best out of - and when I say we, I mean Jan and us.

Jan Magnussen and his then four-year-old son Kevin at the 1997 Belgian Grand Prix

"You look at him in karts, in Formula Ford, which is where I first saw him, and Formula Three, his natural talent was phenomenal, and I don't think he realised the potential of that natural talent.

"Kevin is an impressive driver. He understands, I think, how his father didn't realise his potential. I liked Jan and I felt we should do something with his son.

"I spoke to Jan, obviously, and I think he sees the talent in his son and in retrospect he can look back on his career and probably believe more would have been possible."

If that sounds like Whitmarsh's decision was at least partly based on sentiment, that's because it was - up to a point. There is, though, as ever, harsh commercial and sporting reality in it, too.

"There is some emotion in it," Whitmarsh says, "because we're emotional about our racing drivers. But we wouldn't base it on purely, here's Jan's son so we're going to do it. He appears to have quite a steely character, slightly more focused determination than Jan, so we'll see if we can help."

The addition of Magnussen Jr gives McLaren a roster of eight young drivers, half of whom are British. And if you're wondering why I've written this piece about a Dane, I have to admit to a personal interest. It's a lovely story, with a touching twist, yes, but Jan Magnussen and I go back a long way.

I met him for the first time when he won the Formula Ford Festival in 1992 - when Kevin, just a few weeks old, was in a pushchair at his 19-year-old father's side. I covered Jan's Formula 3 season in 1994, and all of his grands prix, and along the way I came to like him very much. So when I heard about Kevin and McLaren, I gave him a ring.

"I can't begin to explain how proud I am that he has made it this far so quickly," said Jan, who is racing a Chevrolet Corvette in the famous Sebring 12 Hours sports car race this weekend. "It's very emotional for me.

"I have given him as much advice as I can, but most of it he knows already. He's super-motivated and I think he has a better chance of succeeding at McLaren than I did. I realised too late that I only wanted to be a great racing driver whereas he only wants to be a great F1 driver.

"He's very committed to it. I had a lot of success, and maybe it came to me too easily. I didn't fight when I had to, but he's fighting for it every day.

"We discuss everything, the stupid mistakes he shouldn't make. It's not easy being the son of a racing driver, but he has coped well with the pressure of being my son.

"I have a chance to correct some of the wrongs I did back then. I didn't make big mistakes, but made a lot of small ones. He's a different person to me - naturally, he has a much more professional outlook than I did. He's way better than me at that age, and in the car he does everything you're supposed to do if you're a prospect for F1.

"But this is him going to F1. This is nothing to do with me. F1 is a hard world. You really have to be 100% committed, and I would never push anyone into it. It takes a special person. I'm biased, obviously, but I believe he's going to make it, and it's simply down to how committed he is."


  • Comment number 1.

    Have to say I fail to see the feel good or "poignant" aspects to the story?

    Many young drivers are excellent in lower formulae but fail to make the grade in F1 and I don't really see what makes Magnussen any different other than the fact you know him personally.

    I'm sure McLaren haven't taken the lad on because his dad drove for them, it'll be because he's a talented driver who they think can be a success.

  • Comment number 2.

    Jan Magnussen has had a great career driving proper cars in exciting races. The most poignant thing here is that fans think there is F1 and nothing else.

  • Comment number 3.

    Had you seen Jan's F3 Championship season you wouldn't have written that Raven. Jan was a real artist in the car and honestly he didn't deserve to be punted out of Stewart as Ruben's, his team mate fared little better in the car up until that point. Jos Verstappen went on to eclipse(not!)Jan's performance by finishing just three races in 12th and 13th twice!

    I am reminded of another "should have been" Great Dane... Jason Watt. Their a talented lot the Danes. I wish Kevin every success, and if he is only half the driver his dad is and is fully focused he'll be quite an asset to F1.

  • Comment number 4.

    I saw Jan leaning against the fence in the paddock of Lime Rock Park here in the States last year at an ALMS race. He smoked a cigarette, which I remember being brought up by JYS as an example of his lack of dedication and focus.

    Yes, I thought, it is strange to see a modern 'sportsman' smoking. But here, in the idyll of the rural Connecticut on a perfect summer's day, I hoped that he was enjoying this place as much as I was and wasn't missing F1.

    The difference in being a great racing driver rather than a great F1 driver was pretty starkly obvious that day. I just hope each drag brought no regrets.

  • Comment number 5.

    Interesting read. Watch out Jenson!

  • Comment number 6.

    Will be intriguing to watch his progress - Denmark has never really had the key motorsport figures that the rest of Scandinavia has (Finland with Raikkonen, Makinen, Hakkinen, Lehto, Sweden with Peterson, Norway with Solberg) and it only needs one guy at the sharp end of Formula 1 to change that.

  • Comment number 7.

    Kristensen? I've been to Le Mans every year since 1989 - the Danish presence there is huge now. Magnussen is partly responsible too of course. If Tom K, Magnussen and Magnussen Jr. were to team up, Denmark would be empty that weekend...

  • Comment number 8.

    Really glad you blogged about this Andrew. I often feel that F1 history is lacking despite my being glued to anything F1 these days.

    I am ashamed to say I'd never heard of Magnussen before reading this blog and perhaps I could suggest the BBC look into some sort of 'F1 History' feature every now and then for those of us who are unfamiliar with F1's rich past.

  • Comment number 9.

    Andrew Benson wrote:

    "Jan Magnussen had a quite brilliant career in the junior formulae, including taking more victories in the year he won the British Formula Three championship than Ayrton Senna did in his 11 years before."

    He did not have a brilliant career in junior formulae. He only really competed in British national championships.

    British F3 is a class of pretty low standard, in fact it is only the second step in the single-seater ladder after Formula Ford/Audi/BMW. Dominating British F3 shows promise and talent but does not mean anything if it is not followed by success at international level, and it is telling that most winners of this championship have not backed it up with success in European series.

  • Comment number 10.

    Thanks for the Motorsport article. Brings back memories. Glad it's not just me who finds JYS annoying at times. I have great respect for the guy but his "smooth driving" lectures drives me up the wall.

    Biased but certainly Magnusson Jr is worth a mention for an F1 blog and the Jan Magnusson story was well worth repeating.

    Mark Hughes' 'Crash and Bryned' tells a similar tale on possibly the greatest driver never to race in F1 and who Senna feared most: Tommy Bryne.

  • Comment number 11.

    nibs, your comments above betray a rather large lack of knowledge. Until very recently, the British national championships effectively were the 'junior formulae'. It was not until the french and german F3 championships merged to create the f3 euroseries that there was any true alternative to british F3 for those on the path to f1. In fact, the british f3 website homepage says it rather plainly:

    British F3 Champions who have gone on to be crowned World Champion

    Sir Jackie Stewart 1964
    Emerson Fittipaldi 1969
    Nelson Piquet 1978
    Ayrton Senna 1983
    Mika Hakkinen 1990

    Many other race-winning British F3 drivers have gone on to claim motor sport’s greatest achievement, including James Hunt, Jody Scheckter, Alan Jones, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and the 2009 F1 World Champion, Jenson Button. In fact, British F3 has bred more World Champions than any other single-seater series worldwide. British F3 Champions who went on to win Grands Prix include Carlos Pace, Gunnar Nilsson, Johnny Herbert and Rubens Barrichello.

    The Formula 1 grid in the last three seasons would have been a poorer place without British F3 graduates such as Nelson Piquet Jr, Mark Webber, Rubens Barrichello, Jenson Button, David Coulthard, Takuma Sato, Anthony Davidson, Scott Speed and, of course, Jaime Alguersuari, who won the 2008 British F3 title and who, within months, was propelled on to the Grand Prix grid as the world’s youngest-ever F1 racer at 19 years and 125 days old.

    There are of course plenty more British F3 Champions who went on to achieve greatness in other motor-sporting endeavours, including:

    Derek Warwick (1978) Veteran of 162 GPs, World Sportscar Champion & Le Mans winner 1992
    Jonathan Palmer (1981) European F2 Champion and MD of Motorsport Vision, which runs Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Snetterton and Cadwell Park circuits.
    Johnny Dumfries (1984) Le Mans winner 1988
    Andy Wallace (1986) Le Mans winner 1988
    JJ Lehto (1988) Le Mans winner 1995 & 2005, ALMS Champion 2004
    Johnny Herbert (1987) Le Mans winner 1991
    JJ Lehto (1988) 2005 Le Mans 24 Hours winner, 2004 ALMS Champion and F1 driver
    David Brabham (1989) Le Mans winner & ALMS Champion 2009
    Gil de Ferran (1992) Champ Car Champion2000/01, Indianapolis 500 winner2003

    [end quote from site]

    I trust you are also aware that Kimi Raikkonen went straight from British junior formulae into F1? After winning British Formula Renault (the level below F3) he went straight to F1 with Sauber. There are also countless other drivers who didn't win British F3 and who aren't in the list above, yet who reached F1 and who alo race in series such as Indycars.

    There is, as always, a large difference between opinion and fact nibs.

    Incidentally, did you ever see Magnussen drive in the junior formulae? Trust me. He had huge natural talent, but as in any sport, that is not enough on its own.

  • Comment number 12.

    I would like to add to the positive story of la famille Magnussen.
    Back in november '92 I achieved a boyhood dream of attending a Racing drivers' school courtesy of the 'Jim Russell'course at Donnington Park.My coach there was a young Jan Magnussen who answered my merciless questioning with a laid back but charming manner.My highlight was on arrival at the circuit every morning, I used to passenger Jan in one of the schools track tuned Golfs, breaking up the ice that had formed on 3or4 corners.We would fly into Redgate then - later than I would brake on a dry track- Jan would slam on the anchors and -with the deft touch of a composer- yank on the handbrake causing us to piroette , chopping up the ice as we went...always in control , yet right on the limit, corner after corner....simply a master of car control.Despite my breakfast trying its hardest to reappear, I was the 1st to volunteer to join him every morning...hoping that just maybe a little piece of his magic would rub off on me!Not sure that it did, though I did finish 3rd in the wet in my 1 and only single seater maybe..
    Lovely bloke, glad to see his son has followed in his footsteps....he could do a lot worse! pete mellor

  • Comment number 13.

    #9 Nibs

    Magnusson showed great potential at international stage.

    At the 1994 Macau International F3 GP he showed great promise. Started race 1 in 18th because he crashed but fought his way to fifth. In race 2 he passed Ralf Schumacher and Fisichella and finished second. He could have been the overall winner

    He raced in DTM/ITC and was a front runner and winning races up against veterans like Bernd Schneider and Manual Reiter and up & comers like Dario Franchitti.

    But yes, CART/Indycar and F1 he messed up at the top stage.

  • Comment number 14.

    Thanks for linking to your Motor Sport article, Andrew, it's terrific!

    Reading about how he went out to the Czech Republic to promote the Ford Ka only to tell reporters "It's one of the worst cars I've ever driven" has made my day - that makes Irvine and Villeneuve's comments seem mild!

  • Comment number 15.

  • Comment number 16.

    Interesting article, thanks for going so far away from the mainstream. Jan Magnussen´s career was so enigmatic. As far as I remember he had no money to speak of, but the talent shone through.

    I remember reading previously of Ron Dennis´despair with a late arriving Magnussen when his suitcase burst open at an airport, and the chaotic contents spilling on the floor seemed to be the defining moment. No room for this in Ron´s world. Since then, "Jan Magnussen´s suitcase" has been a private mantra when the messy business of life interfere´s with a plan. So that´s pretty much daily.......

  • Comment number 17.

    I always wondered what went wrong with Jan's F1 career, he was indeed exceptional in the lower formulas. Glad he's still racing and pleased about this news

  • Comment number 18.

    Yes I have heard of Jan, though I must admit he doesn't really register in my F1 memories. Now his son is being drafted into Mclaren, the powers that be surely must see the potential in him. You've got to remember this is formula 1 not just any sport where you pick players on a whim, sentimentality aside.

  • Comment number 19.

    The bottom line is the returns on the investments. In F1 that translates into championships, both drivers and the team. With that in mind, do you really think Mr. Whitmarsh picked the boy out of sentimentality. Think about this.

  • Comment number 20.

    I'm surprised at the number of people who don't know about Jan Magnussen. I was only 5 when I first saw him in Formula 1, and I remember him getting the boot in 98 (although the main reason I can remember him is due to the Formula 1 1997 video game)
    I've seen a few videos of him in his British Formula 3 days, and I must say when I watched them, I was awstruck, he just had purely great talent, and I wish that he got to show it more in F1.
    I hope that Kevin succeeds in Formula 1, it would be a great story.
    Thanks for the blog Andrew, it brought back some memories, and the history lessons are always something I enjoy.

  • Comment number 21.

    I remember Jan always turning out to be a star in the PC game Grand Prix Manager 2. If I've remembered rightly, it was set during the 96-97 season.

    Obviously it wasn't just those by the grid who saw his potential but the game developers too.

  • Comment number 22.

    Thank you SO SO much for this blog.
    I am a very passionate Danish F1 enthusiast (currently living in England) and always felt robbed on behalf of my country and Jan Magnusson.
    Both he and Jason Watt, who was doing very well in GP2 and was set for F1, but crashed a motorbike in a photoshoot and was paralyzed, are big heroes of mine - but I feel it is also worthy a mention that Tim Kristensen (7 times Le Mans Winner) did some testing and tyrework for Williams around when Montoya drove for them. We also had Nicolas Kiesa drive a very bad Jordan for 5 races in 2005. The best thing to say is he finished all his races, which was a bit of a feat in a shocking "car". The team itself even issued press releases that year saying they were very pleased to get the cars to the finish line - I do also remember Martin Brundle commenting at a race (think it was Suzuka?) that "Why bother, he is almost a danger as he gets out of the way of everybody" - and I could only agree.

    I feel Denmark, 3 of the above and indeed F1 has lost out - so here's to rooting for Kevin Magnusson. It'd be a fitting honour for Jan Magnusson if his son got some F1 success.

  • Comment number 23.

    Great blog Andrew.

    I always felt that he never got the chance to show what he could do. The Ford engine in the Stewart was always blowing up in his and Rubens cars.

    I remember being surprised and disappointed when he was sacked.

    I'm glad that his son is getting a chance to show what he can do.


  • Comment number 24.

    Just to follow up on the story of Kevin Manussen's talent or no talent and the sentimentality of MacLaren's Martin Whitmarsh:

    Kevin Magnussen is now #2 in the German F3 champinoship after a win and a third place in his first race weekend. Started 4 in the first race and led the race from turn one to the end. Started 6 (due to his win in the first race) and finished 3 in the second race. He was later awarded P2 based on his opponent made a jumpstart.

    Btw: The German F3 series is historically known to have fostered such talents as Michael Schumacher (erh.. Who is he? Don't know him...), Tom Kristensen (erh.. Who is he? 7 LeMans wins??? Naaahh Not possible!), John Nielsen (LeMans Winner and FIA GT World Champion), and lots of other F1 drivers.

    Antoher matter that MacLaren probably knows everything about. When Kevin Magnussen attended a Formula Renault 3.5 test day he cam out on top of the timetables. Beating among others the son of another F1 driver Nigel Mansell, Greg Mansell. Who actually was beat by another Dane as well. Marco Sørensen who ended on third on the timetable.

    1 Kevin Magnussen Pons 1:43,609 49
    2 Antonio Felix Da Costa P1 1:43,656 52
    3 Marco L. Sørensen RC 1:43,763 58
    4 Daniel Ricciardo Carlin 1:43,869 50
    5 Greg Mansell Fortec 1:43,946 49

    So before any of you Britts get carried away why not just agree that Kevin Magnussen, Jan Magnussen's son, is not entirely without talent... and the article has merits beyond sentimentality even it has a touch of just that as well?

    p.s. Jan Magnussen has actually competed in more race series than most racedrivers will ever do and everybody who has worked with him are deeply impressed with his personality, skills and car control.

    He is also part of the driver pair that as the only ever beat the unbeatable Audi R8 in the ALMS. In a PANOZ! No other car has ever beat the R8 in LeMans or ALMS until the emergence of the R10.

    p.p.s. You should keep an eye out for young danish racing drivers. A whole new batch of them is emerging on the European scene these days. And they are fast! Just look at the F2 race at Silverstone. P2 on the grid is a Dane.

  • Comment number 25.

    Definitely no sentimentality involved - he has to provide a return of the investment and bring in the trophies.

  • Comment number 26.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 27.

    Speaking about formula 1: What do you think about this season? who will win? I bet that Alonso will win. I don't think that Ferrari will lose this title

  • Comment number 28.

    @ softdinamic. Well Webber is the main favorite. And he will start 3th at Interlagos... Also only 5th so definetly the Aussie can win the title this year... I give him 1.2 odd

  • Comment number 29.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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