Any avid Formula 1 fan who follows the sport closely will tell you that there are several different ways to enter the pinnacle of motorsport. Some do it the hard way by showing strong results in lower racing series like GP2 and Formula 3 thereby working their way up the ranks and impressing team bosses enough to earn a race seat, while some others employ the more convenient way of buying themselves a seat in a team that is in dire need of sponsorship money, irrespective of how they fare in junior formulae. These days, ‘pay drivers’ have become a prominent presence in the paddock. However, they are often criticized of having no real passion for racing and no talent enough to prove they are truly worthy of driving a Formula 1 car.
In recent years, as many as 12 drivers have been introduced to the world of F1 racing. In 2011, five rookies had begun their F1 racing careers. In 2012, two more drivers made their debut on the grid, while 2013 fielded 5 more debutants. The 2014 grid will again feature 3 rookie drivers: 19-year old Russian Daniil Kvyat for Toro Rosso, Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson from Sweden and McLaren’s Danish Protégé Kevin Magnussen.
Born in the island town of Roskilde, Denmark, Kevin Magnussen is the eldest son of current Danish Touring Car (DTC) and former Formula 1 driver, Jan Magnussen. Although pay drivers have fast become the norm of what was once an elite prize, to be competing in F1, Kevin Magnussen has opted to take the more conventional road to F1.
He began with karting. In 2008, he graduated to Formula Ford and became a champion straight away, with 11 wins in 15 races that year. In 2009, he moved up to Formula Renault and finished as runner-up to Antonio Felix Da Costa. He was awarded Rookie of the Year for his consistency, with one win and 12 podiums out of 14 races. He also became a part of McLaren’s Young Driver Programme that year. In 2010, Magnussen competed in the German Formula Three championship, finishing 3rd overall with 3 wins and 8 podiums out of 18 races. 2011 saw him taking part in the British Formula Three, once again finishing runner-up with 7 wins & 9 podiums out of 29 races. In 2012’s post-season Young Drivers’ Test in Abu Dhabi, he impressed McLaren again, by going quickest of all in the three-day test. Consequently in 2013, he became the reserve driver for McLaren and also went on to be a champion in Formula Renault 3.5. McLaren were closely monitoring his progress and clearly saw a special spark in him, that’s why they have opted him as their second rookie in eight years, after Lewis Hamilton.
Magnussen will have the chance to learn a lot more about racing in F1 now that he is teamed up with the most experienced driver in the sport, Jenson Button. It’s a partnership that fills Magnussen with anticipation: “I’m sure working with Jenson will be beneficial,” he said. “He’s a world champion, he’s the most experienced driver in Formula One and I’ll be able to learn from him; I’ll be sat next to him in debriefs at every race next year, listening to what he says and watching him work with the team. He’ll be a great guy from whom to learn.”
Magnussen knows that he has a great challenge ahead of him. But beneath the calm and composed exterior, lies a man who is hungry and determined to prove that he’s a force to be reckoned with. So far, he has managed to do all the right things. He has thoroughly impressed McLaren through his lap times and consistent pace in pre-season testing.
Magnussen has managed to top the timesheets on two of the six days he has driven for McLaren in testing. Day 3 of the first test at Jerez was his first day in the MP4-29. He completed 52 laps and posted the fastest time on that day. However, he knows that mileage is more important than lap times at this stage. If we compare his testing progress with Button’s, it makes for a rather surprising statistic. Magnussen has completed a total of 486 laps in the MP4-29, while managing over a 100 laps twice in his six allotted days. Button, in contrast, has only managed a total of 285 laps, over 200 laps behind his rookie teammate’s tally and while he has shown his spark, he was plagued by a myriad of issues during his allotted testing days.
One could argue that Magnussen needed the extra mileage in the car considering he’s a rookie and that Button wouldn’t need as many laps as him to get a feel of the car. But bearing in mind, the biggest set of aerodynamic and other rule changes F1 has seen since the last Turbo-era had ended in 1988, we can be sure Button, by his own admission, would’ve surely welcomed a lot more mileage than he has had. Magnussen, on the other hand, is not being drawn into the media-frenzy surrounding his pre-season testing form and is very realistic about his expectations on his debut season, considering the troubled 2013 season McLaren has had.
Speaking at the launch of the MP4-29 and following his announcement as a racing driver for McLaren, Magnussen stated, “It’ll be a new challenge for everyone, not just for me,” he said. “Everyone’s going to have to learn about the 2014 cars, not just myself. So, in a way, it’s a good year to come into F1. The fact that I won’t have as much experience as some of the other drivers actually counts a little bit less. Of course, it’s still going to require a lot of hard work and I’ll have a lot to learn, but so will everyone else, so that’s surely a positive for me”.
From his perspective, making his debut this year might actually be an advantage for him, as he won’t be swept away by the competition, considering everyone’s on a steep learning curve and that these rule changes have turned it into a more level playing field for 2014.
McLaren can also take respite in the fact that they have a clear advantage with a more reliable and powerful Mercedes engine and following the struggles they have had last year, they know that 2014 is a huge opportunity for them to show that they can quickly get back to winning ways. In that process, they have had a shake-up in the team, which resulted in Ron Dennis being re-appointed as the CEO of McLaren Group and Eric Boullier replacing Martin Whitmarsh on the pit wall as Race Director.
Speaking to Craig Slater of Sky Sports News, McLaren’s CEO Ron Dennis said, “When it comes to joining this team, there’s a price. The easiest way to reduce that price for any driver is to provide them with a competitive car”.
Perhaps through all the customary diplomacy in his words, it can be inferred that McLaren are right now, not in the winning position they want to be. Judging by pre-season testing form, Mercedes seem to be the clear favorites followed by Williams, who have made a startling recovery to be a part of the front-runners again, after a dismal 2013 campaign in which they had only managed a total of 5 points.
This makes Magnussen’s task of impressing with his results and achieving his goal of winning races, even tougher. However, he knows that he has a team behind him that is willing to put their faith in him and nurture the 21-year old to enable him to achieve his goals in F1. In fact, there’s a buzz inside the team that they are so confident in his abilities to quickly adapt to F1, that he is being touted to have the 2nd best debut for a McLaren driver since Lewis Hamilton’s historic 2007 season. While replicating Hamilton’s level of success will be impossible for Magnussen this year considering McLaren’s pre-season testing form, this belief within the team shows they know something about this guy that we don’t. Only time will tell if Magnussen can manage to live up to the expectations of McLaren.
While there have been other drivers Nico Rosberg and Romain Grosjean who were extremely impressive in GP2 and other feeder series on their way to F1, once they started racing in F1, they had realized that F1 cars are a completely different beast altogether. They took years to adapt to the sport and be regular podium contenders. In fact, Lewis Hamilton holds the joint record of most wins a debut season. However, Magnussen has made it very clear that he is undaunted by the comparisons to the 2008 world champion. “The fact that Lewis did exactly what I’m doing now is a positive for me,” he admitted. “It shows that the team has been there before, and has already prepared a rookie for his Grand Prix debut. The fact that Lewis was so successful doesn’t raise the pressure for me. It just shows that it can be done, and that you can be successful as a rookie. That’s really encouraging.”
Make no mistake; this is a man who has a huge amount of confidence in his abilities and in the abilities of his historic team. This confidence is reciprocated by McLaren’s managing director Jonathan Neale. “During 2013, Kevin really knuckled down,” Neale explains. “He started to show all the attributes that, in due course, will make him a great driver.” McLaren sporting director Sam Michael agreed: “Kevin’s arrival is really exciting for the whole team - he represents the future. When you have a rookie come onboard, somebody who’s full of energy and is desperate to prove himself, it creates a buzz within the team. People share his hopes and dreams. From a team point of view, it’s a fantastic move.”
Interestingly, his father Jan Magnussen also made his F1 debut in a McLaren car. During the 1995 Pacific Grand Prix which took place in Japan, Jan had filled in for Mika Hakkinen who was suffering from appendicitis. He managed to qualify 12th, and finished the race in 10th place. However, that was his only race for McLaren. Magnussen was again given a chance to drive in F1 by Jackie Stewart’s Stewart Grand Prix team in 1997 and 1998. However, both those years were plagued by retirements for him and he has only salvaged one point in his whole F1 career. That result came at the highly dramatic 1998 Canadian Grand Prix, where Magnussen had qualified 20th but managed to finish 6th thanks to several incidents and multiple retirements requiring the intervention of the safety car.
Magnussen Jr. will certainly be hoping for better fortune and a more successful and longer F1 racing career than the one his father has had. Although we know very little about him personally, it can be said that, Magnussen does well to limit his fire and aggression to inside the cockpit of the MP4-29. He seems to be quite a friendly and easy-going guy. Going by his media interviews and his recent Q&A on Twitter, we know that he likes to indulge in Water-Sports in his free time and that he loves Indian food. In response to a question from one of his followers asking him what he thinks is the best thing about living in the UK, he said, “Indian food, of course!”
Well, if the buzz around his ability and his pre-season form is anything to go by, it is safe to say that F1 has found another good talent, perhaps on the lines of Robert Kubica. There’s nothing quite like a full season in F1 to validate a driver’s ability. Surely, the F1 fraternity is hoping for a guy who goes wheel-to-wheel racing with Jenson Button, just like Sergio Perez did in 2013. That’s kind of racing that makes F1 more exciting for fans all over the world. As the saying goes, time will tell, and luckily for us, we have less than a week for the season to officially begin at the Australian GP in Melbourne. So we can soon find out some of those answers we seek, about what is being touted as the most unpredictable season in F1 history.
by Praneet Mysore