F1 motor racing is in the sporting news right now. Discussions on ‘the show’ and how the technical rules relate to it abound. In the specialist F1 news there’s strong interest in the latest signing to the McLaren F1 Young Driver Program, a 17 year-old Dane called Kevin Magnussen. What’s special about this is that Kevin’s father, Jan Magnussen, was also once on McLaren’s books, but Jan went one step further and drove for McLaren’s fully-fledged F1 team. This fully-fledged involvement lasted just one race though, in 1995. Jan Magnussen went onto start two more seasons in F1, with Sir Jackie Stewart’s team, but only finished one of them, as he was sacked before the mid-way point in 1998, having scored one point in his F1 career.
Jan Magnussen – struggling in F1 Photo: Getty
So Jan’s career at the top of the sport took the route of many before him. What was different for Jan was that in the junior formulae, he was rightly considered the biggest shining talent in the sport: Three times world kart champion plus 1994 F3 champion, breaking Ayrton Senna’s record for season wins. He was possibly bringing more proven pedigree and more perceived talent into F1 than any other driver in history and was almost certainly the biggest racing talent of the 90s. I have first-hand experience of this, having tested a Formula Vauxhall Junior alongside him in 1991. The outcome? He annihilated me! He could comfortably carry corner-entry speed that I couldn’t even imagine what it felt like.
So, why? Jan Magnussen was exceptional at delivering technical aspects of performance, but under pressure demands of competition at the highest level, even this breaks down when not supported by other performance elements. Known for his distaste of the gym and a proper diet, the physicality of F1 exposed weaknesses that were hidden when in smaller cars. At that level, the technical input is just as important out of the car as in it, and a haphazard approach was never going to deliver on this front. His boss at McLaren, Ron Dennis, once referred to him as ‘the most disorganised Grand Prix driver I’ve ever known’ and in recent years Magnussen has been quoted as saying ‘I didn’t know what I had to do to be successful’. He was blessed with better outcomes than anyone else at that point in their careers but with no control over the regular inputs, those outcomes were destined to leave the scene. Sir Jackie himself got directly involved, in an effort to turn things around, but asking a driver of such natural technical talent to control the car in a fundamentally different way didn’t play to Magnussen’s considerable strengths.
How will young Kevin Magnussen then perform? He hasn’t displayed the other-worldly talent of his father, but he does possess a strong proven race-record. According to his father, the difference is that Kevin displays the focus, dedication and ‘leave-no-stone-unturned’ commitment that elite performance demands. It is likely you had never heard of Jan Magnussen before you read this. With a ‘talent is not enough’ attitude and ‘playing to my strengths’ behaviour from Kevin Magnussen, how likely do you think it is you’ll hear more about Magnussen Junior in future?