Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

Getting to know Kevin Magnussen, lapping Indy with Andretti

In the Montréal paddock Kevin Magnussen grinned at a photograph of Jean Behra’s Gordini at the Nürburgring in 1952.

“I’ve never driven round there,” he said, “but I know what it’s like because my dad took me round in a road car and I thought it was fantastic. One of the problems today is that Formula 1 cars are not fast any more, and the tracks don’t feel fast – but if you put today’s cars on this track, I don’t think we’d complain they weren’t fast enough! A place like that takes guys with small balls away…” In a handful of sentences, you can perhaps get a flavour of Magnussen’s colourful way with English and also of how he feels about the sport he loves. Unlike virtually all his contemporaries, he is fascinated by its history.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve never been to an ‘old’ track that I didn’t like. They’re more fun than modern circuits, and one thing that definitely makes them better is when there’s no run-off – just grass and a wall or a tree or something. Everybody has a brain, so you know if you go off it’s going to hurt, and obviously that makes it more exciting – OK, of course we don’t want to get hurt, but… No matter how you look at it, it’s a choice: if we make it safer, we make it less exciting. It’s as clear as that.

“I know Jules [Bianchi] very well, and it’s terrible when there’s a bad accident like his, but whatever you do in the world someone will get hurt. Compared with most things racing is still bloody dangerous, but what happened to him didn’t really seem part of the sport…”

We look at a picture of Stirling Moss’s Maserati 250F en route to victory in the 1956 Monaco Grand Prix.

“That’s such a beautiful car – and look how close the spectators are! I’d love to drive that – as a racing driver, you know, you look at a car and think, ‘I can imagine how that feels’, but this… I really can’t imagine.

“I’ve never driven a really old F1 car. I drove Mika Häkkinen’s McLaren – the ’98 car that won the world championship – and that was old to me, but still quite a high-tech car. In fact, the only thing old about it is the huge laptop they use to start it!”

Until I pointed it out to him, Kevin hadn’t taken in that in the cockpit Moss was wearing a white T-shirt. He giggled in astonishment. “It’s so hardcore! That really is cool...”

On to Jimmy Clark’s Lotus 49, sideways at Silverstone in 1967. “You could watch that all day, couldn’t you? The problem is that you can’t unlearn anything – what we have now is what we have. Remembering my time in Formula Ford... this must have been like a big, powerful Formula Ford car to drive.

“In today’s cars the tyres are gripping, and now they’re not any more, but in Formula Ford they’re never gripping, so you were always over the limit and I guess it must have been the same with cars like this…”

Next, a picture of J Hunt, relaxing by a pool with four or five ladies. “What a legend!” said Magnussen. “And you know it’s not like one is his girlfriend, and the others are just friends...” As I said, the boy has some knowledge of racing’s past.

The 1979 battle at Dijon between Gilles Villeneuve and René Arnoux he knew all about. “Villeneuve overtakes Arnoux into a corner, locks up completely and gets sideways, and you think, ‘That’s it for him’, but he holds it – doesn’t even run wide! Amazing…”

I told Kevin about Patrick Depailler and his eccentric motorcycling habits; how he would ride his Kawasaki flat out in the hills above Clermont-Ferrand, clad only in a pair of shorts. “James,” I said, “always reckoned Patrick had a death wish, but he said no, it was the opposite – it made him feel acutely alive. ‘I get to the bottom of the mountain, and there is no blood, and I have nothing broken – and it’s only because of my skill…’”

Magnussen said: “People who become F1 drivers these days are completely different personalities from those in the past. You don’t need that adrenaline – it doesn’t take that any more. There are many drivers who want to get to F1 today, but I think a lot of them – I’m not saying all – just want to be superstars, and rich and famous, not so much because they really love Formula 1.”

Time was, I said, when they may have become famous, but emphatically they didn’t get rich: when Jim Clark won the world championship in 1965, Colin Chapman reputedly paid him £7500.

“It would be interesting,” Magnussen mused, “to see how many of today’s drivers would actually leave the sport if they weren’t getting paid what they are, and couldn’t afford their own jets and stuff – that’s what gets dreamed about these days…”

Presumably, I said, you wouldn’t include yourself. “Well, I’m not getting paid much, anyway! But actually I think there’d be a lot of drivers leaving, saying, ‘Ha, I can make more money somewhere else.’ Maybe that’s the target for Formula 1: to make the race cars cooler than private jets…”

We looked at a shot of Senna’s McLaren heading down towards Eau Rouge. “I think it was a bit more exciting then than it is now…”

Because of the lack of run-off? “Yeah! Back then this would have been a corner – a proper corner.”

These days, I said, most drivers reckon that downforce has made Eau Rouge ‘easy flat’, that a greater challenge is Pouhon, the long downhill left-hander further round the lap.

“Yes – but there’s so much run-off there! If you go off, it’s like a car park! The problem is that everything depends so much on your car – everyone has the courage to go to the limit of the car, to slide it or whatever, so it’s just about how much grip you have…”

If it was a pleasure to watch Felipe Massa and Sebastian Vettel work their way up from the tail of the grid, the Canadian Grand Prix – at a circuit renowned for unpredictability – was otherwise a dull affair, and the highlight of my weekend was this relaxed chat with a driver not even taking part.

I remember Fernando Alonso telling me about his year in the shadows, as Renault test driver in 2002, and how frustrating he found it. That said, he was at least in the car a lot, for testing was ceaseless back then – and there was also the comfortable certainty that he would be racing it the following year.

To be a test/reserve driver for a major team can bring its own rewards, but only by proxy. Olivier Panis, in that role with McLaren 15 years ago, told me that every time Häkkinen or Coulthard won a race he felt he had contributed, but his eye never left the big picture: if he could match Mika’s test times – which often he did – it would remind the F1 community of his abilities, and perhaps get him back on the grid.

And the ploy worked, at least to some degree. In 2001 Olivier joined the fledgling BAR outfit, and later Toyota, but neither produced much in the way of results, and in ’05 he retired from F1.

A successor to Panis as McLaren test driver was Pedro de la Rosa, who gave great service to the team, and partnered Kimi Räikkönen for much of the 2006 season, following Juan Pablo Montoya’s impromptu departure. It didn’t lead to a full-time drive, however, and de la Rosa reverted to his old job before leaving for Sauber in 2010. When that didn’t work out he rejoined McLaren – still in the test role – the following year, but what said everything about a racing driver’s need to race was Pedro’s decision for 2012 to join no-hoper HRT.

“Once I’d raced for McLaren,” he said, “it wasn’t easy to go back to being the test driver…”

In 2015, after a debut season alongside Jenson Button, Magnussen finds himself in just that position. Had Ferrari not absurdly brought in salesman Marco Mattiacci to run the F1 team last year, Alonso would not have left, but they did, and his move to McLaren meant no drive for either Button or Magnussen.

Ah, but which? After one season of Sergio Pérez at McLaren, within the team there was little enthusiasm for a second, but assuredly it wasn’t like that with Magnussen, and in the press room there was a conviction he would get the nod for 2015 – indeed a belief that he had already been told the drive was his.

Kevin would not, however, confirm that: “I wanted to believe I had the seat, but I was never completely sure at any point. I could see that… other people thought I would have it, so I kind of felt comfortable about that, but still I knew it wasn’t done and, looking back, I took that pressure quite badly.

“I tried to do even more to show that I was much better than Jenson – and no one is much better than Jenson! Maybe someone is better, but no one is much better, and instead of concentrating on that I should have focused on simply being the best I could be, on trying to beat him and everyone else: if you only focus on one target, you’ll miss it…”

For all that, Button’s enquiries about a World Endurance Championship drive, as well as his body language at the final race, Abu Dhabi, suggested that it would indeed be Magnussen alongside Alonso in 2015, but still the saga dragged interminably on. Finally, a week before Christmas, we were summoned at short notice to Woking, where more body language – between erstwhile antagonists Alonso and Ron Dennis – would be up for scrutiny, and where finally we would learn the identity of Fernando’s team-mate.

In the event, there was no need of a formal announcement: one glance at Kevin’s face told you how the decision had gone.

He freely admits that at first he didn’t cope very well at all. “I just hated everything, you know. I didn’t give up, but I was very depressed and didn’t care about racing. You get that attitude sometimes when things go wrong. I’d loved racing the car, thought I was going to go on doing it, and in the beginning I just thought, ‘F*** it…’

“Honestly, it’s only been recently that I’ve started to turn things around. At first I was just depressed, but you don’t really understand the consequences of what’s happened until you get to the track, and see yourself not racing. When I was testing in Barcelona, and then I was in Australia, it didn’t really hit me…”

At Melbourne Magnussen was temporarily alongside Button again, for Alonso’s testing accident had ruled him out of driving there. And although it may have been a wretched weekend – in qualifying the McLaren-Hondas were slowest of all, and Kevin’s then expired on the formation lap – at least he had been there as a driver. In Malaysia, a fortnight later, he was not.

“That was when it started to get really tough – for the first time in my life I saw my own series race without me. You have to remember I started karting when I was two years old, and I’ve been racing since I was six, and it just felt weird. For so long you lived race by race, and then suddenly you’re not racing, and you don’t have anything to look forward to – I don’t have a contract for next year, I don’t have anything. There’s a chance I won’t ever drive a race car again – I don’t believe it, of course, but there is that tiny chance, and it hurts so much.”

Lest the words smack of self-pity, I should say there was nothing of this in Magnussen’s demeanour. More than I have ever seen before, being shut out of a racing car seems to amount in Kevin’s case almost to physical pain, but, as he says, he has recently ‘started to turn things around’.

“For now, I’ve accepted not driving for a while – I’ve kind of got over the desperation of it because I’ve got a goal in my head: getting back to F1 in a competitive race seat so I can eventually try and win the world championship. That is now my only focus, and it helps a lot, rather than think all the time about how unbelievably uncomfortable it is not to drive a race car…”

Jan Magnussen, Kevin’s father, was himself on the McLaren books 20 years ago, but he raced for the team only once, standing in for a sick Häkkinen at Aida, and after a couple of disappointing seasons with Stewart Grand Prix found himself out of an F1 drive. That being so, I wondered if he had been able to help his son through the darkest days.

“Not really,” said Kevin. “He was depressed, too! I’m sure that all through my career he’s been a bit worried because he had a tough time himself – especially when he was out of F1, he had a real depression. He took it really hard.

“In many ways my dad’s always been a bit against my racing. He supported me because he knew how much I wanted to do it – paid for my karting, and so on – but he never actually encouraged me, because he thought that, overall, it hadn’t really been worth it.

“My dad loves race cars, and he has a proper passion for driving them, but he’s had a tough time. Now he’s happy, he has a wife and a good life, racing in the States, but through his career it’s been tough, and he’s always been worried that I should go through the same. When I lost my McLaren race drive I took it badly, but not as badly as he did! I didn’t get so much support from him, no, because he didn’t know what to do. When you’re down, it’s better to go to someone who sees everything from the positive side, who’ll say, ‘Hey, man, come on – keep pushing…’”

Magnussen has an engaging way with him, exuding a fundamental honesty quite out of kilter with this politically correct age: desperate he may be to get back in a car, but that doesn’t keep him from critical observations of the current Formula 1. When, after sampling Ayrton Senna’s McLaren-Honda MP4-4 recently, Alonso remarked that he wished he could have raced in that era, Kevin was not surprised.

“I absolutely understand what Fernando said – I think in those days a driver could make much more of a difference than now. I’ve driven in Formula Ford and World Series by Renault, which are more like old-school race cars, and there you can make more of a difference as a driver – even if you don’t have the best car. You can push the limits, and get around the corner quicker than the guy who doesn’t have the same talent.”

Alonso also made the observation that these days a driver is consciously aware of not running at the limit, so preoccupied is he with constantly listening to instructions, to adjusting this and that.

“He’s right. It’s not possible to push the limits any more, so it’s about finding them – and it’s much harder to do now. In terms of being enjoyable to drive on the limit, the coolest car I’ve ever driven was the [World Series] Renault 3.5 car: you get in it, and you feel the limit, and you say, ‘OK, this is probably it.’ Then you go faster, and faster, and you think, ‘Jeez, every time you push it’s not the limit, after all!’

“In today’s F1 cars, though, on the first lap you’re sliding and understeering and locking up, and you think, ‘OK, it’s not about pushing the limit any more – it’s about finding the best compromise.’ That can’t be right, can it? I don’t think true race fans want to see that.”

Something else, I said, that fans don’t like is the notion that half the time the drivers are effectively cruising, so as to ‘save’ something, be it fuel or tyres or whatever.

“No,” said Magnussen firmly, “the idea of a racing driver ‘cruising’ is not right. It comes back to what kids dream about these days – it’s not the race cars any more, and we need to change that: we need to make them really fast – much quicker than they’ve ever been before. We’ve got the safety to do it now, but as they’ve made the cars safer, they’ve also made them slower. So let’s make them safe – and fast, as well. And, at the same time, let’s go back to the old race tracks, like Imola and Zandvoort and Brands Hatch and Watkins Glen!”

Not terribly mainstream, I said, your last observation – nor one likely to go down well at a meeting of the GPDA.

“No, you’re right,” Kevin laughed. “But, seriously, people like me fell in love with racing in the ’90s, when it was really cool and exciting, but for the future… what is there for kids to fall in love with now? No sound, not really fast…”

Something else that has surely lessened the mano a mano aspect of F1 is the constant radio dialogue between driver and race engineer, giving the impression of ‘driving by numbers’.

“Of course fans don’t like that,” said Magnussen, “and you can see why. What would happen, I wonder, if they took away the radios, and you just had a number on the steering-wheel keeping you up to date with the fuel or whatever, and that’s it, get on with it…

“The tyres used in the World Series allow you to go flat out for the whole race – they have pitstops in the rules for the sake of entertainment, but you don’t need one. In one way, pitstops are good because it means that if you’re starting from the back you can undercut people – but at the same time they don’t change much at the front because the fast guy will win.

“I remember a Renault 3.5 race at Budapest when I missed qualifying and started at the back. It was raining hard and we ran the first 15 minutes behind the safety car – the race was only 30 minutes long, so when the safety car came in I had 15 minutes to do it, and I finished second! It was just pure balls – no one could see anything, there was massive aquaplaning everywhere, but it was the same track for everyone, so make the best of it.

“It’s so frustrating when you know you’re better than someone, and he’s just cruising around in front of you – it’s not how it should be. In conditions like that day in Hungary, though, you could feel how much better you were than other people – you could get past them, and it felt good!

“Honestly I think it was wrong that I was able to finish second in my first Grand Prix – I’d tested for a maximum of five and then straight on the podium! It’s not really right. After 20 races or so you should be getting better, and then it would be different.”

It seems a long time ago now, but Magnussen indeed finished second – behind Rosberg’s Mercedes, ahead of team-mate Button – on his F1 debut in Australia last year. As so often, though, Melbourne proved to be an anomaly in the Grand Prix season, and these were to be the only podiums for McLaren in 2014. Looking back on the remarkable start to his F1 career, Magnussen has mixed feelings. “I feel a bit ambivalent about it, because obviously you’re happy at the time – getting to F1 is a big achievement in itself, and when your first race finishes like that, it feels great.

“The problem was that everything afterwards was measured against that result, which made it tough – if it had come at the end of the year, it would have been better, I think. Yes, it’s good to finish your first Grand Prix on the podium, but if I could choose I would have done that in the last race…”

We can compare Magnussen’s situation at McLaren with those previously endured by Panis and de la Rosa, but at least they had plenty of ‘seat time’. Now, with testing all but banned, a test driver’s lot is to spend his time in the simulator.

“I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating,” said Kevin, “but of course it makes you wish you were driving the real car – you get a little bit of the same feeling, and it’s kind of nice, but not exciting. A bit like watching porn – not the real thing…”

Nor, with drivers like Alonso and Button on board, is there any question of ‘Friday mornings’ at the races. Meantime Magnussen is obliged to endure the less appealing aspects of the F1 driver’s life – not least the ceaseless travel – without the pleasure of competing, and attending McLaren debriefs, I suggested, must be salt in the wound.

“Exactly! I look at the data, I look at the on-board videos, and all I do is think, ‘I could do that better!’ I’m happy to be there, though, because I’m learning, and it’ll help me in the future.”

Had Alonso not been told by his doctors to skip Melbourne, Magnussen might well be enjoying a season of Indycar racing, with Andretti Autosport.

“I was massively tempted by that – I just needed to get back in a race car, back to my normal life. Of course I have other interests, but basically I live to race.

“I was with the Andretti team in Indianapolis and was going to do a test, but at the last minute we couldn’t find the money for it, so there was a little delay. I had to test at Barcelona, and then do the race in Australia, so it was just too late, really. We only had a couple of weeks to find sponsorship, and we lost time when I was testing and racing the McLaren. One day I’d love to race Indycars. The ovals appeal to me – I really like the Indy 500…”

For now, though, Formula 1 remains the goal, and recently Magnussen went to his native Denmark with Ron Dennis, the aim of the trip to drum up sponsorship for Kevin. “Once a year all the biggest businessmen have a get-together in Copenhagen: we went on the stage, and did a Q&A, then Ron made a speech, and basically we were trying to tell Denmark to get together to support me.

“It doesn’t mean that it’s 100 per cent necessary, but it would help my situation. We told them that it was not only for me that they needed to do it – it was for Denmark, too, because if I can win in F1, it would put the country on the map.

“We don’t know yet if we were successful, but it was definitely worthwhile: apart from anything else, Ron taking the time to travel to Denmark showed me that he still believes in me. McLaren don’t need this – they’ll do fine without me – but I need it, and Ron didn’t do it because he thinks I’m a nice guy: he did it because he thinks I can help him.

“As I said, I really think F1 should reward talent a bit more, but in the end it’s still where the best drivers are, and that’s why you want to win in F1 more than anywhere else. When I was six years old I didn’t think about making a lot of money from doing this: I just loved it, and that’s never changed…”

I have no idea how many laps of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Mario Andretti must have run in the past 50 years, and neither has he. We can tot up that, in the course of 29 500s between 1965 and 1994, he covered 3040 laps, plus another 116 in qualifying, but how about the endless days of testing?

“Well,” he said, “leaving aside the month of May, when we used to test at Indy it was for a week at a time and I’d test anything between 20 and 25 sets a day, with at least 10 laps on each set. I’ve probably run 100,000 miles there…”

That would equate to 40,000 laps of the Speedway, which is quite a thought: from now on I will always take pleasure in being able to say that, for three of them, I was along for the ride.

My trip in the Dallara-Honda two-seater came late on the Thursday afternoon before this year’s race, and as the time approached I mentioned it to one or two people. “I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of it,” said Rick Mears, “and that’ll please Mario – but don’t think that’s the main reason he drives the two-seater: it’s because it keeps him in a race car! When I realised the flame was flickering, I quit, but Mario’s not like that. He may be 75 years old, but with him the flame still burns…”

No question about that. “You know me,” he said. “I purely, purely love my driving, just like always. I never wanted my racing career to end, but realistically I count my blessings every day for the longevity that was given to me – dodging several bullets, and so forth.

“After I retired in ’94, I was out of Indycars for nine years and then got back in at the Speedway, just doing a test for Michael’s team because he had drivers injured at the time. It ended badly, when I did that flip, but otherwise once I got back into my element that day you’ve no idea how good it felt…”

‘When I did that flip…’ Andretti, then a mere 63, was lapping in the 225mph range when he ran over wreckage from Kenny Bräck’s car, which had crashed at Turn One in front of him. Mario’s car somersaulted several times – above the height of the debris fence – before landing right side up. When it comes to dodging bullets, he knows whereof he speaks.

“Last year, at Sonoma,” Andretti said, “I experienced that big earthquake, in the middle of the Saturday night. I was thrown out of bed, got dressed in complete darkness, went to the parking lot and sat in my car. I couldn’t stop shaking – I was following the race at Spa on Twitter on my phone, and I could not stop shaking…

“I was slated to be on track in the two-seater at eight that morning – which I was. And you know what? As soon as I got into the cockpit, everything just quietened down, and I was as calm as could be – just because I was back in my element…”

‘The Fastest Seat In Sports’ is what it says on the front of the pale blue Dallara, and I’m not about to argue. There are six purpose-built two-seaters involved in this programme, and – with some pride – Andretti informed me that his was the quickest of them.

“I keep lobbying for more horsepower, and you’ll notice that, compared with the others, my car is pretty trimmed out! If I don’t get my way, I start pouting, so they think, ‘Oh, we’ve got to keep Mario happy…’ They let me do quite a bit of adjusting, chassis-wise, and some of the changes make the car much freer and more balanced. It handles pretty nicely – I’m having a ball with it.”

Quite apart from the pleasurable aspect of the experience – which was intense – it is probably no bad thing for anyone who writes about this sport, and presumes to make judgements about its participants, to be reminded once in a while of how these people spend their working lives.

I have many times been driven by racing drivers on road circuits, but this was my first time on an oval, and I’ll confess that on the first flying lap, as we went down the backstretch towards Turn Three, I found myself thinking, ‘No, Mario – you can’t turn in at this speed…’

He did, though, flicking the car right, in time-honoured style, before pitching it left into the turn, and then – very soon, it seemed – doing the same for Turn Four. Child’s play for him, but a very grown-up experience for me, and I savoured every moment. When he backed off, and brought us into the pits, I wished overwhelmingly for more.

When you watch at Indianapolis the turns seem long and open, but when you pitch into them at speed they take on the aspect almost of 90-degree corners, and I was aware of the g-forces at work on me.

“What were we lapping at?” I asked Andretti afterwards. “Oh, 185-190,” he said, “but remember this: that’s faster than any stock car has been round Indy in the Brickyard 400!”

That was something, but I attempted to put our speed into the context of the 500, tried vainly to imagine how it must be to lap Indianapolis 40mph or so quicker than that – with a car to your left, another to your right, one in front, one behind – and to keep it up, Ye Gods, for more than three hours. Many times have I been to the Indy 500, but this one assuredly I watched with fresh eyes.

“Doing this ‘Indy Experience’ with Honda makes sense for me,” said Mario. “I love the people who operate it – they’ve run teams all their lives, and they’re ultra-professional. I’m glad that people like you, who’ve experienced so much in motor racing, can still get pleasure from something like this – although I’m the one that’s actually getting the most out of it! For you, I guess it was probably a novelty to go round an oval…”

Indeed so, and not only for me. “The only time I throttle back,” Andretti said, “is when there’s someone really old in the car – last year I drove a lady who was 102! She’d been going to the 500 since 1948, and when she was 100 years old she said it was her dream to drive round the Speedway with me in the two-seater. She wasn’t worried about herself – she said, ‘I need to do it before Mario gets too old!’”