Junior showtime

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As one Mercedes graduate was crowned at Aida, a possible heir to his throne made his debut

The Pacific Grand Prix saw a former Mercedes junior crowned world champion for the second year in succession. It also marked the debut of a current junior who many people tip one day to emulate that feat.

Brought in by McLaren when appendicitis ruled Mika Hakkinen out of the race, Jan Magnussen looked, as Michael Schumacher had on his own debut, to the manor born.

His result wasn’t stunning – he qualified 12 and finished 10th – but then nor was the car. “It’s quite a difficult car,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it’s not one which lets you be a one-day hero.”

Mere statistics mask the fact that Magnussen didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend, and sat right on team-mate Mark Blundell’s tail as the flag approached.

“It wasn’t just the fact that he proved he was quick,” marvelled Norbert Haug, Mercedes-Benz motorsport boss. “It was the whole thing: his in-laps, his out-laps, the pit stops and all the little things that Show he has the right instincts he’s a racer. And he looked like he’s been racing in F1 for a million years.”

In fact, Magnussen more than doubled his F1 mileage during the course of his debut. When Schumacher graduated to F1, in 1991, he did so with the benefit of thousands of kilometres behind him in a 900 bhp sportscar.

Mercedes-Benz is justifiably pound of its ‘Junior’ record. It formed its last ‘dream team’ at the end of 1989, during which the four Germans in F1 – Christian Danner, Bernd Schneider, Volker Weidler and Joachim Winkelhock – had managed only six starts, and one points-scoring finish, between them all season. Six years on, Germany boasts the sport’s youngest double World Champion and, in Heinz-Harald Frentzen (also a former Mercedes Junior), has one of the few men potentially capable of challenging him.

Now, though, the Sportscar World Championship is defunct. A record-breaking British F3 Champion, Magnussen rejected F3000 in order to ply his trade, with the new wave of Mercedes Juniors, in the German and International touring car championships. The 22-year-old’s accomplished F1 debut raises the question of where the next generation of future stars will come from?

Well aware of the potential pitfalls of F3000, Magnussen has no regrets at dovetailing his F1 test programme with racing touring cars. “When I arrived at Aida F1 was all horsepower, noise and brakes. But by the time I came to the last 20 laps of the race it was just a boring tug,” he laughs. “I was really pleased with the way it went. After 20 laps I thought I was going to die, but then it didn’t get any worse. In the end, I was actually surprised at how easy it all seemed. Suddenly there were only 30 laps to go. I thought, ‘Heck, not so hard after all!’

“I wasn’t overawed by the crowd and the atmosphere, because I’m used to exactly that kind of thing in the DTM. The biggest difference in switching back to a single-seater from the saloon was that I was having to brake so far later than my brain was actually telling me to. I’m happy with the DTM, though. I think it would do my career less harm to be not winning in something as big as that, with all the ex-F1 stars, than it would to be not winning in F3000.

McLaren boss Ron Dennis insists that Magnussen’s route is a good one for those wishing to follow his precedent.

“There are drivers, like Jan, who emerge from F3 with a very high level of success but can’t get into a competent Formula One team because the places just aren’t there,” he explains. “A top team cannot take the risk of running a young guy out of F3 no matter what success he’s had. Therefore he’s got to go through a testing procedure. He’s got a choice: he can test a Grand Prix car and do nothing else, or he can try and supplement that testing with another category of racing.

“I think DTM has many attractions. First, it’s one of the few categories left in motorsport where there is actually racing. They do race; they do have racecraft; they do have tyre degradation; they do have complex cars which need setting up. The other thing which is quite important, especially if you’re young, is the behaviour out of the car, the necessity to understand what it’s like to work with large organisations whose image is important to them. It’s vital to develop commitment mental commitment and physical discipline.

“When you are involved with Mercedes-Benz you are expected to take a disciplined approach to your racing. Therefore the guys coming out of the DTM system, whilst they’re not improving their ability to set-up an open-wheel car, are virtually learning every other skill they require.”

Magnussen’s decision like that of Schumacher before him swims against the tide, for F3000 has been considered the automatic route to F1 since its inception in 1985. Each of the first 10 champions has made it to F1: Danner, Ivan Capelli, Stefano Modena, Roberto Moreno, Jean Alesi, Erik Comas, Christian Fittipaldi, Luca Badoer, Olivier Panis and Jean-Christophe Bouillon. Ironically, though, not until Damon Hill did one of the FIA Championship’s graduates actually win a Grand Prix.

Only in this, the category’s final year in its present guise, have the likes of Alesi, David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert followed suit. Dennis also remains unimpressed with the one-make concept which will replace it.

“To me F3000, is completely meaningless for a variety of reasons,” he suggests. “One-make, one-engine formulas place great emphasis on the efficiency of the team. That very often completely masks the performance of the driver, because the team has an advantage normally gained from a clear understanding of the car, and the driver is able to take that forward. People think it’s him winning, but very often it’s the team.”

Currently, of course, McLaren doesn’t have a car likely to do any winning. The signs are that when it does, it may, in Magnussen, have exactly the right man to go with it.

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