Jan Magnussen may be starring in the ITC, but he still hankers after an F1 opportunity. Marcus Simmons found out why
They used to say that when you commented on the youth of policemen, you must be getting old. Nowadays it seems that, instead of the boys in blue, it’s the lads racing touring cars that seem to be only just out of school.
This year, it could well be that the International Touring Car series, the most prestigious tin-top championship in the world, is won by a 23-year old from Denmark. But for Jan Magnussen, it is more of a route into Formula One than the pathway towards old age that many past Grand Prix stars would prefer it to be.
With a McLaren-Mercedes testing contract in his pocket (and an impressive GP debut at Aida last year under his belt), as well as interest from TWR Arrows and Stewart Grand Prix, it seems only a matter of time before his true ambitions are realised.
It’s ambition that could have proved his stumbling block last year. After winning the British Formula Three Championship with Paul Stewart Racing (the same organisation which is metamorphosing into Stewart GP), Magnussen was lifted into Mercedes-Benz’s Class 1 touring car squad. It was, as he admits, more a means to an end than a target in itself.
“Last year I treated the racing like touring cars, and up until last year touring cars was only for the old baldies. It was just a pastime for me, because I had nothing else to do until Formula One. And the fact that it was Mercedes – with McLaren there I could get them to push me further in my career. That was not the right attitude to bring into the championship I was stunned with the level of competition, and how fast and determined people were to do well.”
Indeed, while Magnussen and Jorg van Ommen worked separately towards the same goal, the other AMG Merc duo, Bernd Schneider and Dario Franchitti, pooled information and reaped the dividends.
“What made the difference last year was Schneider really. All the time in his head he was champion, even before the season started. I think some of that also benefited Dario. It took me a bit longer, and when things started to come good midway through the season I broke my leg. But after that I came back stronger than before.
“The first race back at Diepholz was just a test I could only just walk. I was determined I was going to do a good job at Estoril.”
And he did. The Dane headed towards his first ITC win in Portugal, setting himself up as the star of the late-season races and moving into the close season on the crest of a wave. Diligent pre-season preparation for 1996 has seen that momentum sustained.
“One of the reasons things have gone so well is that I did a lot of race distances at Estoril in the new C-Class. The race set-ups we have are brilliant, and in qualifying it’s important only to be the best Mercedes. “Mercedes aren’t really bothered who wins the championship, as long as it’s a Mercedes. The important thing is to do what Dario did last season-whoosh, get the team behind you, and after that it’s a hell of a lot easier.”
Having support from his team was the least of Magnussen’s problems when he made his Grand Prix debut last October.
“I don’t think they could have picked a better race,” he remembers. “At Aida there was very little pressure, and no one was expecting anything. I was a little bit nervous because I’d only done four laps in a row, and Aida was 81 laps!
“The week before was the last touring car race in Hockenheim, and Ron [Dennis] was there. I was at the drivers’ briefing and Keke Rosberg was looking at me. He kept looking at me and I said, ‘What?’ He said, Are you fit?’ and I said, ‘Pretty fit’. He said ‘Aaahh it’s gonna be tough next weekend’.
“I thought, ‘What does he mean by that? I was supposed to be doing a Red Cross thing in Denmark, driving people round a circuit in my road car, and Keke was going as well. Then walking back to the pits I started hearing rumours that Mika [Hakkinen] was ill. “Just before the race Ron came up behind me and all he said was, ‘Hello. Do you think you can handle Japan?’
I said, ‘Sure, cool and then he walked off! “On the Tuesday I did a lot of starts and pit stops at Silverstone. Everyone was very good to me and the priority was to finish the race. A lot of people said I wouldn’t but I thought, ‘I’ll finish if it kills me’. Before the first pit stop I was really bad, but the reason for that was I wasn’t relaxing, because I was trying too hard not to make a mistake. Then I got into a rhythm, and after that I didn’t have a problem.
It wasn’t so much the finishing position – 10th that impressed onlookers. It was more the way in which he finished right behind McLaren regular Mark Blundell, and the fact that, had it not been for a rare spate of complete reliability among the F1 frontrunners, the performance probably would have netted a World Championship point.
Any chance of F1 outings in 1996 really depended on the rate of Hakkinen’s recovery from his Australian GP injuries, and the race status or otherwise of new McLaren testing colleague Alain Prost.
So how does it feel, after all that, to be demoted to number four in the Woking line-up? “I need to learn the car and they need to use the drivers with the most experience of it. McLaren have got a few problems at the moment, and to put me in would be a bit of a backward step for them. I can understand why I’m not testing much, even though I’d like to.
“Prost’s got a Super licence at the moment, but I’m not sure about the score. I’ll let Ron decide, but hopefully, if a replacement is needed, Prost won’t wanna race!”
While all this is going on, Magnussen’s manager David Sears is pushing for an F1 berth for his protégé in ’97, Stewart GP is the odds-on favourite at present, but Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR, whose logo Sears’s Super Nova Formula 3000 entries sport (owing to an arrangement with Walkinshaw concerning Super Nova pilot Kenny Brack), is another possibility.
It’s all a far cry from three years ago, when Sears rescued Jan from Foundation Racing, which was struggling to raise the finance to run him in the Formula Opel Euroseries: “Most drivers’ aim is to get into F1, but I must admit when I first came to Britain that the racing was just an extension of my karting career I was doing it for the love of it.
‘I look back and realise I’ve been really lucky, teaming up with David, then the Stewarts and then Mercedes.”
But at present, it still means he has to bide his time in a category which isn’t totally to his taste.
“There’s a lot of banging in the ITC, which I dislike. But if you don’t do it, they’ll do it to me anyway. That’s not the way I wanna race though I miss the precision of single seaters. In touring cars, if you see half a gap, you go for it. “Even so, it’s getting better and better. They produce more downforce now, so if you destroy bodywork you lose down force. You can still lean on people, but you have to be a bit more careful.” So would winning the ITC be as much of a highlight in his career for Magnussen as it was for Schneider, for whom it will probably be the greatest achievement he manages?
“My mind is set on winning the championship much more than it was last year. It would mean a lot to me, because it would give Mercedes no choice but to put me in Formula One! It’s a great achievement to win it. but it can only push you one step further ahead.
“Whatever happens, this will be my last year as a Formula One test driver. I’m ready for F1 now. Touring cars gives you a good reputation, but it’s still touring cars it’s not ultimately what I want to do,
“So I’ll fight like hell to get an F1 drive for next year. It’s no secret there’s a chance of me going to Stewarts’, but I’m still under contract to McLaren, and it they want me that’s where I’ll go. But if the two drivers they have now stay, then obviously I’ll have to look elsewhere …”