Jackie Stewart billed Jan Magnussen as the next Senna. Then he sacked him. How could arguably the biggest talent of the 1990s have failed so dramatically in F1? Andrew Benson unravels the mystery
Jan Magnussen is under few illusions about his Formula One career. “I let myself down,” he says, “and that always hurts. I planned to be world champion and it didn’t happen.”
In another life — or perhaps even in this one had history taken a different course — Magnussen’s plan might have worked; certainly he would still be in grand prix racing now. Instead, Jackie Stewart sacked after just a season and a half a man he once described as “the most talented young driver to emerge since Ayrton Senna”.
Ten years on from the Dane’s F1 debut, it is still hard to comprehend. Stewart and his son Paul ran teams at most levels of motorsport for more than a decade and employed many of that era’s most successful drivers, among them Juan Pablo Montoya, David Coulthard, Rubens Barrichello, Johnny Herbert, Gil de Ferran and Dario Franchitti. Magnussen, they insist to this day, could have outstripped them all.
“On pure speed,” Paul Stewart says, “the only one who comes close to Jan is Rubens. Rubens is clearly a very talented driver, but on raw ability I would put Jan ahead of him. Jan had the potential to go beyond all that. You really believed it.”
In equal machinery, Magnussen has beaten Barrichello, Giancarlo Fisichella, Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli, who by the end of last month had 18 grand prix wins between them. He was stunning in the junior categories, won races in Germany’s DTM touring car championship against a host of big names, and impressed some of those he worked with in a brief dalliance with the US-based Champ Car series. So when Magnussen joined Stewart Grand Prix at the start of 1997 it seemed merely the latest step in a preordained route to the very top.
Born in Roskilde, some 30 or so miles west of Copenhagen, on July 4 1974, it was soon obvious that Magnussen was unusually gifted. At the age of 11 he abandoned his first love — motocross — in favour of karts, not least because “it hurt less when you fell off”. He won three world championships — two junior and one senior — by the time he was 16. Switching to cars, he won six of the last nine races of his debut season in British Formula Ford in 1992 before taking a sensational win at the Festival, despite starting his heat from the back, using the outside of the daunting Paddock Hill Bend as his favoured overtaking spot.
It was at Brands Hatch that weekend that this writer first met the 18-year-old Magnussen. I went on to follow his career more closely than almost anyone else. I reported on his brilliant F3 season in ’94, was at the Norisring DTM race when he broke his leg in a scooter accident and covered all his grands prix.
I liked him immediately. In scruffy yellow overalls he was so obviously different from most other aspiring drivers, well-groomed and mouthing platitudes in their desire to please team owners and sponsors alike. For one thing, Magnussen did not have any sponsors. He was shy and monosyllabic, but direct and engaging. Short, with blonde hair and rosy cheeks, he looked barely old enough to hold a driving licence, but in the awning attached to the team’s tatty motorhome was a young woman with a baby boy. This turned out to be his girlfriend and their son Kevin, born a couple of weeks before.
A comparatively low-key year in Vauxhall Lotus — he won ‘only’ four of the races — was followed by a move to Formula Three with Paul Stewart Racing in 1994. The ultra-fastidious Stewarts, all crisp white shirts and stiff collars, were not enamoured of Magnussen’s haphazard approach out of the car, but they could, as F3 team boss Andy Miller points out, “see a spark that you can’t teach” when he was in it.
Magnussen’s achievements that year will likely never be matched — he won 14 of the 18 races — yet he saved his best drive for the end-of-season Macau Grand Prix.
He ruined his chances of overall victory in the two-heat event by crashing in qualifying and ending up 18th on the grid. By the end of the first race he was fifth. He won the second, passing Schumacher and Fisichella on the way.
Things have changed now, but during his early career Magnussen had a distinctly maverick approach to being a racing driver. He smoked, made no secret of his distaste for going to the gym and paid little heed to commercial niceties.
The stories are legion, among them an occasion during his F1 career when he was in the Czech Republic to promote the Ford Ka, which he had driven to a press conference. The inevitable first question was what he thought of the new model. “It’s one of the worst cars I’ve ever driven,” came the honest, if somewhat ill-advised, answer.
The problem — although it hardly seemed like one at the time — was that he was just too damn talented. He did not have to try — he just got into a car and blew everybody away. While other drivers hustled hard off track to keep their careers going, Magnussen’s natural ability meant opportunities came to him.
His F3 performances won him a test contract with McLaren, but he got very few F1 miles while spending two up-and-down years in the DTM with Mercedes in 1995 and ’96. By now Magnussen’s unconventional approach was beginning to cause him problems — people said he was unfit, that he did not work hard enough out of the car.
“The thing I remember about Jan,” says McLaren principal Ron Dennis, “was that he never seemed to know why he wasn’t quick, and he was the most disorganised grand prix driver I’ve ever known.
“I remember once we were at an airport. Jan had packed his passport into his suitcase and when he opened the suitcase to find it, it looked like it had been packed by a four-year-old. It looked like he’d gone round the room and just thrown everything into it — including the dirty washing. And none of his toiletries were in a bag.
“People like that are chaotic in their thinking. I thought, ‘There’s no way he’s going to make it.”
Even so, Magnussen made a highly accomplished F1 debut at the 1995 Pacific Grand Prix at Aïda in Japan. Before the race he had never done more than four consecutive laps in a McLaren. But, filling in at the last minute for a sick Mika Häkkinen, he finished 10th, right behind team-mate Mark Blundell.
“I caught him with a few laps to go,” Magnussen recalls. “I should have had a go at him. Ron commented on it after the race, but I would have had to take a chance and it was important for me to show I could be sensible. In any other situation I would have found a way, but we weren’t near the points, he was my team-mate and I didn’t want to take him off, and it was my first race and it was very important for me to finish. Everyone was on at me about not being fit. And I just wanted to show everyone that I was fit.”
Jackie and Paul Stewart always intended to employ Magnussen when they founded their grand prix team in 1997, but neither they nor he realised that his performance in Aïda disguised the fact that he was seriously ill-equipped for a full-time drive with a novice F1 team.
Magnussen, by his own admission, was “young and naïve” and not prepared mentally for F1. He had not yet realised that talent alone is not enough, nor that he lacked the experience to cope with the technical complexities of a grand prix car. Having signed a four-year contract, he neither realised how vulnerable his position could be, nor how important it was to demand the changes he wanted.
Operationally, Stewart was a long way from being a top F1 team, and pre-season testing was a disaster. Barrichello, Magnussen’s team-mate, had five years of F1 experience to fall back on. Magnussen did not.
“If it wasn’t the car,” remembers chief engineer Andy Le Fleming, “the engine was blowing up every five minutes. For someone who needed to learn as much as possible, it wasn’t a reliable enough package.”
Eventually Stewart set up a two-day test at Estoril before the start of the season for Jan to pound round and learn the car inside out.
He managed five laps before the front suspension broke, sending him into the wall at Turn 2 at more than 160mph. A suspension arm pierced the chassis and tore into Magnussen’s overalls, mercifully only grazing his leg.
Magnussen believes now it was a mistake to accept the Stewart drive. “Looking back,” he says, “I’m sure another season or two under Ron’s guidance as test driver for McLaren would have been better. I’m not afraid to admit that I was very, very young — not only in years but also mentally. But then who is going to turn down an Fl race seat?”
For the first two thirds of that season Magnussen was always slower than Barrichello, usually by a considerable margin. With virtually no pre-season testing, he did not understand the car, nor could he pinpoint what he needed from it.
Some believe this was because he had never had to struggle before and so had never learned how to make a bad car better. “That’s not completely incorrect,” Magnussen says, “but I won’t take the full blame for it. I was paired up with an engineer who, between us, we didn’t make a good team. He wasn’t a bad engineer — it just didn’t work with me. I needed somebody who would at least try to get into my head and see what I was thinking. It was all about technology and engineering with him. At the time I saw that as less of a problem than it was.”
Le Fleming agrees that Jan did not get the level of engineering support he needed. And, although the Stewarts tried to lift their struggling driver, some say they went about it the wrong way. In one infamous incident Jackie Stewart decided to take Magnussen for a driving lesson. “I’ve got loads of respect for Jackie,” Magnussen says. “But driving a car now is very different from driving one 30 years ago.
“If you want to try to build up a driver, you don’t take him to Oulton Park, force him to drive in a way that is unnatural to him and then advertise the fact that you went faster. I had to drive my own way to be fast. It made me look stupid. I couldn’t believe it. I just thought, ‘Why is he doing this to me now?’
Magnussen says it was a shock to find himself struggling so much. But late in the season, just when it seemed as if he would never get it right, it all came together.
“I got miles in the car — most of them in races — and got into a good rhythm,” he recalls. “I got more and more comfortable and I got to a point with my engineer where it started to work. Everything started to come together and then my confidence started to build up.”
At Spa he was impressive in wet but drying conditions. The momentum built with a strong performance at Monza, and then came Austria, where Barrichello and Magnussen qualified fifth and sixth.
“Rubens had been used to not registering Jan on his radar,” Le Fleming says. “All of a sudden Jan was going quicker. Rubens would pull his belts tighter and then Jan would go quicker again. We thought, ‘My God, he’s got it. We might have something here.”
For the rest of that year Magnussen looked like the grand prix driver he was expected to be, matching Barrichello everywhere before flat beating him at the final race of the season.
Le Fleming: “At the end of ’97 he was pretty chuffed with the way the season had finished. He was fired up, saying he was going to work on his fitness because he had privately acknowledged that he didn’t work on it enough. He said, ‘You won’t recognise me next year.’ I thought, ‘That’s what we want.’
“But the ’98 car was a complete shitbox, and when you’ve got a bad car it is the young, inexperienced guys that suffer. He was expecting to go straight into a car that was half-decent like at the end of the previous year and it was actually a step backwards and harder to drive.
“It was the first year of grooved tyres as well and there were so many factors that were different and he couldn’t pinpoint where they came from, whether it was the tyres or the car or whatever. I mean, Rubens was struggling and he had a lot of experience to fall back on and he’d done most of the winter testing as well.
“I don’t think what happened to Jan was Jan’s fault. We all hoped for a better second year and we all wanted Jan to continue. It’s unfair that he was sacked that year because the way that car was I don’t think you could ever blame any of the drivers for not being able to drive it properly. Jos (Verstappen, who replaced Magnussen) didn’t do any better so there you go.”
When I read this analysis to Magnussen he was silent for a moment, before saying in a quiet voice: “That’s the first time I’ve heard anything like that from someone at Stewart. It’s a little bit hard for me to remember, but I think it was the same sort of pattern — not enough testing, and I remember getting lost. You know, ‘Where is the problem?”
The decision to sack Magnussen hit him hard — at 24 his life’s dream was over. “I went back to Denmark and was ready to pack it all in,” he says. “I was disappointed in myself, but also with people in F1. I thought about quitting. Then David Sears (Magnussen’s manager) called me about testing in the US with Panoz.
“It wasn’t something I really wanted to do but it was such a weird, wonderful car. I felt a good sense of team spirit; good people around me. I felt that people wanted me there. I wasn’t just somebody they could f*** later on.”
At Panoz he rebuilt his career as one of the world’s best sportscar drivers. He and team-mate David Brabham beat the all-conquering Audis five times in three years — the only times the German cars ever lost in that period. Last year he won his class at Le Mans in a Chevrolet Corvette. He’s driving for Chevy again in ’05, alongside a Toyota deal in the Danish Touring Car series, which he won in 2003 for Peugeot.
“I didn’t understand until I began working with Panoz that I was so unhappy in F1,” Magnussen says. “I realised how much I enjoyed racing, and how little I enjoyed all the bullshit of Fl. So I didn’t try at all to come back to F1. That’s not to say I wouldn’t try it again.
“I really wanted to be successful, but I didn’t know what I had to do to be successful. I’ve learnt that since then. But the more l thought about it the more I realised it wasn’t only me. It was many things around me.”
No one who has worked with Magnussen doubts he had the talent to become an F1 ace. Maybe he would have made it if he had come to it a little older and wiser — done some time in Indycars, say, like Montoya. For Le Fleming, though, it might not even have taken that.
“He’s definitely a quick guy, and if you had somebody who was hard enough to beat him up about working at it then I think he could have done well. If somehow Jan had got a Williams drive in ’97 or something, I think he’d be a bloody star.”