Kevin Magnussen: 'F1 was hopeless, now I'm finally racing to win'

Sports Car News

Kevin Magnussen speaks exclusively to Motor Sport about quitting F1, chasing Le Mans glory and his ‘American Dream’

Kevin Magnussen Haas F1

Kevin Magnussen has left behind F1 for pastures new in endurance - and has told Motor Sport he's loving it already

Haas F1 team

Kevin Magnussen cut a downcast figure in the Formula 1 paddock last season; his primary goal for the weekend often to avoid finishing last in a car that was off the pace.

But on a Zoom call with Motor Sport from his Copenhagen kitchen, Magnussen looked a world away from that driver, as he described the unmitigated joy of racing at the front after several “hopeless” seasons at the back in F1.

A weight lifted from his shoulders, he related the pleasure of driving his new “noisy, badass” car – and almost winning in it first time out too.

After fighting for victory in last month’s Daytona 24 hours, the former McLaren, Renault and Haas F1 driver now has his sights set on emulating his father’s achievements at Le Mans, as one of Peugeot’s Hypercar drivers.

Unveiled alongside his team-mates earlier this week, Magnussen will be in contention for overall victory in next year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, as Peugeot rejoins the fray.

“You’re working your ass off, sweating like a pig, and for what?”

“It’s one of the biggest races in the world, if not the biggest,” says Magnussen. “So it’s absolutely right towards the top of my bucket list. Now I have a chance to go and do it. It’s exciting, it’s what I want to be doing.”

In an interview shortly after he Peugeot announcement, the 28 year-old described his path of enlightenment since leaving the high-pressure F1 bubble. “Racing to compete, that’s in my blood,” he says. “That’s how I grew up, that’s my passion. I went back to being more true to myself, I guess”.

Magnussen’s shot at a competitive F1 drive was over before perhaps even he realised. He arrived in F1 with McLaren as the Formula Renault 3.5 champion and finished on the podium in his first race, eventually being classified second after Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification. It would be the best finish of his entire seven year career.

The return of Fernando Alonso in 2015 saw Magnussen sit out most of the season before an uncompetitive year at Renault and then four seasons at a Haas team that initially showed promise before sliding to the back of the pack.

“I was definitely getting very tired of it,” he says. “When you’re being lapped, and you’re just struggling at the back…these cars are physical to drive, and you’re working your ass off, sweating like a pig, and for what?

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“At some races, we were right at the back – P18. You have a whole race to go and you just know you need 17 cars to not finish for this to be a good result – it’s just hopeless!

“Sometimes that can be really daunting. There are good races as well. But even the good races, after finishing in P5 or getting some solid points, I just wasn’t super excited about it. At the end of the day, it’s still not a win, so it’s not the right feeling. I’m not here to do a job, I’m here to race and have fun doing it.”

Midway through the 2020 F1 season, it became increasingly apparent that there would be no seat for Magnussen on the 2021 grid and the Dane found himself looking to one of the biggest racing outfits on more distant shores.

“I always had a dream to race with Chip Ganassi in IndyCar. I was trying to do IndyCar with him [in 2021], but that didn’t happen for various reasons.

“But the talks were good, and then suddenly this opportunity came up with Cadillac and IMSA. I thought, since I couldn’t do IndyCar, that would be a really good opportunity.

And so six weeks after calling time on his F1 career, Magnussen found himself in Florida, preparing to race for Ganassi’s crack DPi squad at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He had none other than five-time IndyCar champ Scott Dixon for his team-mate, along with endurance veteran Renger van der Zander.

Their no1 car was on the pace straightaway in practice, before Magnussen stole the show in the qualifying race, leading early on.

How did it feel to be fighting at the front again?

“It made me very happy. I’ve missed it – it just feels right. Fighting for victories is why I do what I do, it’s why I’m a racing driver, why I’m a sports person, it’s why I got to where I am – because I like winning.

Kevin Magnussen/Renger van der Zande during practice for the 2021 Daytona 24 Hour race. Photo: Jamey Price/Grand Prix Photo

Magnussen and his team-mates came within minutes of winning the 2021 24 Hours of Daytona

Grand Prix Photo

It went uphill from there. After eventually starting Daytona proper in seventh, the race came down to the wire.

Magnussen’s stablemate van der Zander, now in 2nd place, was closing in leader Filipe Albuquerque of Wayne Taylor Racing as the race reached its conclusion. After 24 hours, with just minutes left on the clock, the win was in Magnussen and co’s grasp. He was in no doubt of what he thought the outcome would be.

“I really thought Renger had what it took to be able to get past the Acura,” he says. “You’re watching and you see he caught up by like 20 seconds and so. He did an amazing job and he had so much momentum.”

It was not to be. With seven minutes to go, the Ganassi Cadillac suffered a puncture on the banking. As the DPi prototype slowly made its way back to the pits, rear wing wobbling indignantly as it was lashed by a flailing tyre canvas, all hopes of an incredible debut victory were dashed.

“It was a really big, sad moment when it happened,” says Magnussen. “He certainly had the speed for it. When he came in, it was a big blow. and I think he would have got past if it wasn’t for the puncture.

He’s still got the rest of the season to find that winning feeling again, however, and he’ll be smiling as he does it.

“I’m just a racing fan like you I guess, and any other fan, that’s how I started out. ” he says. “I love the look of the [IMSA] cars, the sound of the engines, the smells – everything!

“I think American motorsport has that bit sorted out very well. They kept the really kind of pure DNA of motorsport. They’ve retained that a little better than they have in Europe.

“There’s still a lot of normally aspirated V8s around and noisy, badass looking cars in America, so I think that part appeals to me quite a bit.

Magnussen has already derived a lot of enjoyment from driving the Ganassi Cadillac DPi saying he felt something was missing with his F1 machinery. “Driving wise, just being able to push massively and be flat out all the time – that’s a really big pleasure,” he says.

“Driving a car that isn’t just all aero, there’s some weight transfer you can play with, the bits you’re working with on the set-up of the car, its in a way more mechanical than it is in F1. It’s a little more back to basics, a little less refined, which I enjoy quite a bit.

“F1 cars are almost too perfect drive in a way, so the challenge of driving isn’t as great as it used to be,” he opines. “It’s very predictable and easy to handle. Although it’s extremely fast, if you can overcome that, and if you’re not scared about the speed in an F1 car, it’s actually very easy to drive.”

“IMSA is racing on some phenomenal circuit – almost everyone is like a bucket list track”

“So yeah, in some ways [IMSA is] a little more challenging. Of course, a Formula 1 car is massively challenging to drive massively. And you need to be very quick in your mind to really react and be very precise. Everything happens so quickly in an F1 car. It’s just different. And I think it’s good when you get to try a new car and take on the challenge of getting to know its limits.”

In terms of circuits, IMSA is a tour of US racing’s greatest hits, and Magnussen is relishing the challenge.

“All of the races look awesome – IMSA is racing on some phenomenal tracks,” he says. “I would say, of course, the Sebring 12 hours is going to be a big one. But I’m looking forward to Laguna Seca, Long Beach, Detroit, Road America, Road Atlanta – almost every track is like a bucket list track.”

Magnussen also feels free at last from the pressures of the F1 paddock, and uplifted by his American surroundings.

“It’s a different atmosphere, in the whole [IMSA] paddock,” he comments. “It’s a lot more laid back and it’s a much better mood. Everyone is friendly with each other, everyone’s talking.

“In F1, it’s a very high pressure environment. It can be a little unfriendly in a way, but also super busy all the time, everyone is rushing around trying to do their thing. In IMSA it seems like people are having a slightly better time somehow, laughing a bit more, you see everyone’s faces a bit more smiley.”

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However, despite disillusionment setting in with the grand prix world, both with cars, the racing and the atmosphere, Magnussen says this didn’t put him off continuing his racing career. In fact, quite the opposite, it led to a moment of positive clarity.

“I just felt like I needed to… I almost felt the love grow for racing,” he says. “I realised that I just need to be racing, that’s what really makes me happy.

That need for speed has led to another new dawn in Magnussen’s career, as on Monday he was announced as a Peugeot driver for the French marque’s Le Mans Hypercar assault in 2022.

Magnussen said winning at La Sarthe has always been an ambition of his, particularly after seeing his father Jan have such success on the endurance circuit, both in America and Le Mans, following a stuttering F1 career.

“I feel like we’re able talk about the same thing now, and we understand each other a little more,” he says. “My years in F1 compared to his years in F1, things have moved on massively, it’s a very different sport.

“The F1 sport that I experienced compared to what he experienced, the cars are different, the teams work in different ways, and the whole thing is different. So now, his experiences [in endurance] are a little more recent, and up to date. We can actually support each other – he’s been very helpful so far.”

Magnussen says his father’s varied and versatile career is something which he wanted to emulate himself.

“I guess that’s only natural. My dad has been racing everything. F1, IndyCar, DTM, NASCAR, he’s done a bit of rallying. He’s a real old school racer.” Magnussen comments.

“Growing up as a kid and looking up to my dad, seeing him do all these different things, be good at it and have a great time with it – that inspires me to try and go do it myself.

“The drivers that I look up to from the past…Stirling Moss wasn’t just an F1 driver, he did everything. He did 80 or 100 races a year. That’s the people I can see myself as, I can relate to that.”

Magnussen is savouring the notion of being able to win across different categories, to truly diversify his racing skills.

Romain Grosjean Kevin Magnussen Haas F1

Former Haas stablemates Romain Grosjean and Magnussen have looked stateside to continue their motorsport careers

Haas F1

“It would be very sad if I had spent my whole career, finished up as a 38 year old, having done 15 seasons of F1 and not having won anything,” he says. “I would be a little bit disappointed with that. So I think, in a way, it [winning in different categories] makes you a more complete driver, compared to not winning in F1. And I think, to win in F1 you need a lot of luck as well. I think there’s a lot of drivers that are able to win in F1, they just won’t get the chance.”

Magnussen still sees himself in IndyCar one day, perhaps after he’s had a fair crack at endurance racing.

“I’m 28 years old, so it doesn’t matter which I do first. I can have a couple of years in endurance racing and try to be successful there. Then, if I get a chance in the future, I could do IndyCar, why not? That’d be great. So I hope that happens, but we’ll see.

Unlike his former team-mate and IndyCar newbie Romain Grosjean, who has expressed reticence towards oval racing and will make his IndyCar debut on just road and street courses, Magnussen is desperate to be let loose on the superspeedways.

“Ovals are something I’ve always wanted to try, just going 230 miles an hour – I feel like it’s exciting. The Indy 500 is a race that I just need to be doing one day. “

If anything, the chance to just compete fairly in single-seaters is Magnussen’s greatest motivation.

“The fact that everyone has the same car – the best racing times I’ve had was in F3 and World Series by Renault,” Magnussen remembers. “It was super competitive, everyone had a chance, it was just the best driver on his day that won the race.

“I feel like IndyCar is like that, but just on a higher level, one of the top, top levels of motorsport. It has a lot of appeal to be super competitive. If you look at the lap times, the difference from pole position down to P10, it’s always just a couple of tenths. It’s competitive, it’s tough, it’s very exciting.”

As the one sun sets in Kevin Magnussen’s career, another one rises. Wherever the search for excitement takes him, K-Mag is just getting started.