Some people are born with great natural talent, and as a result success comes easily to them. Where others hone their efforts with great commitment, others can go without putting in the long hours needed to gain that extra tenth and still be the best – at least for a time. Unfortunately without trial and discipline, great talent can go to waste, and that is exactly the story of Jan Magnussen.
Hailed by his seniors as a future world champion, he left the world of Formula 1 embarrassed and with a single point after only a season and a half, totally unprepared and out of his depth. At the age of 24 his F1 career was already over, and the Dane found himself stranded in no man’s land. This is a story with a happy ending, however.
Following his riches-to-rags tale, Jan picked himself up and succeeded elsewhere. If there’s a GT or sportscar series, he’s probably done it and won it. A multiple endurance and sportscar winner, the bulk of his success has come with maturity and experience, and in his 30s and 40s he has honed that talent to become one of the most successful sportscar drivers of his generation.
|Date of Birth||July 4th 1973|
|Teams||McLaren (1995), Stewart (1997-1998)|
|Best Result||6th (Canada 1998)|
Early Years: “the most talented young driver to emerge since Ayrton Senna“
Born in the historical town of Roskilde, Denmark, Jan’s parents both worked in the police, and pushed him into karting at the age of 11. Success came almost immediately, because by age 12 he had his first regional title, and by 1987 he was junior world karting champion at the age of 14. He had taken almost no time at all to start winning, and turned many heads in doing so.
Continuing in this vein, he regularly won national and then regional Nordic titles until his open-wheel debut in Danish Formula Ford 1600 in 1991. He scored points for an 8th place on his debut at the Jyllands-Ringen – curiously, where his son, future Formula 1 driver Kevin Magnussen, also made his track debut. Magnussen showed enough speed and adaptability in karting and on his Formula Ford debut to pursue further into his career.
For 1992, he left Denmark in a rush and largely without sponsors for an assault on British Formula Ford. In his first full season outside of his home nation, Magnussen took six wins out of 18 races – not including the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch – on his way to third place in the championship. A move to Formula Opel in 1993, where he took three wins and seven podiums to finish fourth in championship, keeping him busy until his big break arrived at the end of the year.
Paul Stewart, son of three-time F1 world champion Jackie Stewart, owned his own junior team Paul Stewart Racing in British Formula 3, and hired Jan Magnussen for two races. Jan rewarded their efforts with a 3rd and a 4th, and the Dane was immediately taken on full-time for 1994. What followed was a title assault of the like never seen before or since in that series.
Jackie Stewart would later say what was oft-quoted, that Jan Magnussen was a generational talent, and there was good reason for him saying so. Out of 18 races, Jan won 14 of them, beating three-time F1 champion Ayrton Senna’s record from 1983, and with fewer races no less! That record has stood ever since, as throughout the rest of British F3’s history, no other driver achieved more than 14 race wins in a single year, even in seasons of up to 30 races. Jan’s teammate, whom he also dominated, was future four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, who finished the season one point ahead of reject alumni Ricardo Rosset.
Jan’s performance in the British racing scene across 1994 caught the eye of the world of Formula 1. He was fast; that was evident, but he was still quite young and only had two years of single-seaters of experience under his belt. McLaren decided to hire him as their test driver before they would commit him to an F1 drive. Things couldn’t be going better, and the Magnussen name was now in F1.
1995-1996: Dennis and the Menace
It was at the beginning of his F1 career where Jan’s inexperience and attitude began to set him at odds with the environment he now found himself in. Under the employment of the fastidious Ron Dennis, he was needed to be as clean and professional in every aspect of his life, and the Dane did not appear to be ready for racing at the level of commitment required to succeed in the pinnacle of motorsport.
By the time his McLaren contract began, Jan was already married with two-year-old son Kevin. He had no regime diet, and was a chain-smoker. Aside from the occasional switch to nicotine patches, Jan took years to lessen his cigarette intake, and due to the patches had to keep his overalls on for the duration of his days on the paddock. Dennis called Jan “the most disorganised driver I have ever known”.
For 1995 and 1996, his test role with McLaren put him under a contractual partnership with Mercedes-Benz, who put the Dane in various series to give some competitive experience and to hone his race-craft. This included the DTM and ITC (which ran in tandem in 1995), and was the same junior system that spawned the careers of Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
In 1995, Magnussen finished eighth overall in DTM and second in the ITC, taking a single win in a series dominated by touring car legend and F1 reject Bernd Schneider. This success came despite missing a round at the Norisring, after in Jan’s own words, “I broke my leg on a moped in the paddock”. 1996 saw the Danish driver take another win and tenth in the standings.
Magnussen’s test role may not have made him famous, but it did give him his Formula 1 debut in late 1995, where a case of appendicitis waylaid Mika Häkkinen at the Pacific Grand Prix in Japan. Jan went into the weekend trying his best to impress the higher-ups that he had the level of maturity needed for Formula 1.
Without incident, he qualified only two places off his teammate Mark Blundell’s grid position, and showed off some racing chops against Brazilian Rubens Barrichello in a grand battle for tenth place. Behind Blundell in the closing stages, and with the pace to pass, Magnussen chose not to engage his teammate and instead coolly took the car across the line in tenth, which pleased Dennis. The silly season got going and claimed there was a seat at Arrows for the Dane come 1996, but nothing came of this.
Other racing experience came in some CART appearances with Penske and Hogan Penske in late 1996. Both Paul Tracy and Emerson Fittipaldi had been seriously injured in the Michigan race that year, and Ron called a recovering Magnussen up to fill in for them in the remaining five rounds. It was a taste of something new for the Dane, who like many drivers had only really known the European circuit of racing and had little ambition outside of Formula 1.
Despite some struggles to adapt to American open-wheelers, Magnussen impressed enough that, according to his manager David Sears, Penske offered him a full-time drive for the 1997 season, which the Dane refused as he had his mind in reaching a full-time F1 seat.
“The [Penske] deal was for a part programme with lots of testing in his first season and a full-year after that. We should have taken it, but Jan had always wanted to do F1, so we felt he should go to Stewart” – David Sears, Magnussen’s manager
Not having taken the Penske offer, Magnussen saw his dreams fulfilled for 1997, as his former boss Paul Stewart was bringing Stewart into the Formula One grid. The Stewarts offered Jan a four-season contract – unheard of today, let alone at the time! It was almost too good to be true for the Dane, but Magnussen took the chance. Young and ambitious, he cut his McLaren ties and moved directly to the new Stewart GP Team for 1997.
1997-1998: A “Four-Year contract” at Stewart
In his first Formula 1 season, Magnussen needed all the testing he could get. However, with tyre wars and changing suspension regulations, not to mention the Ford Zetec-R V10 engine, the SF01 was liable to constantly break down after only a few laps. Jan’s mileage was minimal, and by the season opener at Melbourne he had not even managed to run the 300km average race distance yet. For reference, Jacques Villeneuve arrived in F1 the previous year with 13,000km driven in testing.
Magnussen again in his naivete believed that racing with Stewart would be a continuation of F3000 on a higher level. Whereas he expected a small, close team environment and the banter that comes with it, the higher-ups were expecting professionalism, and results from the get-go. Jan remarked that Stewart were “more or less a Ford factory team”, heaping astronomical pressure on the Dane from the get-go. He was consistently slow in a frustratingly unreliable chassis. On top of this disaster, his teammate Rubens Barrichello was far more experienced and showed to be faster. The Brazilian could get on top of the problems better, and could suit the car more easily to his liking. Jan, lacking the technical experience, struggled throughout.
During the season Magnussen and Barrichello both suffered constant retirements. For example, at Interlagos the spare car went to Rubens after both drivers crashed on the initial start, and then the spare car suffered another suspension failure only a few laps later. For Jan the season was largely unremarkable as a result. The qualifying pace was not there for the majority of races, and Sundays brought early retirements almost every race weekend. And while the Dane’s reliability was still better than Barrichello’s, it was the Brazilian who had the pace. At the beginning of the season, Jan was 1.5 seconds off Rubens’ pace in qualifying, and by Italy had brought his pace to within 0.7 seconds. The season finale at Jerez was the first and only time Jan had outqualified his teammate on merit.
An amateur compilation demonstrates just how retirement-prone the SF01 was, either due to technical issues, or due to its drivers…
After Rubens achieved a monumental second place at Monaco that year, it started an irreversible trend whereby Stewart put their full support behind Rubens as a de facto one-car team. Jan did improve, but his progress was too slow to make any real difference. His strongest performance came at the Austrian Grand Prix, where a career-best 6th on the grid (his only top 10 in qualifying during his F1 career) saw him rise through attrition to 4th for around 20 laps before the car typically broke down. His season ended pointless.
“The first car was not very high tech for Formula 1. This works, this doesn’t work, change what doesn’t work and try again. The new car [was] mega high-tech compared to the last car and nobody knew what direction to go in.” – Jan discusses how difficult Stewart were finding Formula 1, trouble that only worsened for 1998.
At the beginning of 1998, Stewart moved to bigger and better premises during the opening flyaway races in an effort to improve their logistical stations, as well as to show to the sponsors and supporters that investment was being made for the long-term. On paper it was a good show, but on track it reaped little reward.
Going into the season Jan had claimed that “you won’t recognise me next year”, though on track the results were just the same. The 1998 chassis was – somehow – even less reliable than its predecessor and helped undo all the progress Jan had made across the previous season. Once again he was over a second at least off Barrichello on raw pace, and in most qualifying sessions was competing with de facto 1998 Reject of the Year Ricardo Rosset. Stewart rightly prioritised Rubens, and in giving the Brazilian an upgraded chassis at Barcelona, Jan went without.
Jan crashes during free practice session for the 1998 Canadian Grand Prix, his final race.
The relationship between Jan and the team soured considerably, and Jackie Stewart’s resolution was to take the Dane for an infamous “driving lesson” around Oulton Park, essentially teaching the all-time record-holding British Formula 3 champion how to drive a racing car. Jan felt patronised, and it solved nothing in making him any quicker.
By mid-season he was sacked – the only mid-season sacking that occurred that season. Jackie gave the reason for firing Jan that neither Stewart nor the sponsors had any faith in him scoring points, therefore bringing any financial benefit to the team. How ironic then for his final race at Canada to see him earn his best finish of 6th place and a point – the first point for a Dane in Formula 1.
“I believe Ford put so much pressure on Jackie and Paul to put up some results and they had to make some hard decisions. I was the first one of many people to be let go. A week later it was the designer Jenkins, and in the end, except for Jackie and Paul, just about everyone else got fired.” – Magnussen, in an interview some years later, was not bitter about being let go.
His replacement, Jos Verstappen, was the most experienced available driver at the time, but the Dutchman scored no points either for the rest of the season. After the summer break, negotiations had already begun by Paul and Jackie to sell the team to Ford in what would eventually become Jaguar from 2000 onwards. The team was being uprooted, and there was absolutely no room for Jan.
Years later, Jan’s former boss Sir Jackie Stewart speaks candidly about what Jan was like as a driver.
1999-present: Coming of Age
Magnussen was now out of F1 with his reputation tarnished, and with no hope of getting back in. It was clear that improvement and progress would take time, and fortunately for Jan he was still young. Following F1 there were still some mis-steps. For 1999 he moved Stateside and joined the inaugural season of American Le Mans in the #2 Panoz Motorsport car, as well as a late season stint in that year’s CART season.
“Everyone at Panoz gave me their full support when I did the test for them. That’s something I’d missed for a long time – the feeling that the whole team is behind you.” – Jan Magnussen on the shift in attitude on his move to the American sportscar racing scene
Magnussen moved back to the USA with the goal of joining and reaching success in CART, but his tenure with Patrick Racing in the later half of 1999 season proved to be further struggles. The team couldn’t extract the maximum out of its driver, and nor could the driver from a team switching between Swift and Reynard chassis mid-season. Magnussen was not retained for 2000, and his single-seater career was over after 1999.
Thankfully, it was endurance racing that saved his career and took him on a positive path. It was with Panoz between 1999 and 2002 that Jan believes he found his comfort zone in motor-racing. There he met his kindred spirit (and fellow reject) David Brabham, whom he affectionately calls “Brabs”. Brabs took Jan in as a friend, and with his own attention to detail, spread a little wisdom and maturity, and most importantly enjoyment of racing to the Dane. With Brabs as the thinker and Jan with the raw speed, the Dane believes their partnership pushed him to be a higher level of racing driver.
At the 1999 Grand Prix of Mosport, Magnussen earned his maiden sportscar win, and in 2000 he was in the #1 car alongside Brabs to win the 1000km of Nürburgring – the team’s only win that year as Audi and BMW arrived to dominate the series. They would take another four wins in the following two years together, before moving to the GTS class for another two wins in 2003.
Continuing on through the years, it would take an exhaustive article to discuss any and all of Jan Magnussen’s achievements since the mid-2000s. Since leaving Formula 1, he has at least one recorded professional win in every season to 2020. A very short list of his driving achievements since his days at Panoz are as follows. He has won:
- The Danish Touring Car Championship: twice in 2003 and 2008. In 2005, 2006 and 2009 he finished runner-up, and third in 2007.
- Its successor The Danish Thundersport Championship: in 2012, and then runner-up in 2014 and 2017.
- The 24 Hours of Le Mans: four times in the GT class: 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2009. He finished runner-up in GT three times (2007, 2008, and 2014) and once in LMP (2003). All but the LMP achievements were with Corvette Racing, Jan’s team for 16 consecutive years.
- The American Le Mans series: twice in the GT class: 2008 and 2013.
- Nine races in Grand American Rolex series between 2004 and 2011.
- The IMSA championship (the merging of American Le Mans and Grand American Rolex): twice in 2017 and 2018.
Jan seems to have aged like a fine wine, and since the beginning of the millennium has been simultaneously running touring cars and endurance sportscar racing every season with surprising prolificity. Even in the late 2000s and early 2010s he has been trying new series, with an appearances in Camaro Cup Sweden, V8 Supercars, NASCAR Cup, Spanish GT, all alongside his yearly duties at Le Mans, American Le Mans, American Rolex, and Danish Touring Cars, consistently every year for around 20 years. He now has almost as many starts at Le Mans as he had in F1. In 2021 he is due to race alongside his son Kevin for the first time.
Was it inevitable that Jan’s career would unfold the way it did? Listening to various testimony, it often comes across harshly that everything that failed was Jan’s own doing.
Firstly, the Dane’s career progressed in very quick stages, and he states he has little regret over switching from McLaren to Stewart to get an F1 drive. Compared to today, when youngsters can be matured by F1 teams since their early junior series days, on those days that sort of procedure was still uncommon. Some would say that with an extra year of testing and maturity, he would have made it at a more stable team, even McLaren itself. Jan himself would say that the environment of sportscar racing was crucial to his maturation, and that he never found his comfort zone in the cutthroat world of F1.
Secondly, Stewart had many more troubles to deal with as a brand-new team in a competitive F1 environment than making sure Jan was motivated enough to go racing each weekend. It was something rightly expected of him, and therefore the blame goes both ways. It was not an ideal environment for a rookie, learning driver who needed time to get to grips with the formula, but Jan never shouldered the responsibility that was required of him. In his own words:
“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 F1 race seat?” – Magnussen looks back a decade later with only a little regret at how things panned out for his F1 career.
Jan seems to have been a victim of his own success. He had an incredible ability to jump into almost any junior formula (and, well, anything that had four wheels, really) and compete at the front from the very start. He rose quickly – too quickly – through the ranks, with not enough pushback to really get into his head that professional motorsport is about more than just going fast. He failed in gaining sponsorship due to his reckless mentality out of the car towards the parts of motorsport that weren’t so exciting. The fact that he succeeded so much in spite of these failings is testament to the Dane’s driving talent, but damning from every other angle.
Of Jan’s eventual 17 retirements in Formula 1, 12 of them were mechanical and out of his control. However, his qualifying record was dreadful, and in 24 races he had outqualified Rubens twice, with only a single point to his name. Even in his own bubble of experience, he failed to live up to the expectations placed upon him, and impressed few people within the paddock after his solid debut in 1995. With no discipline or effort, he also had no plan B when things went south for him at Stewart, naïve as he was to think his four year contract would save him.
A profile of Jan would go amiss without mentioning his talented son Kevin. From a young age, Kevin was tested in karts and succeeded on his own merits. The Formula Renault 3.5 Champion of 2013, Kevin managed to unrejectify himself on debut with a promoted 2nd place with McLaren, becoming the first Danish driver to stand on and F1 podium. On the difference between his and his son’s career at the team, Jan remarks:
“He really [was] part of the McLaren family … For any situation, any question there’s a guy to go to, someone to teach him. In my time, though, there was no coaching, no teaching the ropes. There was just me and they expected me to figure it out.”
It’s also interesting that, after his F1 career has ended for now, Kevin Magnussen has emulated his father’s path – joining the American sportscar scene with cameos in open-wheelers.
The happy ending is that Jan learned from his mistakes, both for himself and for his son. Learning on his own, Jan’s greatest victories and successes came when he was long into his 30s and 40s, whilst Kevin learned early on with the benefit of hindsight, that it is one thing to be talented, and another thing to work for it.
Sources: mclaren.com, motorsportmagazine.com, meccaofspeed.com, statsf1.com, motorsportretro.com, grandprix.com, Winning is Not Enough by Jackie Stewart