Might have been Hamilton: Magnussen

Posted on | Author Ben Evans

Rubens Barrichello, Jan Magnussen, Stewart-Ford, 1998, 470150

Concluding the two-part series begun yesterday Ben Evans looks at the career of Dane Jan Magnussen (right, with Rubens Barrichello), another ex-McLaren driver who showed great promise in his pre-F1 career but never reached the heights expected of him in Formula 1.

In Formula Ford and Formula 3 both McNish and Magnussen were-once-in-a generation fast, but after stunning debut seasons in F3, 1990 and 1994 respectively, neither?s career hit the heights it should have done.

Arriving on the Formula Ford scene five years later than McNish, Jan Magnussen?s pace during his rise through the British racing scene was astounding.

He won the 1992 Formula Ford Festival despite a 10s penalty for his heat and the final culminated in a do-or-die move around the outside of Oliver Gavin at Paddock Hill Bend. But the next year saw an underfunded year in Formula Opel supporting the European Grands Prix.

Magnussen bounced back in 1994, the stand-out year of his career. The Dane absolutely dominated British Formula Three, comfortably beating team-mate Dario Franchitti (now an Indy Car champion and Indy 500 winner) among others.

From that point on it started to go downhill. For 1995 Magnussen had a McLaren test contract and arguably should have got the nod for the full-time driver when Nigel Mansell stepped down from the team. But the drive instead went to Mark Blundell.

Magnussen eventually made his debut at the Pacific Grand Prix where Mika Hakkinen was sidelined by appendicitis. The Dane performed well and turned a few heads, but by this point the 1996 McLaren line-up was set – and David Coulthard would remain alongside Hakkinen until 2001.

Instead 1996 saw Magnussen driving for Mercedes in the International Touring Car championship, which collapsed at the end of the year. He also made some Indy Car appearances following the retirement of Emerson Fittipaldi.

Eventually 1997 saw Magnussen?s big break when he was confirmed as one of the drivers for the new Stewart team run by three-times world champion Jackie Stewart and backed by Ford. The first year saw a string of retirements and teething troubles, and the Dane was by and large outpaced by team mate Rubens Barrichello.

When Magnussen continued to struggle into 1998 he was dropped by the team mid-season, never to return to F1. Subsequently he has gone on to great success in sportcars in the USA and also the Danish Touring Car Championship. His teenage son Kevin is now putting in some eye-catching performances in his debut year of Formula Ford in Denmark.

So were McNish and Magnussen better than Hamilton? In terms of pure unadulterated raw speed the answer in both cases is absolutely. For me, Magnussen is the quickest driver I have ever seen – that includes Senna and Schumacher – and unquestionably the greatest lost talent of the past 20 years.

However unlike Hamilton, Magnussen never had the support around him, his lifestyle was not micromanaged. But, arguably, had the back-up been there, he may have ignored it. Puffing on cigarettes and a dislike of training is not an appropriate image for an F1 driver in today?s world.

Part of the problem in my view, was the Magnussen was so quick in junior formulae that he probably didn?t need to work on his driving as hard as others and that knocked on into the other lifestyle aspects of a contemporary F1 driver.

Allan McNish is maybe a similar case in point, although I feel that his career never reached the heights it deserved largely because it ran out of momentum. Whereas Hamilton has had an inexorable momentum throughout his career, McNish was left in a holding pattern as he was unable to get than F1 break. Had he moved into F1 in 1990 or 1991, I believe that he would have enjoyed at least a decade at the top of the sport.

In both cases I would also argue that throughout his career Hamilton has shown an improvement in his performance year-on-year, whereas both McNish and Magnussen were as quick as they were going to be by the time they reached F3. Whereas Hamilton really had to work for his success in Formula Renault and F3, both McNish and Magnussen jumped straight into F3 cars and blew everyone away.

This to me meant that both drivers maybe did not work as hard as they could have done to keep pushing to be totally complete drivers in the way Hamilton has done.

If Lewis Hamilton is the archetypal modern F1 driver then both Allan McNish and Jan Magnussen were examples of old school drivers, who were arguably the two quickest drivers of their generation, but never had the complete package required to be a successful F1 driver in contemporary F1.

Read the first part of this article: Might have been Hamilton: Allan McNish

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Ben Evans

Contributing writer.