McLaren really do make some cool moves, don’t they? I’m not sure if everyone involved is always enamored with the methods, but they pull off plenty of exciting ideas that resonate across multiple motorsport disciplines. The latest is nabbing Kevin Magnussen to replace Felix Rosenqvist at Road America this weekend.
This is a chance Magnussen has been waiting for, make no mistake. One of the more enticing aspects of his switch to drive for Chip Ganassi Racing in IMSA was the fact that Ganassi has an IndyCar outfit, and perhaps that could be a door that might open in future.
There were talks for Magnussen to race in IndyCar late last year, but he didn’t have the required budget to secure any of the remaining seats at the same time Romain Grosjean was also in discussions. Just because drivers have raced in Formula 1 or have a few sponsors that support their careers doesn’t mean they are all being backed to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
As I understand it, some seats were being discussed at a lower price for Magnussen than for other drivers last year, and that’s because he is the perfect fit for IndyCar.
The Dane is a driver who really likes to hustle his cars. It’s not that he doesn’t want it to be perfect — every driver does — but Magnussen will get in whatever he is provided with and push it to its absolute maximum in that state. In F1 he was never blessed with great machinery, but showed just what he was capable of with a podium (third originally, later upgraded to second) on his debut in Australia in 2014.
After that, McLaren’s slide accelerated, and so Magnussen was left in the wrong place at the wrong time as the team looked to turn things around. Plenty of political games behind the scenes also played a part as Magnussen was replaced by Fernando Alonso (battling with Magnussen’s Haas in 2018, above), with Jenson Button retaining his seat at the end of that year despite plenty of backing for the Dane to be the one who stayed.
Renault didn’t show the faith that Magnussen wanted after a very solid year with the French outfit, and so he took up Haas’ offer of a multi-year deal in 2017 and on reflection did an excellent job.
It’s all too easy to describe Magnussen’s style as “aggressive.” He can be, when he needs to be — the problem is that the longer he was at Haas the more he needed to be. The car was solid in 2017, but very competitive a year later and that’s when we really saw Magnussen’s abilities. In his second year with the same team, he could build on the previous season and put his learnings into practice, and did so impressively with a top-10 finish in the drivers’ championship, some 19 points clear of teammate Grosjean and ahead of Carlos Sainz in the Renault he had left.
Just as his career trajectory looked to be back on the up, Magnussen’s timing was out again as Haas started to struggle after that. Despite finishing sixth in the 2019 season opener, he would only score on four more occasions for the team, and each time it was in descending order as he picked up a seventh, eighth, ninth and finally a solitary 10th in Hungary last year.
As the car got less competitive, the more the driver needed to try and make the difference. Magnussen had to get his elbows out because every position was that bit harder to gain and much harder to keep. But it’s experience that will stand him in good stead for his IndyCar opportunity.
The Haas spell has taught both Grosjean and Magnussen how to deal with a tough-to-drive car, something that is clearly helping the Frenchman in his first IndyCar season. Being smooth isn’t always fast, as Grosjean admitted to his former teammate in Detroit last week — you really need to let it all hang out.
But while Grosjean could pull out brilliant results when the car was to his liking and was more susceptible to errors when it wasn’t, Magnussen should be even more suited to the Dallara DW12. It doesn’t need to be perfect for him to be quick — in fact, he’s more likely to enjoy trying to make the difference when it isn’t, and will certainly revel in the wheel-to-wheel combat on offer either way.
Whether that’s fighting for the win or for 20th place, Magnussen will always be fully committed. At Imola last year, a gearbox issue meant violent upshifts were giving him a headache, but when he told Haas how bad the problem was getting and the team questioned whether he could carry on, his first response was: “It’s my job, isn’t it?”
But he should be facing a much better picture in Wisconsin. Simply going into a race weekend knowing the machinery he has gives him a chance of victory is something Magnussen was craving last year, and played a big part in his switch to IMSA with Ganassi. Now getting the same opportunity in a single-seater will only motivate him even more, especially as Road America is his chance to put himself in the shop window, be it with CGR or any other interested suitors.
Fresh off the back of a first win in IMSA at Belle Isle — one he said he needed — the McLaren chance is perfect timing for the 28-year-old. In many ways, the same team that gave him his chance in F1 is doing the same in IndyCar, and while it would be unrealistic to expect the same remarkable debut result, he might make just as big an impact.