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Magnussen: What's in a name?

Maurice Hamilton November 20, 2013
© Sutton Images

The one thing Kevin Magnussen does not need right now is a sense of history. Regarded as a young driver with huge promise, Magnussen arrives in F1 with the same high level of expectation that accompanied his father in similar circumstances in 1997.

Stewart Grand Prix made what seemed a no-brainer of a decision when Jan Magnussen was given a seat alongside Rubens Barrichello in the embryonic F1 team. Magnussen's credentials were as good as you could wish for. The triple Karting World Champion didn't just win the 1994 British F3 Championship for Paul Stewart Racing; he took 14 of the 18 races and guaranteed attention of the wider word by demolishing the record established by no less than Ayrton Senna 11 years before. Jackie Stewart described his protégé thus: 'Jan has as much talent in a racing car as I've ever seen - with as good a head as anyone I've ever seen in this sport.'

Better than that from Stewart's point of view, Magnussen had taken part in a Grand Prix - for McLaren, no less. Standing in for Mika Hakkinen (recovering from appendicitis), Magnussen finished 10th in the 1995 Pacific Grand Prix, sitting on the gearbox of the sister car of Mark Blundell and by all accounts capable of running faster than the Englishman but not willing to either risk upsetting the team on his debut or, more likely, being run off the road by the boy from Essex.

Was Jan Magnussen capable of coping with F1? Tick that box.

The question should have been: Is Stewart ready for the move to F1? Or, more to the point, is a brand new team capable of producing two race-worthy cars?

Magnussen got off to an unfortunate start. In his first serious pre-season test at Estoril, he suffered a left-rear suspension failure. The breakage was caused by a quality control problem as a wishbone with faulty welding found its way onto the car.

But potentially the most disastrous aspect was the failure occurring as Magnussen pitched the immaculate white car into the first of two very fast right-handers at the end of the pit straight. With zero run-off, the inevitable contact with a crash barrier sent the Stewart across the road, where the right-front hit the opposite barrier; a blow hefty enough to drive a wishbone clean through the monocoque, stopping only when it reached the left-hand side of the tub.

Fearing one or both of his legs might be badly injured, Magnussen was relieved to feel no pain. But puzzled when he couldn't move his left leg and found he was totally unable to get out of the car.

The marshals and medical teams were equally perplexed. One of them was preparing to cut into the chassis when he was stopped by the arrival of crew chief Dave Redding and engineer Andy le Fleming. Understandably, the Stewart men were not keen on having an almost new chassis completely written off before the situation had been investigated more thoroughly.

When Redding peered into the tub, he saw that the suspension arm had gone through the loose material of Magnussen's driving suit; the bit that had been hanging beneath the calf muscle on his outstretched left leg. Redding used a penknife to laboriously cut through the triple-layer material in the confined space.

Magnussen may have been free of the car but, as things would turn out, he may later have wished he had walked away for good on that January day.

For reasons which are still not entirely clear, his season was a disaster. It's true that Magnussen had a relentless sequence of technical problems; far more than Barrichello had to endure. But the partnership of the Dane, the Stewart-Ford and grand prix racing simply did not gel.

Spending 1997 writing a book on Stewart Grand Prix, I watched as Magnussen, quiet at the best of times, became increasingly preoccupied. Described by Ron Dennis as 'probably the most disorganised racing driver I've ever seen', Magnussen never looked truly at ease, particularly when dressed by Stewart for official functions in tailored suits and hand-made shoes. You had the impression he'd rather be out the back having a cigarette and a laugh with the lads.

Magnussen lasted until halfway through the following season when, ironically, he scored his one and only championship point in Canada, his final race for the team. It was a sad departure for a very nice guy; one who had, according to colleagues familiar with him in F3, bucket loads of natural talent.

Others are saying exactly the same about his boy, Kevin. So, what's in a name?

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live
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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live