To go from being made redundant on his birthday to securing a seat with a manufacturer committed to achieving long-term Formula 1 success in the space of less than four months is quite the turnaround for Kevin Magnussen.
The Dane faced a career outside of Formula 1 as a dab of misfortune and bad timing led to him being on the brink of the sport’s scrapheap at the tender age of 23, frustratingly mirroring the path of father Jan.
After encouraging performances in Formula 3 and Formula Renault 3.5, Magnussen sharpened up in his second campaign during the Renault series in what proved to be a vintage year for the championship.
Magnussen collected eight pole positions and five victories (it would have been six but for an extremely minor technical infringement relating to DRS) from 17 races, beating fellow rookie Stoffel Vandoorne and Red Bull’s António Félix da Costa.
His overall performance – speed and maturity – brought him to prominence within McLaren, with Magnussen not only sampling the outfit’s machinery but inching into contention for a seat, amid Sergio Pérez’s travails and boardroom politics.
Pérez was hired following Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes switch but the Mexican failed to gel with the outfit, with the MP4-28 an underwhelming machine and Pérez’s approach not endearing him to the prestigious squad.
Behind the scenes, there was more going on; “with Martin [Whitmarsh] and Ron, there were big fights,” Pérez explained to Telegraph Sport last year. “Very political. Martin was blaming the engineers, the engineers were blaming Ron. It was just a big hole going around.”
Whitmarsh ultimately departed and Dennis’ belief in Magnussen prevailed.
With McLaren eyeing Honda’s impending return and several other tweaks, Magnussen found himself at a team which had largely slipped back into Formula 1’s midfield.
Newly-appointed Racing Director Eric Boullier occasionally warned Magnussen about ‘rookie syndrome’, inferring that drivers accustomed to competing at the front in junior formula sometimes struggled with adapting to being mid-grid among the sport’s elite.
Magnussen appeared to eschew such fears with a stunning performance in Australia, in which he saved a huge slide off the line to ultimately place third, later promoted to second following Daniel Ricciardo’s exclusion.
It proved to be the high point of a season in which McLaren was mired in the midfield; Magnussen acquitted himself well in the circumstances and demonstrated pace in fits and starts, as he became accustomed to the world of Formula 1, via the typical trials and tribulations. 11th in the standings with 55 points was respectable, though three positions and 71 points behind Button, whose experience told across the course of the year.
Magnussen admitted that he was too focused on beating Button, who, unfortunately for the youngster, put in two of his best performances of the year during the last two events as Magnussen chased his tail.
Magnussen could be fairly confident of making progress in his second year but a spanner in the works was looming on the horizon.
Ferrari’s dismal campaign and politics had left Fernando Alonso searching for the exit, while Sebastian Vettel cut a glum figure amidst Red Bull’s difficulties. Vettel negotiated a deal with Ferrari while Alonso reunited for a second chapter at McLaren after the acrimonious encounter in 2007.
McLaren thus had a decision to make for 2015; retain the promising but unpolished Magnussen or keep the experienced, astute (and still quick) Button. The deliberations went on for weeks before the team backed Button, though faith in Magnussen was shown as he was kept on as test and reserve driver.
Magnussen eyed an IndyCar seat but Alonso’s mysterious testing crash meant he was drafted into action, completing running in Barcelona and at the first Grand Prix in Australia. Honda’s engine woes left McLaren on the back foot and Magnussen qualified last of the 18 runners, his own situation hampered by a clumsy practice crash. Magnussen’s car failed en-route to the grid and leaping out of his smoking MP4-30 proved to be his final competitive action with the team.
Magnussen remained on call as test and reserve driver, studying Button and Alonso as well as conducting simulator duties. However, with no time in the car Magnussen gradually became aware that his options at McLaren were limited, as he understandably craved a return to the grid in 2016; spending time as test/reserve driver assists knowledge, but doesn’t address the most important aspect: improving race craft.
Rumours swirled that Button was considering retirement but, even in such a situation, the likelihood was that runaway GP2 leader, and eventual champion Vandoorne, would be his replacement. McLaren opted not to activate the clause in Button’s contract to oust him, ie, retaining him, while Alonso stayed despite insalubrious comments from some quarters over his commitments. An abundance of quality drivers was a good problem for McLaren to have, but being fourth in a very stellar line-up left Magnussen in a quandary and ultimately the long-term relationship between driver and team came to an end. From McLaren’s perspective, Magnussen was the one who could justifiably be cut adrift.
Magnussen had tentatively mooted racing alongside his father in sportscars, tested for Porsche in the World Endurance Championship and sampled Mercedes’ DTM machinery, but remained fixated on his Formula 1 dream.
For such a rollercoaster ride in fortune it seems startling that Magnussen is still only 23 years old and now has a golden chance to rebuild his career with Renault, potentially for the long-term. Renault is committed to returning to the top of the sport and, consequently, Magnussen can now demonstrate that it can do so with him at the helm.
From Renault’s perspective it has a hungry young driver determined to prove his critics wrong and seize upon a second chance that is afforded to few racers in Formula 1. Magnussen has also experienced the highs and lows of the sport and can bring experience (and intricacies of) two years with an established Formula 1 team. There is also the advantage that, with 2016 set to be a transitional year, it affords both Magnussen and Renault to build up a working relationship while expectations are low. Perception is also vitally important and in acquiring Magnussen’s services Renault has demonstrated its willingness to choose talent over money (even if the Dane has brought some sponsorship to the team).
Renault and Magnussen have formidable opposition to overcome, but the last time the French manufacturer hired a youngster who sat out a year, he went on to win two world titles…