Racing is a competitive business with obstacles at every corner. Jan Magnussen started racing go karts with an eye on Formula 1 and transitioned to a successful career in sports cars. His success is not only counted by championships, but the quality of life he has achieved developing into a true professional driver.
Mecca of Speed: We are in the thick of the season right now. Corvette recently won at Mosport and had a great run going at Mid-Ohio until the rain hit at the end of the race. How is the momentum in the team right now?
Jan Magnussen: If it weren’t for the weather, I think we would have won at Mid-Ohio, but right now the momentum is quite strong for the number 4 car. Our overall pace is still behind the BMWs who have an overall advantage, but we are closing the gap and racing really well. We are cutting down their points lead with four races to go.
Currently we are second in the championship and overcoming the point deficit is doable. It’s important that we keep the momentum going. If BMW gets a result ahead of us in one of that last four races, it’s not a problem, but we need to continue to finish ahead of them and make no mistakes for the rest of the season.
Mecca of Speed: Is there any more pressure on the team here at Road America now that the race has been lengthened to four hours, which qualifies it for the higher endurance points system?
Jan Magnussen: There is a higher points system, but the differential between finishing positions is still the same so that’s not an issue. Now if we have a DNF during the race, then it’s a big problem and the fight for the championship is over.
Mecca of Speed: The race this weekend is scheduled to go into the sunset so there will be a moderate temperature change during the second half of race. Does this require the car to be setup with some concessions for the first half to run faster in the closing stages?
Jan Magnussen: Michelin does a really good job providing multiple tires with different compounds that work at different temperature ranges. We’ll be working very closely with Michelin on which compounds to use during the race.
Mecca of Speed: You have developed a real talent for breaking very late, putting the car right on the edge to make passes going into a corner. Did this talent start to develop in go karts, or during Formula 3?
Jan Magnussen: It’s hard to say; it’s always been part of my driving style. I’ve been hard on brakes in respect to temperatures and wear; it’s where I gain a lot of my lap time. I continually try to polish and hone my braking, if it’s not needed, I back off and work on other areas to improve my lap time.
My teammate Oliver Gavin is also very strong on the brakes, but we differentiate a bit in how we want the car at that point. It’s a little bit of compromise in car set up, but not a compromise that makes either of us slower.
Mecca of Speed: You previously mentioned BMW. What are your thoughts on the ALMS work in the area of performance balancing, giving some cars concessions and restrictions to others in an attempt to keep the field competitive?
Jan Magnussen: BMW has an advantage, which they have had all year. They did a really good job building their car, doing a lot of research in all areas to make them competitive from the start. We believe the BMW has a lot of downforce and a lot of power.
Because they have a lot of downforce, their top speed is not phenomenal, but they get to top speed really fast and that is a problem for us. With their downforce, they will be mega strong in the Carousel and the Kink.
The last two years when BMW was not as strong as they are now, they were unbeatable at this place. Now they are unbeatable anywhere. We have beat them, but it’s been really tough so I fear this weekend they are going to walk away from everyone.
Mecca of Speed: The Kink is an incredibly fast corner, which requires you to take one specific line to drive it properly. Do you recall the sensation the first time you went through the Kink flat out?
Jan Magnussen: The first time I went flat through the Kink was in a ChampCar in 1996. That was an unbelievable experience and it took me many, many laps to get my foot to stay flat because everything was telling me not to do it, but it was the downforce of the ChampCar that helped me around that corner.
The Panoz was pretty fun to go through the Kink. The GT cars really don’t have the downforce to go through flat but you can get pretty close.
If you think about it, between a ChampCar and a GT car, it’s probably scarier in a GT car. With a ChampCar, you are in and out of the corner. The GT car is slower but you are in the Kink for a lot longer.
Mecca of Speed: In 1996 you drove a partial season for the Penske-Hogan ChampCar team. What was the catalyst that brought you over to the U.S. to race in ChampCar?
Jan Magnussen: Mercedes-Benz, I was a test driver for the McLaren Formula 1 team at the time. When Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy both had neck injuries, Penske was looking for two drivers. At Mid-Ohio I drove for Tracy and then did the next four races in Fittipaldi’s car. It was all done through McLaren and Mercedes-Benz as I was racing German touring cars at the time.
Mecca of Speed: As a factor GM driver, you race for Corvette in ALMS, a Camaro in select Grand-Am events, and additional events outside either of those series in Denmark. How are the priorities set for which series you will race in on any given weekend?
Jan Magnussen: The ALMS Corvette program takes priority over everything else. The Camaro program in Grand-Am always suffers because of conflicts with ALMS dates. There has never been in a situation where I’ve had a chance to win a championship in Grand-Am because I’ve always raced only partial seasons.
What I race in Denmark fills in the gaps left between the ALMS and Grand-Am schedules. This year I’m racing in Scandinavia in a Camaro Cup.
Mecca of Speed: Corvette has a very strong following at Le Mans, which is unique being it’s an American brand. What has that experience been like?
Jan Magnussen: As a Danish driver at Le Mans, you have a huge following. It seems like half of Denmark goes to Le Mans every year, so I am accustom to all that support.
The Corvette has always had a special place in the hearts of the fans at Le Mans, just for the looks alone. It looks mean, it sounds fantastic, and I think that is attracting more fans since they brought in the diesel engines that nobody can hear. With the Corvette at Le Mans, there is something on the track that sounds like a racecar. This car gives you the whole experience of what a racecar is, you feel it when it goes by, it’s American.
Mecca of Speed: The Le Mans circuit is a combination of purpose-built race track and public roads. How do you adapt to the difference between the flat race track and crowns of the public roads?
Jan Magnussen: At some circuits we use a set-up that is more critical to ride height. With that type of set-up, you feel the crown of the road more, so we try and take that away at Le Mans. Dealing with different surfaces is something you need to be able to do easily when you race for 24 hours. If the car is really nervous coming across the crown in the middle of the road, you want to change the set-up to take that away. In the middle of the night, you don’t always know exactly where you are on the straightway because you can have cars all around you, so you have to be able to cross the crown without having a moment.
The surface differences are all part of Le Mans, but our car is usually really good there. It never starts out that way, but the team knows how the car should be set up for the race. We suffer throughout(?) practice and qualifying, but by race time it all seems to come together. This builds your confidence, as every lap you do is better then the last one.
Mecca of Speed: At the long endurance races you bring in a third professional driver. What type of orientation does the team extend to the third drivers?
Jan Magnussen: What’s important is that the third driver can adapt to the set-up the two primary drivers have developed over the season. With Richard Westbrook that isn’t a problem. When he gets in the car he is fast and easy to work. These are very important qualities you need in third endurance driver.
If the third driver comes in and wants to change everything to fit his driving style it can be a bit of an issue. Both Richard Westbrook and Antonio Garcia both get in the car and are fast from beginning of the weekend.
Mecca of Speed: Your racecar is a production-based car, don’t you own a Corvette?
Jan Magnussen: No, I was this close to buying one, then my son had to change go kart teams and that is where the money went. He was nice enough to buy me a model of the car (laughs).
Mecca of Speed: Your current racecar is developed under the GT2 rules. As a production-based class, how much are you allowed to modify or adjust the car?
Jan Magnussen: Quite a bit, it’s a full racecar. In terms of adjustments, we can make as many changes as anyone up and down the pit lane. Everyone gets the same equipment to work with, be it Ferrari, BMW, Porsche, or us. There are so many adjustments that can be made on this Corvette, it’s very different from the road car.
With that said, I had the opportunity to drive the Corvette ZR1 around the Nurburgring in the initial testing.
Mecca of Speed: There is footage of you on the Internet blowing away motorcycles in the ZR1 at the Nurburgring.
Jan Magnussen: Just that clip alone I think GM should use more to promote the car. In that clip, it’s a motorbike going for it and the ZR1 just eats it, which is kind of cool. I love that car; the ZR1 is one of the most fantastic cars I’ve ever driven. If you have $100,000 to spend, nobody else comes close.
Mecca of Speed: In 1994, you drove in? a Formula 3 championship for Paul Stewart Racing. That was followed by a position as a test driver for the McLaren Formula 1 team in 1995-96 and a fulltime ride in 1997 with the Stewart Grand Prix Formula 1 team. What was the Formula 1 experience like from your perspective?
Jan Magnussen: I didn’t see the pitfalls of going with a new team against a super experienced teammate like Rubens Barrichello. Going to a new team and having my performance compared to him should have had some alarm go off inside me. At the time, I didn’t see that as a problem because I had such a fantastic season with Stewart in Formula 3. The guys I worked with in Formula 3 liked me and there should be good chemistry as we know each other and what I need out of a car. I looked at all the wrong things when I made my decision. I had other opportunities, but I choose from my heart, not my head.
I could see this was a mistake right away. Stewart was a new team that was more or less a factory Ford team. They came under pressure from the start of the season to produce results. In the beginning Rubens did get some good results in qualifying. In the rain at Monaco he finished second, which for a new team was unbelievable.
With the immediate pressure from Ford and good results, the focus of the team was placed on Rubens. I was left on my own to develop my car. That broke a little of my self-confidence and confidence in the team. Already in season one I was going down hill.
Half way through the first season I started to get enough miles behind the wheel and my results improved. I was able to challenge Rubens, but most of the damage had already been done. It’s not that people didn’t believe in me, but the normal working day had been set, they all worked for Rubens.
I don’t blame the team because I fully understand why it happened, but it still didn’t help me.
In preparation for season two, we had new rules which included changing from wide slicks to narrow grooved tires. We had to develop the new car for next season along with running the current car.
When we got to year two, that car was much worse then the previous car in performance compared to everyone else because our team didn’t have the same amount of time to look at every little detail.
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 had to have a carbon gearbox and other more technically advanced systems according to the regulations, mega high tech compared to the last car and nobody knew what direction to go in.
So year two at Stewart was even harder, and unfortunately I only made it half way through the season. 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.
That was a bad situation and is the main reason I ended up in America. I had to get away from anything related to Formula 1. After that, anytime I got close to anything that resembled Formula 1 I could feel my stomach tightening up.
Mecca of Speed: When you filled in for? Patrick Racing during the 1999 season in ChampCar, were you still having those struggles with Formula 1?
Jan Magnussen: A little bit. In 1998, when I broke away from Formula 1, I said yes to that opportunity because I didn’t know what I was going to do in the States. Was I going to be a sports car driver or was ChampCar a better opportunity for me? It was a test for my self to see where I wanted to be.
At the time, I thought ChampCar might be it but I did not have a good go at the series. I felt after that season was over, I didn’t get any smarter. I was a stupid idiot. I went in the last third of the season with no testing and expect to get results against some of the world’s best drivers who had been testing and are at the top of their game.
Obviously the results were not what I had dreamed about. They were good enough, but not really a 100%. I should have waited a year and done preseason testing to put me on par with everyone else.
That was also a problem in Formula 1. With the Stewart team, we could never get a full test day in. Every time we tested, something blew up. That first year there was a tire war between Bridgestone and Goodyear, so lap times dropped 4-5 seconds, which meant all the calculations they did for the suspension and uprights went out the window.
I had some huge crashes due to uprights braking in fast corners. The first race of the year was in Melbourne. When I arrived for the racing, all my testing miles combined didn’t equal a race distance. I did not have 300 km under my belt.
Then I did it to myself in 1999 at Patrick, jumping in thinking I’ll be good and didn’t need to test.
Mecca of Speed: At that time in ChampCar or Formula 1, there were no testing limits unlike today.
Jan Magnussen: Jacques Villeneuve had between 11,000-15,000 km in testing before he did his first Formula 1 race.
Mecca of Speed: You had to physically get away from anything related to Formula 1?
Jan Magnussen: It was either get away from Formula 1 or get away from racing completely. When the opportunity with Panoz came up, it opened my eyes to sports cars. Up to that point in my career, I always thought I was only going to be a Formula 1 driver. When I came to the United States to race, I found out that I am a racecar driver and that’s different.
Even though it wasn’t super competitive all the time, it was such a bad-ass car. It was the opposite of what a traditional fast car should be, but it was fantastic. It sounded good, the engine was in front and it looked like a beast. That car brought it all back to me. It was clear my career would be in America.
Mecca of Speed: The Panoz was a front engine rear drive car. What did it take to make the car competitive?
Jan Magnussen: It took so much confidence to drive that car. If you lost the slightest bit of trust, it cost you five seconds a lap. In that car, you sit on the rear axel, so anything you did was exaggerated. If you didn’t trust the rear of the car, you would loose your confidence in the car. Then you would have to start over and build your confidence back up.
Brabs (David Brabham) and I got along with it really well. When you did a fast qualifying lap in the Panoz, you knew it because it felt fast.
I had the opportunity to drive the Audi R8 in 2003 at Le Mans. Doing initial testing at Paul Ricard, I did an out lap and an in lap. I was almost pissed off with how good the car was thinking, is this really what we have been fighting against?
I thought no wonder they can do double and triple stints at Le Mans while we were struggling to do two stints in the Panoz. After driving the Panoz, driving the Audi was like a vacation.
Mecca of Speed: The grass was actually greener on the other side of the fence.
Jan Magnussen: Greener, softer, nicer. However, the Panoz will always be a very special time in my career. The attitude of the team kept us going when things were tough. We were underdogs all the time. When we won, it felt like everyone in the team was with us.
Mecca of Speed: Do you have any interest in having another stint in the Panoz at a vintage race?
Jan Magnussen: Absolutely!
Mecca of Speed: Looking over your career so far, who are some of the drivers or crewmen you have really jelled with over the years?
Jan Magnussen: I would have to say the years I spent with Brabs. He was the driver I jelled the most with even though we are very different types of people. I think we complemented each other really well in a race situation. Brabs is the thinking driver, looking far ahead and building a strategy to make things happen for him. He had a good influence on me, calming me down. I matured a lot from the years I raced with him. If it had not been from Brabs, it would have taken me a lot longer adapting to being a sports car driver coming from Formula 1.
I tend to have good relationships with anyone I drive with. Johnny O’Connell and I also have a great relationship on a personal level. He is probably one of the best friends I have in racing.
I’m now with Gavin who is a super competitive guy. You could say he and I grew up in the same school racing F3 in Europe. We are alike in many ways. This is the first full year we have raced together and things are going fantastic. The more we drive together, the better we understand how to get more out of each other.
Working with a co-driver is a big part of sports car racing that I’m getting to like. If you are an egotistical individual, which most racing drivers are, you never think you would want to share your car. Now it’s exciting to me, I look forward to trying to make my teammate faster. If he is fast, there is a better chance for me to win, which is unusual in racing. That’s part of what makes sports car racing so special.
Mecca of Speed: You look at other formulas of racing, be it open wheel or touring cars, if something goes wrong your race is over, in sports car endurance racing you never give up.
Jan Magnussen: You take the car back to the paddock, fix it, and get back out there. It’s a big team effort.
Mecca of Speed: The Corvette team is very professional, but has been able to maintain a relaxed demeanor.
Jan Magnussen: Don’t get fooled by the team, they know who they are up against. They practice pit stops, are in the gym, and know what they are doing. When we were racing in GT1 against ourselves with no competition from another team, our attitude was we still needed to be the best. During those years, the Corvette Racing team won the pit stop challenges every year. That shows the attitude of the team.
I think this team has won as many races from being fast on the pit lane as we have from outright speed.
Mecca of Speed: Years ago a driver had to be able to work an H pattern gear shift, heal and toe, double clutch etc. Now with most modern race cars, you shift with paddles and set changes through electronic controls. Do you think the skills of a racing driver have shifted with technology or are the core basics still the same?
Jan Magnussen: I think that because you can now focus more on the racing line, braking points and carrying maximum speed through the corners, the best drivers will be closer together.
When you had to heal and toe and work an H shift pattern, there was the opportunity to perfect those areas and give yourself an advantage. Now with paddle shifting and traction control, the cars are doing things the driver previously did and the cars are getting faster. If a road car has it, a racecar must have it. That is the way it has to go.
Mecca of Speed: In the last few races, the GTC cars have been getting a fair amount of penalties, do you think that is due to the average level of experience of drivers in that class compared to the GT class?
Jan Magnussen: It use to be the passing driver was always to the blame if something went wrong. Now, the series has opened up to the guy in front can cause all the problems. If the front car is not predictable, they may drive the other classes off line. Each class has their own race and they are committed to a racing line. If we come up on GTC cars, we have to quickly figure out what they are doing, which can be either racing someone, hunting someone down, or just driving around. Is the guy driving the one who pays for the show and going a little slow or is it the professional in the car? IMSA has figured this out and are now handing out more fair? penalties then they have in the past.
Mecca of Speed: Is your career focus strictly on GT or would you like to try the prototype class?
Jan Magnussen: I would love to try a prototype, but my focus is GM racing, which is here with Corvette and I love what they do.
Mecca of Speed: You have some experience in a Daytona Prototype in the Grand-Am series? How does the Daytona Prototype compare to a GT car?
Jan Magnussen: Lap times are similar to GT cars. Here at Road America, they are about three seconds faster due to having quite a bit more power. On most tracks, they would be within about a second of the GT cars.
I think that driving a GT Corvette is a better experience compared to a Daytona Prototype. There is something fundamentally wrong with the Daytona Prototype, which I think they have realized. They are working to correct this and next year there will be a new body shape.
They should look more like a modern racecar. The year they invented the Daytona Prototype, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Bentley Speed 8 was built. Both sides started from a clean sheet of paper. One side came up with the Bentley and the other came up with the Daytona Prototype.
Mecca of Speed: Your office this weekend is a Corvette racecar, that is a race fan’s dream.
Jan Magnussen: I do feel privileged that I get to race for a career. I don’t have to be in the fastest car in the world, just as long as I have a good program behind it and good people. For me, the competition is more important they anything else.
Mecca of Speed: Your son is racing in Formula 3. As a father, how involved are you with his racing endeavors?
Jan Magnussen: I’m very little hands on, I’m involved but more with a group of people behind the scenes. He has a really good manager in Denmark who has been handling the financial side. He is in the McLaren Junior development program so he is something special and in time we’ll find out how special.
When he has no problems he has been wining in the British Formula 3 championship. I’m trying to stand back as much as possible because I don’t believe in the father-son professional relationship. I think there is too much emotion involved to sometimes respect the right decisions for the right reasons. I made the decision to stand back quite early in his career. I won’t be the dad standing on the sidelines screaming at the kid to do the right thing. He has got to want it enough to do it himself. I’ll help him, but only behind the scenes.
I think it works out well. Personally, I’ve seen to many instances where the father-son professional relationship ruins the personal one.
Mecca Of Speed: Your son is building his career not on “I’m Jan Magnussen’s son,” but as “I am Kevin Magnussen.”
Jan Magnussen: That is very important. I have a lot to give Kevin, but at a pace that is constructive. Like many teenagers, you can give them good advice, but it might take them three months to realize that it is good advice. There is an art to talk to your kids to try and get them to do the right things without pressuring them.
I don’t put any pressure on Kevin, but I do try and guide him in the right direction. That is the most important roll as a parent. You don’t have to pressure your kids to do the right thing, just give them a bit of positive motivation in the right direction. There is a whole way of doing that because just saying it is not enough and that’s a big job in itself.
I’m glad there is someone back home taking care of the day-to-day stuff. He has good people around him. He has fantastic support from McLaren and the people involved in the Junior program, so that helps a lot.
Mecca of Speed: Thank you and good luck this weekend.
Jan Magnussen: Thank you very much.
Content crédit Jan Magnussen and John Vatne. Photo credit Randy Erdman and John Vatne.