Leaving F1, the Dane Follows His Father’s Footsteps to IMSA
By David Phillips
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It may sound strange to say competing in the 2021 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship will be something of a homecoming for a driver who’s spent virtually his entire career racing single-seaters in European-based series. But Denmark’s Kevin Magnussen is hardly a stranger to IMSA given how often he flew across the Atlantic as a youngster to watch his father, Jan – the four-time IMSA champion – race.
"I can’t say exactly how many IMSA races I went to with my father, maybe 10 or 12. But I definitely got a feel for the racing here and for a lot of the tracks," says Magnussen, who along with Renger van der Zande will pilot the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac in the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class this year, after spending the last seven seasons in Formula 1. "So I was really interested in racing in America when it looked like my time in Formula 1 was ending."
Several years ago when exploring his options outside F1, Magnussen made the rounds of some of America’s leading race teams to see what opportunities were available, but also to get a sense of how those teams operated. One stop was at Chip Ganassi Racing for an unannounced visit.
"The front desk called one day and said, ‘There’s a guy down here from somewhere in Europe. He asked if you were in the building and if he could come meet you,’" recalls Mike Hull, CGR’s managing director. "Kevin had just walked in the front door and asked if he could meet me and take a look around. So I went down and we ended up spending about 90 minutes together just talking about racing, one on one."
As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Magnussen hit it out of the proverbial park.
"He was obviously looking for a backup plan if things didn’t work out in Formula 1 and, at the time, we didn’t have a place for him," says Hull. "But it was a great conversation. Very impressive. And he hasn’t changed."
Given his open-wheel background, it’s no surprise that Magnussen’s primary interest was IndyCars back then. Although he wound up staying in F1, he again set his sights on America upon learning his services were not required by the Haas F1 Team in 2021. However, by the time he renewed his search for an IndyCar seat, the opportunities were few and far between, particularly since Magnussen was not in position to bring substantial sponsorship support.
Matters took a decided turn for the better when Ganassi cemented an agreement with Cadillac to campaign the DPi in 2021 and beyond. It marked an IMSA homecoming for CGR as well, after a one-year absence following its four-year run with the Ford GT Le Mans program. That came after CGR’s immensely successful Daytona Prototype program that collected five championships and eight Rolex 24 At Daytona wins.
When Ganassi offered Magnussen a seat in the Cadillac, it was an easy decision.
"I was impressed by the professionalism of the organization when I visited the shop in Indianapolis," says Magnussen. "They clearly have a commitment to winning. Of course, every team wants to win. But in speaking with Mike and Chip, it’s obvious they only race to win. They’re not satisfied with second place or just being on the podium."
That is a quantum attitude adjustment for Magnussen, given the approach most of the F1 field has no alternative but to adopt.
"When I started racing and through the early parts of my career, I did it to win. That’s why I wanted to race and also how you progress in your career: by winning races," Magnussen says. "(But) in Formula 1, unless you are with the top team or maybe the second team, you have no chance of winning. Your goal is to finish in the top 10 and earn points."
That is most assuredly not the case in the WeatherTech Championship DPi class where, for example, four teams won races and all but one regular competitor earned at least one podium finish during the 2020 season. Magnussen is also reveling in the opportunity to work with CGR teammates van der Zande and, in the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup events, Scott Dixon.
"In Formula 1, your biggest opponent is your teammate," he says. "The best way to advance to one of the top teams is to beat your teammate, so you do not want to help him in case by helping him you will hurt your career. This is different. I’m really enjoying working with Renger and Scott. If you have questions or if they see something that can make you better, make you faster, they will do their best to help you. The same goes for me. It’s a real team effort."
And from a selfish viewpoint, a most enjoyable one.
"I’m really enjoying the Cadillac," Magnussen said. "I feel like I’m getting back to the things that got me excited about being a race driver in the first place. This might sound odd, but the car is not easy to drive and that’s good!
"Formula 1 cars are fantastic, obviously the fastest cars in the world, and I’m very thankful I achieved my dream of racing in Formula 1. But the cars are actually easy to drive. If you put any good race driver in a Formula 1 car, they would say the same thing. The electronic systems control most of the car’s performance. With the Cadillac there is much more that you control as the driver. And the sound. The Formula 1 engines sound kind of ‘blah’ these days. Hearing the engine behind you in the Cadillac, you know you’re in a race car."
Magnussen gained valuable track time this weekend in the Roar Before the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, qualified the No. 01 for the Motul Pole Award 100 qualifying race and combined with van der Zande to finish seventh.
He’ll get more time when Rolex 24 practice begins Thursday, with the 59th running of the 24-hour race starting Saturday afternoon.