The first time I attended the Australian Grand Prix in person was way back in 1998 as a guest of Stewart Grand Prix.
A young driver by the name of Jan Magnussen was making his debut for the team in a first full season in Formula One that promised much. But his race was over on the opening lap after a collision with Ralf Schumacher and he was replaced after only seven races with a solitary point to his name.
Sixteen years later, another Magnussen made his Australian Grand Prix debut but this time the young Dane lived up to expectations and delivered in style with a fine drive to third. He was later promoted to second following Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification and in doing so became the first rookie since Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 to achieve such a feat.
Whilst the hype surrounding Jan’s F1 career proved a false dawn, there is every reason to suggest that Kevin is very much the real deal.
Pre-season testing suggested that Magnussen could be a major contender for podiums and even wins in 2014. He topped the combined timesheets in the opening test at Jerez and was quickest on the second day of the first Bahrain test.
If his stellar form in pre-season testing came as a surprise to some, McLaren group CEO Ron Dennis was certainly not one of them. It was Dennis who recognised outstanding potential in Magnussen during last season’s Abu Dhabi test and it was a deciding factor in the Dane replacing Sergio Perez in the team.
Dennis was quoted on crash.net ahead of his F1 debut:
I think what got everybody's attention was when we gave him an opportunity to drive the car in Abu Dhabi after the race. I think his third timed lap would have put him sixth on the grid. If you think about that you think 'hold on a second, the circuit's grippy, it held a race the day before' but equally circuits get dirty too; there are marbles which don't get cleaned up that quickly. So the balance between how much was true pace, but then you contrast it with the other people running, that was impressive.
He impressed from the first test and he will have an exceptional career, I'm quite sure about that. He has got a steely determination; I don't think he's going to whinge when he gets a few knocks and he's certainly going to keep Jenson [Button] honest, that's for sure.
And keep Jenson Button honest he certainly did, finishing a place ahead of his experienced team-mate following a remarkable debut drive. Not only did Magnussen out-qualify the 2009 world champion in challenging wet conditions but also barely put a foot wrong from start to finish in maintaining his track position behind Daniel Ricciardo following Lewis Hamilton’s retirement.
The stats also show that Magnussen was consistently quick during the race, setting the fastest time of all in the second sector and third fastest of all in the first sector.
|Magnussen v Button in Australia|
|Fastest race lap||1:32.917||1:33.186|
|Best sector times||1. 30.981 / 2. 24.245 / 3. 37.383||1. 31.189 / 2. 24.403 / 3. 37.400|
The manner of such a mature drive from someone so young was not lost on team boss Eric Boullier, as quoted on Autosport.
He did an incredible weekend. He never put a foot wrong, he drove like a mature driver, an experienced driver, and I have to say I'm amazed because he is only 21 and he handled the pressure very nicely. It was not an easy weekend with a lot of challenging conditions, but I'm delighted and very impressed. [He was] brilliant.
McLaren’s double podium finish means that they lead the constructors’ standings after the opening round, a far cry from last season’s disastrous showing. But after Nico Rosberg’s dominant victory, the team is well aware that more hard work lies ahead.
And there appears little danger of Magnussen getting carried away with his remarkable start, at least not if Dennis has anything to do with it.
The Telegraph’s Daniel Johnson was one reporter in Melbourne who witnessed the McLaren CEO giving his latest protegee a word of advice to make sure he remains grounded.
“A very wise old man went into his house and nailed to the ceiling was a pair of shoes. I asked what they were for, and he said they were his son’s shoes. ‘Every time he sees them it reminds him to keep his feet on the ground’, [the man said]. I will put some in your [Kevin’s] hotel room.”
From what we’ve seen so far from the ice-cool Dane, he won’t require such measures to keep his feet on the ground. Of course, there will be lows as well as highs, and there will be times this season when Button outperforms him.
But there’s every reason to believe that what we witnessed in Australia could be the start of something very special.