Kevin Magnussen and McLaren Not Ready for Top of F1 Just Yet

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2014

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 28:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and McLaren prepares to drive during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at the Sepang Circuit on March 28, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

After two disappointing weekends in Malaysia and Bahrain, Kevin Magnussen’s podium finish in the Australian Grand Prix suddenly seems like a long time ago.

The excitement that followed the Dane’s stunning third place in Melbourne (which was converted to second after the disqualification of Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo) has been dampened after he upset a world champion, Kimi Raikkonen, on his way to ninth in Sepang before retiring in Sakhir.

His apparent drop in form, if we can call it that, has proved that comparisons with Lewis Hamilton—the last driver to graduate to a McLaren race seat from the team’s young driver programme—are not wide of the mark, but a little exaggerated for now at least.

Strangely, however, going under the radar for a while is perhaps what Magnussen needs most at this point of his career.

After all, if McLaren made one mistake in their nurturing of Hamilton, it was their willingness to allow him to grow up too fast. His startling performances, of course, forced the team’s hand in that regard, but the fact that he was allowed to go toe-to-toe with the reigning world champion at the time, Fernando Alonso, in a battle which ultimately cost McLaren the 2007 title before becoming the undisputed team leader, aged 23, at the beginning of only his second season, were misguided choices.

Sure, it looked like a masterstroke when Hamilton won a world championship at the final corner on the final lap of the season, as he did in 2008. But when he had a mini-breakdown in 2011, for example, or decided to tweet team telemetry at the Belgian Grand Prix the following year, he was exposed as vulnerable, with little or no concept of limitations or teamwork.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 24:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and McLaren prepares to drive during the final practice session prior to qualifying for the Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix at the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 24, 2012 in Sao Pa
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

There was occasionally something Frankenstein-esque about how quickly and how noticeably Hamilton had transformed from being a creation of McLaren, a boy wonder, to someone who could orchestrate disaster and embarrassment with minimal effort.    

It took a move away from McLaren, to Mercedes, for Hamilton to gain a smidgen of maturity, and he was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying that a need to “grow up” was among his reasons for fleeing the nest. It is imperative, then, that McLaren learn from their previous errors to ensure that a talent such as Magnussen does not slip through their grasp.

A huge influence in that, you would expect, will be the presence of Jan Magnussen, Kevin’s father, who as a racing driver in his own right has experience of F1 and McLaren. The pictures of Jan tensely watching his son’s progress in Melbourne from afar will remain the defining images of Magnussen’s debut weekend as a Formula One driver and highlighted the strong bond between parent and offspring:

An innocuous factor, you might say, but when it is considered that Anthony Hamilton, father of Lewis, was never shy of using the term “we” to describe his son’s success and using it to further his career in driver management, the importance of strong family support is not to be underestimated, especially for a 21-year-old competing in his first season with one of the sport’s most illustrious teams.

Magnussen’s reaction and body language after his podium in Australia suggested that he was neither overwhelmed nor unmoved by his achievement, which implies that the chances of him reacting too emotionally to poor results and mistakes are small.

This was evident when he told Sky Sports' Mike Wise in Melbourne:

It has obviously been quite a crazy few months with everything that's been going on since getting the seat. And then getting on the podium in the first race...I didn't expect that.

For two months, three months or four months ago, I didn't think I'd be on the podium in Australia.

The podium was never a goal in itself. It's nice to get a podium and a fantastic result for me in my first race in Formula 1, but we're not happy because we want to win. That's when we'll be happy.

Contrast that to his post-race comments to Sky Sports in Sepang, when he openly admitted his error during his fight with Raikkonen and mentioned his desire to “learn” on five occasions in a minute-long interview:

Learning, after all, was always the aim of the game for Magnussen in his first year at McLaren. His status as a graduate of the team’s young driver scheme means that he will be given time, almost no matter how well he performs in his debut season, with that first-race podium little more than a welcome bonus.

Like his team’s restructuring under Ron Dennis and Eric Boullier, whose brilliant man-management skills—as shown by Romain Grosjean’s upturn in form at Lotus in 2013—will no doubt come in handy, Magnussen is merely putting the experience, framework and structure in place today for a genuine assault on the title tomorrow.

Magnussen is keen to reject any links with Hamilton, which have proved to be the only thing to unnerve him so far this season, telling Sky Sports:

It's different, that's all I can say. I'm not Lewis and I'm not in Lewis's car. I'm not competing against exactly the same drivers as Lewis was, so I can't say if I did a better or worse job. I just don't think about that; I do my own job.

I think I've answered the question maybe a thousand times now.

But if he continues to impress as he has done, keeping his world champion teammate honest, those comparisons are just something that Magnussen will have to get used to.


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