The sad decline of Kevin Magnussen: Can Haas do better than F1 2024’s enforcer?

Oliver Harden
A close-up shot of Kevin Magnussen

Haas driver Kevin Magnussen faces the media at the 2024 Miami Grand Prix

Just over a decade ago – in an F1 world before Max Verstappen, if such a thing can be believed – the esteemed driver coach Rob Wilson was asked a question.

Which drivers, of the 22 full-timers on the 2014 grid, did he deem most likely to join the holy trinity of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in the years to come?

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The names Wilson proposed, both clients of his at the time, may come as a surprise all these years on.

The first?

Valtteri Bottas, at that stage regarded by some as the Second Coming of Mika Hakkinen, all maximum attack in the Martini-liveried Williams-Mercedes.

The second?

Kevin Magnussen, who confirmed Wilson’s lofty expectations just weeks later by finishing on the podium in his first grand prix appearance for McLaren in Australia.

And not since a certain L.C. Hamilton arrived in Formula 1 back in 2007 had a driver achieved that feat.

Well he got that wrong, you might say now. What did he ever see in those two, now making up the numbers somewhere towards the back of the F1 2024 grid?

But that misses the point.

The point is that having sat there in the passenger seat of his little Vauxhall Astra at Bruntingthorpe airfield, studied their techniques at close range and taught them the science behind the art of driving a racing car – flat car, supple inputs, short corners, releasing the brake-pedal pressure at exactly the right rate – Wilson judged Bottas and Magnussen to be as gifted as any drivers he had worked with since Kimi Raikkonen.

That both have ultimately fallen short of what Wilson’s expert eye adjudged to be their true potential acts as proof that it requires so much more than natural talent to succeed in this sport.

Talent merely gets you in the door; such imponderables as timing, opportunity and – yes – good fortune are what determine how far you will go.

Where did it all go wrong?

It is not difficult to hone in on that in the case of Magnussen, his development criminally stunted by the chaotic early years of his career when he was dropped by McLaren at the end of his debut season,  let go by the team entirely (on his birthday, if you please) in 2015 and squeezed out of Renault after one year in 2016.

By the time he finally washed up at Haas in 2017, it was already much too late for him to be the racing driver he really could have been.

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It is why his decline, culminating in his F1 2024 reinvention as the Haas team’s enforcer – slowing, spoiling, intimidating the opposition as Nico Hulkenberg brings home the points – is so sad.

To put it in a cricket context, if Hulkenberg is the crafted swing bowler, outfoxing his rivals with skill and verve, Magnussen has been reduced to the big brute charging in and aiming for the batsman’s head.

He is performing a potentially pivotal role for Haas, who hold a six-point lead over Alpine in the race for seventh in the Constructors’ Championship at this early stage of the season. but the aggression he displayed in the Miami Grand Prix sprint race is unlikely to win him many friends.

Magnussen, to his credit, admitted after the race that he was ashamed of the way he felt compelled to drive in Miami, so soon after deploying himself in a similar role in Saudi Arabia and picking up countless penalties along the way.

Yet the hard – unspoken – truth is that he would not have to resort to such tactics at all if the raw performance was there.

And for more than a year now, he has been outclassed by Hulkenberg in pretty much every department.

There is a delicious irony that, seven years since their infamous post-race exchange in Hungary, Magnussen’s F1 future appeared to be resting in Hulkenberg’s hands until very recently.

With Oliver Bearman almost certain to be promoted to a Haas seat next season following his starring performance for Ferrari in Jeddah, Hulkenberg’s decision to join Sauber/Audi seemed set to save Magnussen’s skin given Haas’s history of resisting changes to their driver line-up unless absolutely necessary.

Yet under the new leadership of new team principal Ayao Komatsu, is there a growing argument to dispense with Magnussen and his park-the-bus gameplan in favour of something a little more ambitious?

Or, to put it more bluntly, having two drivers capable of scoring semi-regular points on merit would surely be more preferable than one, with his team-mate deployed as back-up.

After all, teams of Haas’s stature – out for every point they can possibly get – cannot afford the luxury of employing a wingman.

Which Magnussen, a far cry from the boy whom his old coach was convinced would be king, has now become.

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