When Kevin Magnussen first entered Formula 1 back in 2014, realizing a dream he’d held practically since birth, his overriding emotion wasn’t always elation but often fear. It wasn’t the inherent physical danger of driving at breakneck speeds but the sense of dread that seemed to shadow him at the wheel, that a single mistake might cost him everything he’d worked towards.
It is one of life’s great contradictions that sometimes the only way to liberate yourself from those fears is for them to come to fruition. At the end of 2020, after four consecutive seasons with Haas, the team’s principal, Guenther Steiner, told Magnussen that his contract was not being renewed.
“I would put too much pressure on myself when I was young, I think,” Magnussen says. “F1 meant too much to me. Succeeding meant too much to me and it stopped me from being able to perform to the best of my ability. I’d say it held me back quite a few years. I was scared of losing my drive all the time and I would think about it a lot, like what would happen to me, it’s not like I had much to fall back on. The fear distracted me. I don’t carry that now.”
The process that has brought Magnussen back into the fold was a confluence of politics and fate, past relationships and potential yet to be wholly fulfilled. After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the American-owned Haas team had little option but to cut ties with its driver Nikita Mazepin, whose billionaire father has ties to Vladimir Putin. Haas needed a replacement at short notice, one who could fit in quickly but still take full advantage of a vastly improved car after a miserable 2021 season. Magnussen had settled back in Denmark with his wife and their newborn daughter when Steiner made the call.
“I needed to talk to my wife and see if she was on board with it, because being an F1 driver, you’ve got to focus and spend a lot of time on yourself and so when you have a family that can be tricky, ” he says. “I had her support from her and I still wake up and feel surprised that it’s all happened, it’s such an unbelievable chance, I ca n’t believe how lucky I got getting back into F1.”
The seamless nature of Magnussen’s return has often made it easy to forget that he’d ever been away. He finished fifth in the season-opening race in Bahrain, with Steiner shouting: “Kevin, that was some f****** Viking comeback” as the 29-year-old crossed the line, and Magnussen has since backed up that performance with points in Jeddah and Imola. Any remnants of doubt that it would take considerable time to readjust to F1’s hectic pace have evaporated and, although the improvements to Haas’ car have inevitably played a huge factor, Magnussen has consistently outperformed his young teammate, Mick Schumacher. He does n’t put it down to any drastic changes in his driving but the “freedom” he now feels when he sits in the car, as though all those old demons were exorcised during his enforced absence from him.
“When I wasn’t racing, I realized I still felt the same,” he says. “F1 is part of my identity whether I’m racing or not and that will always be with me. When I left the paddock in 2020, I had to accept my dream of becoming a world champion wasn’t going to come true and that was kind of easy. I started to feel happier that I actually got to F1 in the first place, I’ve been on the podium, it’s a huge achievement.
“Before when I was driving I didn’t feel happy because I always wanted more but I think I’d have been content [if I didn’t come back]. Now it’s like I’ve got this whole new appreciation of racing in F1. Every time I’m in the car and driving out of the garage, I just feel so much more grateful. I think in a way it was good for me having the year out.”
Magnussen stresses that having that new mindset hasn’t diminished his hunger. His dream of becoming a world champion was revived when he returned to Haas, no matter how far-fetched it might seem as Red Bull and Ferrari surge into the distance, and he hopes this is by no means a floating stint. It’s just that this time it will dictate what he does without defining his life.
“Of course, if we get a podium that would be massive. The team would be over the moon, ecstatic,” he says. “But I put less pressure on myself now in terms of setting goals or even becoming a champion. I don’t feel that weight on my shoulders.
“I used to think a championship would be my key to happiness. It is still the biggest thing I could achieve in my professional career and I’d be unbelievably happy, but being away and becoming a father has put things into perspective. I hope I can have a long and successful career from here in F1 but I don’t carry any fear with me about losing it and that’s a big relief.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.