Haas driver Kevin Magnussen longs for a day when he can head to a Formula One grand prix weekend knowing he has the chance to finish near the front, rather than just targeting seventh every time.
The Dane enjoyed the most impressive season of his career in 2018, finishing ninth overall. Magnussen and Haas spent much of the year in a fight to become ‘best of the rest’ in F1’s midfield pack behind the lead trio of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull — the American team eventually finished fifth in the championship behind Renault.
In recent seasons the gap between the front and back has been significant and no team outside the top three has recorded a race victory since the introduction of the V6 turbo-hybrid engine formula in 2014. The midfield pack has scored a handful of podiums in the years since, with Sergio Perez’s third-place finish at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku the only time any appeared on the podium in 2018.
Although Magnussen put his impressive campaign down to the motivation that came with Haas’ rise up the order between 2017 and 2018, he admits it still isn’t anything close to what he originally set out to achieve in F1.
“That made a big difference,” Magnussen told ESPN. “But it’s still not fantastic, it’s still seventh.
“It’s so far from what I imagined… the mentality I have now is so far from anything I thought I would have. That part of it really sucks, it’s not at all fun. But it’s still Formula One and you still take pleasure in doing a good job, of course, but I’m looking forward to one day when there’s going to be change.”
He then laughed and said: “If you’d told me that as a kid, ‘Kevin, one day you’ll be happy with seventh’, I’d have killed myself! But that’s the situation.
“It’s just Formula One as it is in these days, unless you’re in one of the top three teams you can forget about podiums and wins. That’s a bit sad. We take pleasure in the races where we feel we’ve done the best we could. Hopefully one day we can celebrate a bit more properly if one day we can get on the podium or a win, who knows.”
Magnussen has solidified a reputation for hard-nosed racing, with 2018 including notable flashpoints with Pierre Gasly and Fernando Alonso, but he says this aggressive approach has been borne out of F1’s unbalanced pecking order.
“No, it hasn’t [been natural]. I try and make the most out of the situation I’m in. When you’re fighting around those top ten places, sometimes you are in a situation where you have nothing to lose. If you are fighting for a championship, you’re driving for Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull, you’re guaranteed to be in the top six. You will always score points so you might as well take P6 instead of risking everything for P5.
“Whereas if you’re in the midfield and you’re P10 and you’re being overtaken, you’re screwed anyway, and it forces you to take a lot more risk. I think that’s the difference. I’d be driving a lot differently if I was if I was fighting for the championship.
“I have fought for championships before [in junior categories] and [in those scenarios] I was driving differently. But that’s just the way it is, where we are.”
F1 motorsport chief Ross Brawn labelled the gap between the top three and the rest “unacceptable” at the end of 2018. Brawn hopes to address the divide at the next regulation change, set for 2021, and through the implementation of a budget cap.
While Magnussen doubts there will ever be complete equality in performance given the lure of some teams over others, he says there has to be more chance for the smaller outfits to compete more regularly.
“The ideal situation for Formula One would be to have a much closer field. You’re always going to have the best team winning and those teams are usually going to be Mercedes and Ferrari and the usual suspects because people are going to want to work in those great teams, regardless of budgets or whatever.
“But it would be good if smaller teams, like Haas, have a shot at winning once in a while, getting on a podium a few times a year and having something to fight for, have some hope. Just the fact you go into weekends and you’re not even thinking about a podium, it’s not even on your mind…”
When asked if he had found it easy to adjust to the modern realities of F1, he said: “I’m still not there! I hope I never will be, because I don’t want to feel too much satisfaction in being best of the rest, or whatever we want to call it.
“You have to try and take some motivation and drive yourself towards improving and working hard and building motivation for yourself and the team. You have to set yourself little goals to achieve these big goals. Of course, it’s impossible, but my goal as a racing driver is still to be a world champion — that’s still my overall goal.”
Until that change comes, the best chance to win a championship is by joining one of the top three teams. Magnussen has been reinvigorated by life at Haas and happily extended his stay with the team into 2019, which will be his third year with the team.
The Dane is realistic about the way the driver market has shifted around him in recent years. He witnessed the sea-change that occurred in 2018, with a junior driver from each of the top teams making a big step forward in their career. Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc will race for the Italian outfit in 2019, Red Bull junior Pierre Gasly is replacing Renault-bound Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes junior George Russell will contest his rookie season with Williams.
Meanwhile McLaren, the team which gave Magnussen his F1 chance in 2014 before releasing him from its driver programme, has also promoted its latest prodigy, Lando Norris, to a full-time race seat this season. Mercedes’ other junior driver, Esteban Ocon, missed out on a 2019 drive but is a candidate to replace Valtteri Bottas for next year.
Magnussen admits he may have missed his best opportunity to find himself a championship-winning car in F1, at least while the gap between the front and the midfield remains as it is.
“I’ve fallen out of this group [of drivers] that is on the way up. I can see myself not being one of the young drivers any more, being on the rise, as I was at one point. That stalled when I lost the seat at McLaren to Fernando… we all know that story and it’s all a bit frustrating, but nonetheless that’s the situation I’m in right now.
“My chances have definitely gone down because it’s hard to come from this outside group and into the top… you see drivers like [Nico] Hulkenberg and other guys, still no podium and still in the midfield, great talents that never get the chance. I’m in that group now.
“But never say never, [Valtteri] Bottas showed you should never say never, [Mark] Webber also for a long time was fighting for a long time in the midfield and then got to the top, Jenson [Button] was the same, suddenly got a shot at the championship.
“Those things can happen and that’s the slight bit of hope you can hold on to in my position.”