Chip Harp, Valdosta Today Sports Feature Writer
I was recently given the opportunity to have an exclusive interview with Corvette Racing’s Jan Magnussen. The native of Denmark has had a long and successful career in racing, spanning everything from Formula One to Sports Cars. His son, Kevin, currently drives in Formula One for the factory Renault team. In anticipation of the upcoming IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series season finale, the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, we asked Magnussen about his career, the impact of Corvette Racing internationally, and what its like to see your son driving a 220 MPH Formula One car on the weekends.
VT: Jan, you’ve had an incredible racing career, spanning a myriad of cars and series. Of the cars you’ve driven, is there one that stands out as the most fun to drive? What made it special?
JM: Obviously I’m enjoying my time at Corvette Racing. It’s the longest I’ve been with one manufacturer and team. It’s really uncommon that a racing driver stays in one place for this long. This is the best time in my career – a chance to work with a team and manufacturer every weekend that has become my family away from my family.
For sure there have been many special teams that I’ve raced for and cars that I’ve driven. I’d almost divide my career into two parts – my career leading up to and in Formula One, and then my career after Formula One. Coming to America was a big step for me, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done to join the American Le Mans Series with Panoz Motorsports. I moved three years later to Corvette Racing. It was definitely the right move for me, and I couldn’t have been happier with that decision.
The F1 cars that I drove weren’t capable of winning races but they could contend. They were just fantastic and out of this world in terms of grip and power. It does everything so well and so fast. But F1 is a tough world. It’s a young man’s game for sure! When you have time and don’t know better and you don’t know that life can be a lot better than that! I’m really proud that I did it, plus I did a short stint in IndyCar, and those cars were absolutely fantastic at the time. But I’m really happy where I am. Any time you are in a competitive car where you can win and when you’re in a competitive group, that’s when you get the most out of it. It’s no fun being in F1 just for the sake of being in F1. You want to be able to do something and be able to challenge for wins. If you can’t, then it’s really tough.
VT: The factory Corvette team is an international favorite. I recently watched a film on their first year at Le Mans in 1960, and the car remains an icon of American racing. What has been your thoughts at being a part of such an historic effort, with Corvette’s history at Le Mans? What do you attribute to the popularity of the cars over the years, especially with the French?
JM: A big part of that is the sound. It’s so fantastic and so different from anything in Europe. You can hear them a minute before they show up! When I joined Corvette Racing, I have to be honest and say that I didn’t know the significance of driving America’s sports car and what it means to fans and owners. As soon as you get here, you get that feeling and the team is teaching you that is not just another race team. It’s Corvette Racing, and we try to rise above everyone else at all times. So that becomes second-nature when you’ve been here. Also what makes this program so successful both on-track and with the fans is the continuity of the program. It has to be the longest if not one of the longest programs at the factory level in sports car racing. People know that Corvette Racing is and will be part of the series to add to the history of Corvette Racing.
VT: Can you give us an insight into the chemistry of the Corvette team? How do you interact with the other driver team?
JM: Having a two-car team doubles your chances of winning. That’s obviously important. But it also keeps the competition within the team high. For sure we have that. But all four of us drivers have been around long enough and have enough experience to know that the reason we are with Corvette Racing is to win races; it doesn’t matter if it’s the No. 3 or the No. 4 car. That’s not to say no one cares; everybody cares within the team. But the experience of the driver lineup we have helps to make sure that if a Corvette can win, it will win. The egos of the drivers are as drivers’ egos are, but they are kept in check a little bit because we know who we are working for and we know the mission.
VT: The IMSA/ALMS merger has been a huge step for sports car racing in the US. Specifically, how do you think it has affected GT cars (GTE/GTLM and GT3/GTD) for the good?
JM: I think any time you bring two series like ALMS and GRAND-AM together it can be a good thing. From my perspective and being with Corvette Racing, the competition has stayed very strong. We enjoy racing against other manufacturers at such a high-level all year and not just at Le Mans. This is an important championship and I personally love racing in America.
VT: IMSA showcases great racing on great tracks. Is there a certain team you consider your chief rival, that you especially enjoy beating on race day?
JM: Everyone. There’s not one team. You want to beat the best team on any given day.
VT: You have had 24 starts (if my homework is correct) in Formula 1 and your son, Kevin, drives for the Renault factory team out of Enstone. Do you have any opinion on the recent sale of the rights to Liberty Media, a US firm, from CVC? How do you believe it will impact the sport?
JM: To be completely honest, I’m not 100 percent sure who they are. I found that they – until recently – had a lot of money! I’m hoping it’s going to benefit Formula One as a whole. I feel F1 makes a good show now, but I can see that technology took over a little bit too much for most fans. There will be fans that enjoy and understand all the crazy technology. But you still hear, even though it’s been three or four years, that people say they miss the screaming V8s. I don’t know if that will change with the new owners. But I’m hoping they will take a slightly different approach to grow the spectacle.
F1 is a pretty exclusive club whether you’re a driver, sponsor or partner. I think there is something good to be said about keeping that exclusivity. To get on the other side of that fence (from the outside) is a feeling that you need to be a part of it. One of the things about the success of IMSA is how close the fans can get. But I also feel that F1 should be exclusive to whoever is part of it. There’s something exciting about looking through a fence and not being able to get in.
The rules changes for next year will be good for the spectacle of it. The cars will be a lot faster than they are now – not with top speed but in cornering. It’s going to be really impressive to watch.
VT: Staying with F1, can you describe what it is like seeing your son, who describes you has his first hero, driving at the highest level of motorsports?
JM: I try to follow him as much as I can. I don’t get a chance to go to his races as much as I would like because of my own programs. But I’m excited for him to be in F1 and to compete there. I follow him and wish him the best all the way. When the race is going on and when qualifying is going on, I’m probably more nervous than I am when I am driving myself. That’s only because I wish him the best and I want him to achieve his goals. I feel for him when things go badly and I celebrate with him when things go great.
VT: Finally, what is your opinion of the Road Atlanta circuit? How would you rank it against other tracks here and in Europe?
JM: Road Atlanta is such a fantastic racetrack. It’s very old-school with massive undulation during the lap. It’s a great crowd with a Sebring feel to it with people camping there and building up throughout the week. It’s quickly become one of the sports car classics that you want to win. I really enjoy Road Atlanta and this race. It’s the first track I was introduced to in the United States, and it was my home track when I lived here and raced for Panoz. For sure it’s one of my favorites in the world.
There are quite a few good overtaking spots at Road Atlanta. But also because there are quite a few cars in other categories, it’s not the obvious overtaking spots but also where people get caught in traffic and lose momentum. It also opens the door for mistakes because you’re doing something out of the ordinary and maybe unexpected. You definitely have to be careful there.
VT: Thank you for your time, Jan, and good luck next weekend.
Note: Valdosta Today appreciates the effort of Kelsi Nilsson from Road Atlanta in organizing this interview.