By Holly Cain
Kevin Magnussen is still smiling weeks after his first IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance race, the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver acknowledged this week that the 24-hour event was a high-speed eye opener, but he proved competitive in his series debut. The team contended for the win and finished fifth overall.
And he carries a lot of optimism into the next race, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts on March 20. It‘s safe to say, the former Formula One driver is definitely digging the sports car scene.
Magnussen, 28, is currently with his young family — daughter Laura was born Jan. 11 — in his native Denmark but ready to return to the States for his next sports car challenge next month having learned a lot about the team‘s No. 01 Cadillac DPi-V.R, the style of IMSA racing and the competitors he‘s racing against. It‘s invaluable information for Sebring, where the venerable track offers its own set of challenges.
“I learned just a huge amount all around,” Magnussen said. “Daytona was my first 24-hour race, my first endurance race and it‘s one of the biggest endurance races in the world so a big jump straight into.
“It went well, and it makes it a lot of easier the fact I went into that first race with Chip Ganassi Racing and all the expertise and experience they have.”
The Ganassi team won the Twelve Hours of Sebring in 2014 with drivers Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas and Marino Franchitti, who drove the final stint to earn an exciting 4.682-second win in what was then the closest margin of victory in the race‘s long history.
Next month‘s race week will mark only the second time Magnussen has been to the track in rural Central Florida; the first coming this winter, a one-day test in preparation for the Rolex 24. Then, Magnussen ran the modified Sebring test circuit which does not use the first turn, nor the long backstretch and frontstretch.
He is quite familiar with the whole track, however, having watched his father, sports car great Jan Magnussen, win the Twelve Hours of Sebring four times in class driving a Corvette.
“It‘s pretty old school,” the younger Magnussen said. “I‘ve watched my dad on television for so many years on that track, so even though I haven‘t driven there, I know the track and I know it‘s going to be a challenge when in traffic. And the last few hours of the race when it‘s dark, it‘s going to be fun.
“I‘m looking forward to it.”
Mike Hull, CGR‘s managing director, has nothing but optimism about Magnussen‘s future with the team and in sports car racing in general. A flat tire in the final hour of the Rolex 24, when co-driver Renger van der Zande was at the wheel, was the difference in fighting for a new Rolex watch and instead bringing the car smartly and safely home in fifth place.
Even without a trophy, it was a well-received debut for Magnussen, who was notably quick on speed and adept in dealing with the traffic.
“The drive style you need with the present DPi car suits a single-seat open-wheel driver more so than maybe in the past,” Hull said, adding, “And Kevin proved that by just stepping in the car and getting with it right away.”
In an interesting complete coincidence of careers, Phil Binks is the crew chief on the No. 01 Cadillac that Magnussen shares full time with van der Zande. Phil‘s father Dan Binks was at one point Jan Magnussen‘s crew chief in the great Chevrolet Corvette GT program.
Other similarities between the Magnussen family are understandably welcomed as well. Jan has certainly set a high standard and, judging by Kevin‘s WeatherTech Championship debut, the family‘s sports car lineage is in good hands.
Kevin concedes there is generally a lighter air in the IMSA paddock than what he became accustomed to in Formula One over the last six years. Knowing so many people because of his father‘s longtime involvement in IMSA has helped the transition as well.
“It‘s a great time and you can feel the people are there having fun and enjoying themselves a lot more,” Magnussen says of the IMSA paddock compared to his time in F1.
“People are smiling and you can sense a different kind of atmosphere. Just a much happier place. Formula One is very, very competitive and IMSA is super competitive as well, it‘s just different.”
No matter the vibe in the paddock, Magnussen‘s focus has not changed. He wants to win. His best F1 showing was a podium in the 2014 Australian Grand Prix. He‘d like nothing more than to celebrate with a WeatherTech Championship win.
He expects many of the same challenges at Sebring that he encountered at Daytona — primarily navigating slower traffic. In Formula One, the entire race lasted about two hours. Magnussen did that in a single stint in his IMSA debut.
“In the races I‘m used to, which are two hours max, you never have to think 20 hours ahead,” Magnussen said. “Sometimes in Daytona in the race, I think I felt more stressed than I needed to be. You just need to be consistent.
“Of course, you need to be fast, but you don‘t need to be stressed about a lot of things in the first hours of the race.
“And,” he added, “The way you think of the race as a whole in your mind, that‘s probably something I need to adapt to a little bit. It‘s no harm if I‘m stressing, that just means I‘m going fast and hurrying up.”
Magnussen fully concedes he has one of the biggest advantages in the field: driving a car for championship team owner Chip Ganassi.
“It‘s great to be racing on a team owned by a racing driver,” Magnussen said. “Chip is a race driver and he understands. He has a different understanding than most team owners and I think that‘s the real strength of the team.
“The team exists to go racing and win races. That‘s the core business. They are in the business of winning races and that‘s pretty cool — and that‘s something I can relate to.”
The 69th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts is the climactic conclusion for Sebring SportsCar Week. It begins with six races on Saturday, March 13, including the second race of the IMSA Prototype Challenge season. Other IMSA series in action from March 17-20 include the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, Porsche Carrera Cup North America and Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BF Goodrich Tires. Tickets are available at SebringRaceway.com.
The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring will start just after 10 a.m. ET Saturday, March 20. Flag-to-flag live coverage will be available on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold, and NBCSN will provide live coverage of both the start and finish of the 12-Hour Classic. IMSA Radio‘s flag-to-flag coverage is available on IMSA.com, SiriusXM Radio and locally in Highlands County, Fla. on WWOJ 99.1 FM.