Kevin Magnussen reuniting in IndyCar with the manufacturer that released him from its Formula 1 outfit via a text message on his birthday six years ago isn’t the most surprising thing to happen in this past year, but it’s certainly up there.
Magnussen will make his IndyCar debut with Arrow McLaren SP at this weekend’s race at Road America, deputising for the injured Felix Rosenqvist. But it’s far more significant than just a last-minute guest appearance.
The 28-year-old Danish racer is currently competing in the IMSA SportsCar Championship with Chip Ganassi Racing, where he headed after losing his Haas Formula 1 seat. And he’s fresh from claiming his maiden IMSA win last weekend in Detroit – the day before his team-mate for this weekend Pato O’Ward became the season’s first repeat IndyCar winner.
Upon hearing the news of Magnussen’s Arrow McLaren SP chance, six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon said that “it’s cool to see” and that he knew “that’s why Kevin came to America” in the first place. As a fellow Ganassi driver, Dixon probably has some insight there.
At the moment, it’s simply a one-race deal but it’s still a mark of Magnussen’s IndyCar ambitions that began when he watched his father Jan race in the championship briefly in 1996 and ’99, also in stand-in roles.
“Thanks Scott for speaking on my behalf,” Magnussen joked when asked about Dixon’s comments.
“I’ve never really made it a secret that IndyCar is something that I’m pretty passionate about, it’s nothing new.
“My dad raced IndyCar in the mid-1990s when I was only a small little kid and I can remember back then, thinking ‘I’m going to do that one day’.
“I also haven’t hidden the fact that I’m a passionate racing driver that loves driving cars and competing – I’m fortunate and privileged to be able to go and drive all these different cars.”
While Magnussen said he’s primarily racing this weekend to “enjoy” himself, AMSP’s president Taylor Kiel made clear Magnussen was brought in because of the feedback he can give.
Magnussen called AMSP a “great team” that can guide him through the “crazy challenge” of his last-minute IndyCar debut.
But while its car is fast, it’s notoriously difficult to master. O’Ward may currently be leading the championship, yet Rosenqvist had failed to finish inside the top 10 prior to his Detroit crash and O’Ward’s 2020 team-mate Oliver Askew didn’t fare much better at the end of last year after the concussion he sustained in a crash at Indianapolis.
“Kevin is a world-class driver, he showed that last weekend and he’s shown that his whole career,” Kiel said.
“It also helps that he’s already got a McLaren relationship from the past.
“But what was most important for us, was putting somebody in a car that can continue to push the programme forward – to feed back into the team how the car is, those types of things.
“We need to have somebody help our priority of one day winning the championship. That’s a big piece of it.
“We’re giving Kevin an opportunity to drive one of these cars, it’s cool. I think he’s going to show he’s a top-shelf driver and we’re in a position now where that’s what we need.”
This will be the first time Magnussen’s driving for the McLaren brand at a race weekend since he attempted to stand in for Fernando Alonso in the opening round of the 2015 F1 season after Alonso’s pre-season testing crash ruled him out.
Magnussen didn’t even make the start of the race as Honda’s troubled return to F1 with McLaren began.
He’d risen through the junior ranks to F1 with McLaren, including beating fellow McLaren protege Stoffel Vandoorne to the Formula Renault 3.5 Championship in 2013 and earning graduation to F1 for the following year.
He finished on the podium on his F1 debut and ended up 11th in the drivers’ championship but Alonso’s return demoted Magnussen to the test and reserve role for 2015 before the team cut ties with him at the end of that year. Magnussen spent five further seasons in the championship with Renault and then Haas before bowing out at the end of the year.
When asked by The Race about his feelings on this McLaren reunion given how his F1 stint there had ended, Magnussen preferred to focus on the positives.
“It’s great to be back with the McLaren brand,” Magnussen admitted.
“It’s been home for me for many years, quite long ago now. 2014 was the last race, but I spent pretty much my whole junior career as a McLaren junior.
“I have a lot of good memories from there. First Formula 1 race, season and podium. Lots of good memories in that regard, nice to be back with that brand.”
Magnussen’s ex-Haas team-mate of four years Romain Grosjean is currently enjoying his maiden part-time IndyCar campaign this year. He claimed his first pole and podium on the Indianapolis road course last month and gave some advice to Magnussen when the duo met earlier this week.
Given Grosjean is both loving life in IndyCar and proving highly competitively, it’s easy to see them both having a long-term future there.
“I went to see Romain yesterday to hang out a bit,” Magnussen explained.
“Of course, we were talking about this weekend. [He was] very helpful, giving me advice and letting me know the obvious differences from F1 to IndyCar.”
This weekend leading to more IndyCar outings seems almost inevitable given Magnussen’s appeal, his talent and his childhood-routed eagerness to race in the series.
He may have signed up to be a part of Peugeot’s Le Mans 24 Hours return when its new World Endurance Championship campaign begins next year, but don’t be too surprised if we – as a minimum – see Magnussen tackling another triple crown event in the shape of the Indianapolis 500 before too long.