Making of a Champion: Jan Magnussen
Thursday, December 7, 2017

The sixth in a series of articles highlighting each champion driver in the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, “Making of a Champion” shares some previous experiences and “backstory” that led to this driver becoming a champion.

Jan Magnussen was one month shy of his 25th birthday when his Formula 1 career ended, following a sixth-place result in the 1998 Canadian Grand Prix for the Stewart Ford team. And while he didn’t know it at the time, it set the wheels in motion for a legendary career as a sports car racing champion.

“When I first started out, for me it was all about Formula 1,” he recalls. “I did spend all my time just thinking about that, so when that didn’t work out, there was a period in my life where I didn’t quite know what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life.”

Enter Panoz Motorsports. The race team founded by Dr. Don Panoz was fielding its own LMP1 race cars in a brand-new racing series also founded by Panoz:  the American Le Mans Series. The team needed a driver and found one who hailed from Denmark.

“When I got the opportunity to come to the United States to drive for Panoz in the beginning, that’s the first time I even thought about sports cars,” said Magnussen. “I went out to test the Panoz with an open mind, not knowing what to expect. At that time, I hadn’t even seen the car.

“I didn’t know what to expect, so I came out here and immediately felt the biggest difference between racing in Europe and racing in the U.S. In the U.S., there’s such a warm feeling. You can feel the team really embraces you and you’re a part of something.”

It was a feeling he liked. A lot.

“In the States, what I felt and what I fell in love with immediately was this team spirit that now you’re a part of something with a bunch of other guys that want the exact same that you do,” he said. “That really brought out the best in me, and I immediately knew I had a shot at a new career after Formula 1. I grabbed that immediately. After the test, I flew home, grabbed my stuff and left Denmark.”

He competed in the first full season of ALMS in 1999 for Panoz, taking his first career victory at what now is known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. He remained with the Panoz team through the end of the 2002 season, before moving over the Prodrive Ferrari ALMS team in 2003.

Another career-defining moment came in 2004. While he didn’t compete anywhere on a full-time basis, Magnussen was busy. In the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series, he was tapped to share Doran-Lista Racing’s Lexus-powered Daytona Prototype with Didier Theys, winning a sprint race at Watkins Glen and competing in five of 12 races.

He also got the call from Corvette Racing to join the team as one of its endurance drivers, alongside full-timers Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta. He only competed in two ALMS rounds, but won one of them, at Petit Le Mans.

He won another race, too, in 2004. He, Beretta and Gavin combined to take the GTS class victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The next year, they did it again, this time in the GT1 class. And in 2006, they did it again.

That success, combined with another Petit Le Mans victory in 2005 and a win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in 2006, opened a door that remains open to this day.

“We won Le Mans every year, Sebring and a couple of Petits, so there was a lot of success,” Magnussen said. “When I finally got the shot at the full-time drive in 2007, it wasn’t like joining a new team. I just had more weekends with the guys that I already knew. It wasn’t a big problem for me, sort of finding my place in the team.

“I already knew them, but it’s been such a fantastic opportunity. I’m starting, now, my 15th year with Corvette Racing, and that’s a long time in racing. That’s a whole career by itself. I feel lucky that at one point, 15 years ago, I made the right decision.”

Since becoming a full-time driver for Corvette Racing, Magnussen has won three championships: the 2008 ALMS GT1 title co-driving with Johnny O’Connell, the 2013 ALMS GT championship with Antonio Garcia and the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Le Mans (GTLM) crown, also with Garcia.

He’s currently tied with Gavin for seventh on the all-time IMSA race winners list with 47 career victories, three of which came during the 2017 season – at Sebring, Circuit of The Americas and VIRginia International Raceway.

Following each victory, as well as at the WeatherTech Night of Champions, where he and Garcia picked up their awards for winning the season title, Magnussen’s appreciation was clearly visible.

“I think now, at this stage in my career, I appreciate a lot more the hard work that goes on behind the scenes,” he said. “Whereas in the beginning of my career, I didn’t really pay attention to all that stuff, but it’s needed to be in the front of a race or a championship. Now, I do appreciate all that stuff a lot more.

“I pay a lot more attention to what goes on outside the car and outside the race weekends. In a way, it is sweeter, because I think I have a much better idea of the tremendous amount of energy, time and money that goes into our success.”

He also is able to offer good perspective to his 25-year-old son, Kevin, who is currently working on his own Formula 1 career and competed in the 2017 World Championship for the U.S.-based Haas F1 team. He’s not Kevin’s manager, however. He leaves those responsibilities to others.

“I’ve given him all the advice that I can,” Jan said. “I think the most important thing that I have managed to pass on to him was to make sure that he’s surrounded by a team of people that are working for him so that he can achieve his goals, because that’s not something you can do on your own. It does take a lot of effort from a lot of people to try and put yourself in that position to be one of the 20 guys that get to do it.”

As for himself, Jan Magnussen is two wins away from being in the top five on the all-time IMSA race-winners list. He’s got five Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring victories, four victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Motul Petit Le Mans, and one Rolex 24 At Daytona victory.

All of that success begs a question. How long does Magnussen want to keep doing this?

“Until they kick me out,” he replies. “That’s it.”