Why Kevin Magnussen deserves a second chance
Kevin Magnussen, who replaces Pastor Maldonado at the reborn Renault works outfit in 2016, will be grateful for a rare miracle for Formula 1 drivers: a second chance.
When top F1 teams chew you up and spit you out it's usually very difficult to recover, and Magnussen's F1 career looked all but over when McLaren finally gave him the boot, by email on his 23rd birthday last October.
The Dane was cast aside from his reserve driver role with Ron Dennis's team to make way for GP2 superstar Stoffel Vandoorne.
But such is the way in F1 - drivers are often unsentimentally ejected. Sometimes they deserve it, sometimes not; often it's not performances on-track, but that potent mix of politics and finance that leads the axe to swing.
So it was with Magnussen, who was told he had done enough to remain a McLaren race driver at the end of his rookie season in 2014, only for other elements of the corporate structure to decide that Jenson Button - British and an experienced proven world champion - was ultimately the better bet.
McLaren’s decision- a correct call
Whatever the reason for McLaren's decision, whether pecuniary, political, performance related, or a complicated mixture of all three, in pure performance terms it was the correct call.
Button raced substantially better than Magnussen in 2014. He scored by far the bulk of McLaren's points, and with Honda returning as works engine partner in '15, Button held the advantage of experience and a prior successful working relationship with the Japanese.
There were also genuine doubts within McLaren about Magnussen – principally his ability to understand the Pirelli tyres properly – and questions over his attitude and capacity for self-improvement.
Then came the misfortune and the mismanagement. McLaren took too long to sanction a racing programme alongside his reserve duties in 2015, and a potential last-minute IndyCar deal was derailed by the need to sub for Fernando Alonso in the Australian Grand Prix.
Magnussen was left with little to do except sit in briefings and twiddle his thumbs for the rest of the year. He was afforded no chance to address those perceived shortcomings with further opportunities behind the wheel, and as Vandoorne's star ascended in GP2, so Magnussen's was cast further into the shadows.
The way of the F1 world
Alonso is box-office, Button isn't too far behind, and Vandoorne looks the best talent (Max Verstappen aside) to come through the junior ranks in recent times. It's easy to see how McLaren might feel it possessed an embarrassment of riches, of which it saw Magnussen as the roughest diamond. It's the way of the F1 world – no more room at the inn, so out he went.
This will make him damaged goods in the eyes of some, but being wrong for McLaren doesn't mean he isn't good enough for F1. After all, this was a driver who finished on the podium on his F1 debut, a rare feat.
McLaren was also seriously impressed by Magnussen's raw speed in 2014. He lapped 0.183 per cent faster than Button in qualifying, on average, through the season and pushed him hard in the intra-team battle – losing 10-9 overall, but matching his team-mate 9-9 if you discount the Spanish Grand Prix, where Magnussen's engine broke in Q3.
That's a very impressive record for a rookie, and on another year, against a different team-mate, with different players calling the shots, probably would have been enough to save his seat.
Magnussen admits he ultimately didn't maximise his chance in 2014, focusing too hard on beating Button and struggling to deal with the pressure once it became clear he was in a shootout to become Alonso's '15 team-mate.
The frustration is that he never got the chance to show he has learned his lessons. Racing for Renault this season will afford him that.
Just as Magnussen has learned the hard way how politics and finances in F1 can make or break careers, he will now benefit from that formidable mixture as he takes Maldonado's drive.
Maldonado- a capable driver
Maldonado is a capable driver on his day, and a Grand Prix winner lest we forget, but is perceived by many to be little more than a crash-happy pay driver. And without the Venezuelan petro dollars that have fuelled his career thus far, he was far more likely to be left out in the cold.
Renault has lost Maldonado's experience, and created a serious shortfall in its budget, but gets a hungry and talented young driver in his wake.
It's important for factory teams to give the impression they care more about ability than money in F1. Such an attitude makes them more credible in the eyes of the fans they hope to market the cars too.
Taking Magnussen – a talented Formula Renault 3.5 champion and product of McLaren's young driver programme – over Maldonado, who is error-prone and perceived to be in F1 because of money not ability, has ticked that box.
It's probably true to say Maldonado had his fair chance. He conquered GP2, raced in F1 for two decent teams (Williams and Lotus) for five years and won a race. That's a fine career by any measure, but there was never really any suggestion he possessed huge hidden potential, just waiting for the right opportunity to be unleashed.
Magnussen is a different prospect. We've yet to really find out how good he is, or may become. Maldonado is not exactly a busted flush, but Magnussen is probably more likely to deliver a winning hand in the long run.
It's a brutal world. Money often trumps talent in this game, but when that money dries up the tables turn. So it is in this case. As one door closes for Maldonado, so another opens for Magnussen instead.