Nikita Mazepin dismissed, explanatory, who will replace him at Haas
For a driver with 22 starts, zero points and a 14th-place finish to his name, Nikita Mazepin has attracted extraordinary attention in his only year in Formula 1.
And a single year is almost certainly all he’s likely to get after being summarily sacked by Haas on Saturday.
Sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have forced the issue, and a growing number of national motorsport bodies, including Motorsport Australia, have moved to ban Russian licensees.
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But even before he was officially fired, Mazepin’s career seemed untenable.
Really Mazepin’s career ended before these bans were enacted; rather, it was sanctions affecting former Haas title sponsor Uralkali that nullified the 23-year-old’s brief F1 run.
Uralkali is owned by Uralchem, a Russian chemical and mining company chaired and partly owned by Nikita’s father, Minsk-born Russian oligarch Dmitry Mazepin.
The ruble’s plummeting value combined with pressure not to do business with Russia – and the Mazepin family has a historically close connection to Vladimir Putin – has forced the issue.
Haas ended his sponsorship with Uralkali at the same time he fired Mazepin because the two came as a package – the pilot’s contract depended on the sponsorship money.
Paid drivers are of course nothing new in Formula 1, and indeed the racing ladder has become so expensive that even very talented drivers have to bring sponsorship with them on their way to the top. It’s also not unusual for smaller F1 teams to rely on driver sponsorship for survival.
Lance Stroll, for example, is a multiple junior champion and multiple podium finisher in F1, but he’s clearly racing to the delight of his father, who was a major backer or owner of his Formula 1 teams.
Guanyu Zhou had a competitive junior career and has a title to his name, but was coveted by Alfa Romeo at least in part because of access to the Chinese market for sponsorship opportunities.
But Mazepin was one of the clearest examples of a driver for whom money was more decisive than talent.
A CAREER FULL OF INCIDENTS
Mazepin’s junior racing career was mundane, but for a series of mishaps on and off the track.
As a junior, he had a bad reputation because of his attack on Callum Ilott during a Formula 3 meeting in Hungary. After apparently being stuck on a lap during a practice session, he attacked the Briton twice in the pit lane. He was banned for a run.
He did little to polish his image during a two-year stint in Formula 2, during which his driving qualities were frequently questioned. Most infamously, he was penalized 15 places after triggering a massive crash at the 2019 Russian Grand Prix that landed Nobuharu Matsushita in hospital.
Six podiums, including two wins, in 2020 were commendable enough for fifth in the standings, but he was far from first in line in that year’s F2 class for promotion.
But money talks.
FROM RUSSIA WITH RULES
Dmitry Mazepin had been trying to secure his and his son’s road to Formula 1 long before the 2021 season. Via Uralkali Mazepin Sr was one of the unsuccessful bidders for the collapsed Force India team in 2018, which instead went to Lawrence Stroll and is now known as Aston Martin, where Lance Stroll holds.
Uralkali took the administrators to court for mishandling the sale, but the case was ultimately dismissed.
The struggling Haas team offered an alternate route.
Established in 2016, Team USA started off on a solid trajectory. He scored points on his debut and finished eighth in his first two seasons before climbing to an impressive fifth in 2018, but Haas has been in decline ever since.
It works with a unique business model to minimize costs. As many authorized parts are purchased from Ferrari, the car is designed by Italian company Dallara and the racing team is based in the UK, although the team is headquartered in the US.
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It worked early, but he lacked the resources to deal with developmental issues through 2018 and 2019. He fell to ninth of 10 teams in 2020 with just three points scored.
Team owner Gene Haas, machine tool magnate and NASCAR team owner, was reluctant to rack up more money in a sport that only rewarded the wealthiest teams – between 2016 and 2021, only four races were won by teams other than Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing – and instead sought more sponsors to lighten the load.
Drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen have been removed. A seat was actually sold to Ferrari, in which it placed junior driver and 2020 F2 champion Mick Schumacher. The other was made available to Nikita Mazepin on a multi-year basis, with sponsorship notice from Uralkali shortly thereafter.
A DIFFICULT START
The partnership got off to a bad start. Just a week after being announced as a Formula 1 driver, Mazepin posted a video on his Instagram page of him groping a woman in a car. The team condemned the behavior and the driver apologized, but no further disciplinary action was taken.
He entered 2021 with the hashtag #WeSayNoToMazepin widely circulated on social media. His response was that he thought “the race should speak”.
Unfortunately, the 2021 Haas car was extremely uncompetitive.
Mazepin and Schumacher struggled, although the Russian was surprisingly adrift of the German most of the year. He only edged Schumacher three times and qualified with an average delay of more than 0.9 seconds, the worst record on the grid.
There was some mid-season interest in Mazepin complaining that his chassis was slightly heavier than Schumacher. A new tub was built with funding from Mazepin Sr, and while Nikita’s running performance improved somewhat, it wasn’t enough to change the complexion of her season.
He finished his only F1 campaign 21st out of 20 full-time drivers, behind reserve Robert Kubica by two races.
WHAT IS THE FUTURE FOR HAAS?
Haas will field reserve driver Pietro Fittipaldi for pre-season testing in Bahrain this week, but the identity of Mazepin’s permanent replacement has yet to be determined.
There are several names in the ring, and Haas will have no shortage of options.
Australian Oscar Piastri, reigning Formula 2 champion, saw his name elevated. Siege time rather than his planned duties as a reserve would do him good, but Alpine is unlikely to release him without an ironclad guarantee that he will be available for a 2022 return.
But Gene Haas would prefer an experienced driver to help lead the team in its long rebuild to competitiveness.
“I think we would obviously like to have someone with a bit more real-life experience,” he told AP. “We just have to see what’s available.”
Ferrari-affiliated Antonio Giovinazzi is a known quantity, although he should be let out of his Formula E contract, while Nico Hulkenberg is still touted as an F1 super-sub.
The only certainty is that it won’t be Nikita Mazepin, whose F1 career was built and then sank in the rouble.