We Race As One, has been the slogan of Formula One for the past two seasons. However, one driver to have polarized opinion is Haas racing driver Nikita Mazepin. The rookie racer and son of Russian billionaire Dimitry Mazepin has been under the F1 spotlight even before pre-season F1 testing began due to his highly publicized social media incident prompting #wesaynotomazepin. In an interview with motorsport.com Nikita Mazepin has expressed how challenging this period of scrutiny has been for him but he is determined that a string of successful results will change public opinion on him.
Nikita Mazepin is not the only rookie on the F1 grid in 2021 seeing how he is joined by his teammate Mick Schumacher and AlphaTauri’s Japanese talent Yuki Tsunoda. Not one rookie has made it through all 4 races of the season without incident. Tsunoda hit the headlines after his comments on his car’s performance as well as hitting hit the wall in Imola qualifying; Mick Schumacher hit the wall at the same circuit under the safety car. Such incidents remind us that rookies need time to learn. Nevertheless, it seems that the public are not willing to give Nikita Mazepin the same amount of time as shown by the numerous comments from fans of F1 – not to mention former racers.
After Nikita Mazepin’s first-lap Bahrain exit social media was abuzz with comments including that of Williams Racing’s reserve driver Jack Aitken who wrote: ‘Suddenly feeling a lot better about the 60 laps I managed in Sakhir before my spin.’
Nikita Mazepin knows he needs to change the majority of minds about him as shown in his comments to Motorsport.com. The motorsport publication’s in-depth interview provided an insight into the mindset of such a divisive character:
“It’s not easy, but to be very honest I didn’t expect it to be…When there’s only 20 seats available for everyone in this world, there is a reason why because the level is so very high and so are the demands. F1 is very special in the respect where, regardless of what position you’re fighting for, everyone is very good. So it’s always going to be difficult regardless of whether you’re fighting for P1, P10 or P20.
“It’s something new for me, obviously with the difference between cars – which was much smaller in Formula 2 and Formula 3.”
However, it is also his Formula 3 exploits which turned so many people against him due to the fact the Russian racer punched Callum Ilott at an F3 race in 2016, resulting in a one-race ban. Not to mention, regular appearances in front of stewards during his F2 tenure and ending the 2020 season on 11 penalty points – one point away from another race ban. Racing fans, whatever the classification, have long memories and Nikita Mazepin is continuing to learn this the hard way.
However, to his credit, Nikita Mazepin has not looked for excuses to justify his underperforming results. So much so that when the question of reduced testing in 2021 being a factor, the Russian replied:
“In F2 we only had 45 minutes of free practice with one [tyre] compound and then it was another different compound for qualifying...So my fellow rookies that I’ve joined F1 with have all come from a more difficult scenario. At least you get a few more laps here in free practice before you go qualifying and racing.”
Another reason Nikita Mazepin is up against it is due to the fact that as his teammate is Mick Schumacher, this ensures that a host of racing fans are always rooting for the German to come out on top of the Russian:
“We’ve started weekends pretty far off from where we’d like to start FP1 because the car is quite difficult to work with,” Mazepin stated. “We always get to the end of a race weekend and feel that we are one or two sessions too late with the knowledge that we received and we wish we’d started FP1 and FP2 with what we’d learned that day. Then we’d get that one step ahead – but you have to remind yourself that everyone probably feels like that!
“It’s the nature of the sport that you always know better by Monday how you could have done better in the race on Sunday.”
The nature of life is that you always learn from your mistakes and having seen his F1 season opener last less than a lap, Mazepin has avoided any further DNF having got through the other three races unscathed, albeit considerably off the pace of his rivals and more worryingly – his teammate.
“I want to be honest and say after the first 10-15 laps my race is settled in and there’s not much more excitement happening with the current pace that we have,” Mazepin admitted to motorsport.com “After about 30 laps you realise that you’re only halfway there! Because I’m so new, I still find it fun and [get] different feelings when I drive, so it hasn’t got too annoying, let’s say.
“There’s other things to keep you involved in the race, there’s no way to lose concentration as my engineer talks to me two or three times per lap, and there’s always cars around and blue flags or calls for a pitstop. It’s very different from F2 because there’s completely different tyre management going on and the pace at which you’re travelling in races is much faster…I guess the worst thing you can do is try too hard and end up not finishing all the laps in the race. With the time I’ve spent in F1, every lap that I do is very useful.”
Nikita Mazepin may also find it a challenge to find support within the paddock as shown by the highly publicized comments on Scuderia Ferrari team radio of Charles Leclerc. Having already spun during free practice of the Spanish Grand Prix, Mazepin did the same a few minutes later but this time drove in front of Charles Leclerc before eventually making way for the Monegasque at the last moment. Leclerc was far from impressed and uttered the words heard around the world following this encounter: "Mazepin will never change."
Change is needed though if the Russian hopes to remain in F1 in 2022 irrespective of who his father may be. Such an improvement will come from a change in the character of Mazepin as well as the capability of his car. Irrespective of the results to date, Mazepin makes clear that he knows his mechanics are doing all they can for him:
“It’s no surprise that these guys are the best engineers that I’ve ever worked with, but also they’re in a very difficult situation because they can only work with what’s been given to them.”
When it comes to changing opinion about Nikita Mazepin, it will be down to the Russian to show his remorse, effort and desire to change - and staying off social media would be a good start:
“You know, everyone was going through good and bad times from their social media perspective, ever since it became so big in the last 10 years,” Mazepin says. “Even those who are loved now got hated at some point. So it’s definitely something that comes with this sport, a kind of platform that people can use for good and for bad. And I’ve always known that social media is not a place where you go to get self-confidence, but I’m just staying focused on what I do. I’m sure with the years I spend in Formula 1, and the results getting better, things will change.”
“In motorsport, a lot is about the psychological game, and these moments have made me stronger, because I’m a human at the end of the day. No different to you or the people reading this.”
For all the comments and criticism directed anonymously there is a human being reading all those remarks and despite the school yard phrase - it is not true that names will never hurt you.
It is human nature to make mistakes but it should also be human nature to forgive.
Formula One is happy to declare ‘We Race As One’ well, one of their racers is Nikita Mazepin and he does not ask for special treatment just the opportunity to undo past mistakes. Time will tell as to whether the F1 community as a whole will let him.