Haas F1 driver Nikita Mazepin, in his own words
Controversial Russian racer on that social media post, how he's improving his driving and why F1 isn't the end goal
In a world of Hamilton versus Verstappen, Formula 1 fans may not be paying much attention to the back end of the F1 grid but one of the most interesting battles this year has been the fight between Haas drivers Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin. The car is well off the pace and the team is using this season as a learning year for its two novice drivers, but they hope to be back in the fight in 2022.
Mazepin, of course, has been much in the spotlight on social media since late last year when he posted a controversial video. He concluded long ago that the best way to end the attacks was to get on with his job. He is willing to admit that “what I have done was not right” but then adds “we have already discussed it enough, I think.”
Being under such scrutiny and then having a troubled start to his F1 career, which fed the critics who claim he is only there because his father is rich, meant that there was more pressure on the 22-year-old than would normally be the case for an F1 debutant.
“Coming into the first race, you don’t want to bring things from the off-season back,” he says. “I would say, pretty honestly, that once the Thursday of the first grand prix was out of the way - which was a little bit stressful for my team - it has been okay. The Bahrain weekend created some very weird emotions. Everything was so new and it wasn’t a normal venue for a first race in F1. It was my first night race - which I absolutely loved. I get goose bumps when I talk about it.
“But unfortunately that weekend wasn’t a very smooth ride for me and I obviously didn’t help with my driving style.”
Mazepin has been able to rationalise what happened now that he has had a little time to digest the events, after his race lasted 25 seconds following a spin between turns two and three.
“I had had a three-day test there that went very well,” he explains, “and I tried to start that first FP1 in the place that I finished on the third day of the test. That was a sensible thing to do, but given that we swapped cars and the conditions had changed, I didn’t do a very good job of adapting to it. I just kept trying to do the things that had worked the previous week. I needed to do well - and I did exactly the opposite.”
With a few more races under his belt, he has learned that what worked on Friday might not work on Saturday and modern F1 drivers need to be flexible.
“It is very important to trust your own feelings, as much as it is to listen to the hundreds of people around you in Formula 1,” he says. “It’s a very interesting balance, which hopefully I will learn even more about in the next few years. We don’t arrive in F1 direct from karting. We have learned in Formula 2 and in Formula 3 and sometimes you need to go against the normal rules of the people in Formula 1 to achieve truly great results. The normal rule in F1 is that you develop the car all year long – 365 days a year – to be as competitive as you can be. But we are saving some efforts to achieve better results in the longer term.
“Ultimately, no matter how good or bad the car is, you are the one who is driving it, and of course you cannot perform on your own. You are the face of the car and the car’s face is your face so, in this respect, I think it is slightly difficult for a driver to be thrown into a championship where the team decides not to develop the cars and says: ‘It’s a learning year’.
“The most difficult point for me was after Barcelona, because I had a very difficult first four races. Bahrain was my first race and Imola was a track I didn’t know, but then Portimao and especially Barcelona was such a tricky time compared to all of my other F1 outings, including the Force India and Mercedes tests, when I believe I was able to do a decent job. I felt that something wasn’t right.”
It turned out that Mazepin was correct and in Austria Haas team boss Guenther Steiner explained the problem that had been found. “One of the chassis is a little bit heavier. Not in all circumstances – just when we need a certain weight balance. It’s marginal – but it is heavier. And it has an impact. Heavier cannot have no impact.”
The team plans to have a new chassis for him at the Belgian Grand Prix, after the summer break.
Since this discovery was made, Mazepin has seemed less confused. His form and his confidence have improved and at Silverstone he beat Schumacher in a straight fight for the first time.
“I had to push very hard in the beginning to try and get in front because you know that this track is difficult to overtake on,” he said. “I used a lot of my tyres but then I put in probably my best overtake in the last three years.
“I definitely think I am learning a lot of about how F1 works; about how to do things that are not related to racing; and also doing some very valuable laps, starts and so on. But I am just a little bit concerned sometimes not to adapt too much to this car and change my driving style, because next year’s car could be a completely different thing to drive.”
Given that everyone knows that the Haas is not competitive this year, is it fair to say that there is no real pressure on Mazepin, except to beat his team-mate?
“I would say yes and no,” he says. “There is a certain mentality that you as a driver find to drive yourself in your many many years of racing, regardless of the conditions. You push to the maximum. In my case, it is so much a part of me that I can consciously say: ‘Okay, no pressure’ and think logically, but then when you get in the groove and want to improve every corner and try to go faster and do better lap times, you eventually start to look around and look at who has done what. I am quite a competitive person. If you gave me a ping-pong table and said, ‘Let’s play!’, I’d really try to beat you. If you have that, you have it. You cannot go out and buy it. We can only play with what we’ve been given by the character that we are born with.
“I really think every human is capable of achieving certain things that are in their control. I would have exactly the same ambitions if my dad had sent me ballet dancing when I was young. If I had got to the age of 10 and I had spent four years doing it, and I knew that I wanted to be dancing in the best theatres in the world, I would put in exactly the same effort.”
When Nikita was six, his father enrolled him for three sporting activities that he believed would be good for his son to develop: karting, mixed martial arts and gymnastics.
“When I had my nose broken for the first time, my dad wasn’t as keen on cage-fighting,” Mazepin says. “So I stopped that. I have never been super flexible or good at gymnastics. It just wasn’t my thing. But in karting, I had more natural pace than the average kids and so I was drawn into it. It was the thing from the beginning that I happened to be reasonably good at. Now I am 22 and sitting here in the F1 paddock…”
Mazepin is different from many of the Russian racing drivers we have seen in the past, with a more international outlook. When you talk to him, you get the impression that his English is so good that he must have been at school in England.
“I was,” he says. “We have 11 years of schooling in Russia, but for my ninth to 11th years – basically the sixth form - I lived in Oxford and studied at Oxford College. I was driving for Hitech and Force India, and when I wasn’t racing, I had a bike and would cycle off to school in the mornings.”
He adopted English ways because his manager – Hitech boss and former kart world champion Oliver Oakes – told him that this was what was required.
“The people who were around me in racing were always English, and you know the English like to do things their own way. They don’t like to compromise. With my manager it was always: ‘You have to learn to get English jokes and English banter’. Some of the jokes in England would probably mean you would end up with a swollen face in Russia, but I knew it was necessary and I am happy that it happened. It helps to bridge gaps with my engineers, on the human side, and helps me understand the people.
“Nowadays, you can also grow up the Russian way in racing because there are a lot of people who are competitive in the sport: driver coaches, engineers, sponsors and teams that have Russian backgrounds, but back when I started racing, there was nothing.”
Mazepin is also unusual in that he sees F1 as a stepping stone and not the ultimate goal in his life. “I really wanted to get to F1. I have certain goals for my life - as probably every human being does - and F1 was a very important one for me to make a future step into business, which is what I want to do.”
And he says he is keen to be himself and not be someone different in F1.
“I am definitely an extrovert,” he says. “I really need to socialise with people. I like people and I always enjoy talking to people. I am confident to say that I am quite an open person, which at times probably hasn’t put me in the best of places, but it is what it is. I cannot change it because it wouldn't be real.”
Beating Schumacher more often is his current goal but 2022 will bring a new car, with a new design team being supplied to Haas by Ferrari, led by former Ferrari chief designer Simone Resta.
How does he think he will do next year?
“I’ve got a contract for next year and I will be here at Haas, but with regards to results, it is a funny thing. People look forward to change when they are having difficult times, but in F1, everyone in the paddock thinks that things are going to get better for them in 2022. But all 10 teams cannot get better, because if everyone gets better, you stay where you are.
“So I think with where we are right and the fact that we took a different approach to others in 2021, we will gain something for 2022. I hope we become strong midfielders - to say the least.
“But then F1 is a sport that is very unpredictable.”
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