Nikita Mazepin has had a contentious Formula 1 career. The 23-year-old Russian’s maiden F1 season with Haas last year was pretty inglorious: not only did he finish the season without scoring a single point, but he was pretty comprehensively outdriven by his teammate, Mick Schumacher (son of the legendary Michael Schumacher).
This is despite his father, billionaire oligarch Dmitry Mazepin, pouring millions of dollars into Haas, with Uralkali (a Russian chemicals company he’s a major shareholder in) becoming the team’s title sponsor. Indeed, Nikita’s propensity for coming off the track in 2021 saw him earn the unfortunate nickname ‘Mazespin’ and reignited the eternal debate about ‘pay drivers’ in F1.
Now, Nikita Mazepin finds himself at the centre of yet more controversy. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Haas has terminated both Mazepin’s contract and Uralkali’s title sponsorship, leaving the young Russian without a seat in F1 for 2022.
Naturally, Mazepin’s not very happy about the situation and took to social media to address his departure – as well as to announce the creation of a foundation funded by Uralkali designed to support athletes unable to compete due to war or politics.
“The foundation will allocate resources… to those athletes who have spent their lives preparing for Olympics or Paralympics or other top events only to find they were forbidden from competing and collectively punished just because of the passports they held,” Mazepin says.
The foundation, called ‘We Compete As One’ (a thinly veiled dig at F1’s anti-racism motto, ‘We Race As One’) isn’t explicitly for Russian athletes, but you’ve got to read between the lines here. It’s Russian athletes who are increasingly finding themselves shut out of international sporting events, and it’s because their country launched an unprovoked invasion of another country.
While the whole thing does come off as sour grapes, it’s actually an interesting idea and one that we shouldn’t dismiss out of hand. It’s hard not to feel at least some sympathy for ‘regular’ Russian (or any) athletes who find themselves unable to compete at international sporting events because of their country’s actions, which they may not necessarily support.
For example, Russian and Belarusian athletes have been banned from the Beijing Winter Paralympics over the war in Ukraine. How galling would it be to be shut out from an event you’ve trained your whole life for because of something out of your control?
But let’s be clear. Mazepin and his father aren’t just ‘regular Russians’ who find themselves caught in a sticky political situation. Dimitry Mazepin is one of Russia’s richest men and is close to Vladimir Putin. Indeed, both Mazepins have been added to a European Union sanctions blacklist, with the EU describing Dimitry as “a member of [Putin’s] closest circle”. This is why you shouldn’t feel sorry for him.
Mazepin has some support from within the F1 paddock. Helmut Marko, the notoriously curmudgeonly head of Red Bull’s driver development program, has questioned Mazepin’s exclusion from the sport during a recent interview.
“I think that the Russian GP [being removed] is justified [and] excluding Mazepin is justified insofar as his cockpit is financed with Russian money. National teams should also be excluded. But individual athletes? Hello, there must be no personal liability… let athletes who clearly distance themselves from Putin start,” Marko told OE24.
But Mazepin hasn’t done that yet, and he probably won’t.
Mazepin says there’s been no contact with his former bosses at Haas or from former teammate Mick Schumacher, but other F1 drivers including Mercedes’ George Russell and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, had sent “very simple” personal messages, he tells Reuters.
“They supported me in feeling for me for losing that opportunity to compete. Nothing political. Just personal, keep your head up… It was just what I believe a good human being should do.”
Otherwise, there’s not a love lost between Mazepin and other drivers on the grid, many of whom have previously voiced umbrage at how he repeatedly ignored blue flags, drove dangerously and held up other drivers throughout the 2021 F1 season.
We Compete As One isn’t the only charitable organisation Mazepin’s founded. Earlier this month, he unveiled another project, ‘Formula of Freedom’ – a go-karting club for children and adults with cerebral palsy. Clearly, he’s not a complete dick… Even if his behaviour on track leaves a lot to be desired.
Ultimately, it’s a complicated issue, and one we’re likely to continue to encounter as the global backlash against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grows.
There’s one piece of good news to come out of all this, though. Danish driver Kevin Magnussen, who drove for Haas from 2017 to 2020, has been called up at the last minute to fill Mazepin’s seat for 2022, much to the delight of F1 fans.
The 2022 Formula 1 World Championship kicks off this weekend with the Bahrain Grand Prix.