Who’s Afraid of Nikita Mazepin, The New Bad Boy of F1?
How the oligarch’s son with a penchant for courting controversy became motorsport’s public enemy number one
Formula 1 is the story of good guys.
The top flight of motorsport is full of likeable archetypes, like the champion, Lewis Hamilton, or the underdog, Pierre Gasly. There’s Kimi Raikonnen, the stoic old-guard; Daniel Riccardo, the class clown; ambitious youngster Max Verstappen; the prodigious, humble George Russell. Since the airing of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series, new fans have been drawn to the sport largely because of these personas, all of which are magnified and dramatized as the drivers’ lives outside of their cars take center stage.
But there’s something missing in this adrenaline-junkie soap circus. Something — or someone — for these comrades and protagonists to overcome, that can challenge them to be better, faster and more heroic in the final act. They need a villain.
This coming season, Nikita Mazepin will inadvertently become that villain. The 21-year-old Russian — son of oligarch Dmitry Mazepin — will race for the Haas team, in a Faustian contract that confirms Nikita’s place on the F1 grid in exchange for his father’s financial backing. The issue of Pay Drivers (or Daddy Drivers) is already a controversial subject in the sport. But Nikita is also responsible for a series of high-profile mishaps that have turned many fans, and even drivers, against him, from punching fellow F2 driver Callum Illot to inciting public speculation on George Russell’s sexuality to defending racial abuse on social media to throwing a party moments after the deaths of nine miners under his father’s employ. It’s an unflattering list of accolades for someone who can only just legally order his first White Claw. The community reached a boiling point last month after a video emerged on Instagram which revealed him drunk in a friend’s car, reaching out to grope a female passenger.
Despite calls to have Mazepin dropped — with a petition backed by some 50,000 signatories — the Russian will certainly make his debut this year. Haas have rightly condemned his actions, confirming that, “the matter is being dealt with internally” and Mazepin has apologized, with the woman in question coming to his defense, quoted as saying, “we’ve been friends for a long time… I give you my word he’s a good person, and would never do anything to humiliate me.”
Nonetheless, many fans quite rightly believe he has gotten away with it too easily, which is a step in the right direction for a sport that has often been loath to divorce itself from the old-boys-club reputation of its formative years. Veteran British driver (and the first woman to win the Formula Renault Championship) Alice Powell tells InsideHook, “It actually shows how the Motorsport community feel on subjects like this,” referring to the fan backlash that followed the video incident. Having spent much of her life around the paddock, Alice believes this will “counter the playboy culture that’s been around for so long.”
Another high-profile female driver, who preferred to remain anonymous, tells InsideHook that while Nikita’s actions deserve to be punished, it would shock the average fan to discover how commonplace these incidents actually are. She says Mazepin is no worse than any of the other racers, and was just unlucky to have been caught. Our squeaky-clean favourites, the heroic drivers we admire and follow, often behave just as badly, she says. They’re just better at covering their tracks.
It’s fair to assume that whatever Mazepin does, there’s a sense of schadenfreude among the many fans and competitors who are waiting for him to slip up. He embodies the very worst type of privilege: heir to a company that exploits natural resources and thrust into fortunate positions without any real justification, rich as a Rockefeller and grimly, detestably, almost cartoonishly smug, like a Moscovite Draco Malfoy on forever holiday. He shares something with a lot of wealthy young men: a roguish disregard for the codes of normal societal conduct.
But he’s also young, with the kind of cash that invites trouble. And perhaps — like all villains — a little more complicated than we give him credit for.
Daddy Drivers are nothing new in F1. Last season’s least successful entrant for Williams Racing, Nicolas Latifi, has a father with shares in the McLaren Group. And while Lance Stroll (unfortunately nicknamed “Daddy Stroll”) shows potential, he could have been out long ago were it not for the fact his father owns the team. Even great drivers like Max Verstappen and Lando Norris could be considered Daddy Drivers to some extent, and one of the sport’s legends, Niki Lauda, paid his way in, too. As Alice admits (when asked why Mazepin was so easily pardoned by Haas), “I would like to think money has nothing to do with it, but these F1 teams are businesses and need funds to improve their on-track performance.” To even compete with Mercedes or Red Bull Racing in 2021, you might need to cash in a wealthy young driver.
But it’s Mazepin for whom the label most strongly sticks, especially for those who would rather see his F2 rival Callum Illot on the grid. Mazepin has proven his worth as a driver before, beating Illot on a few occasions, and he’s spent more time in Formula 1 cars than most other rookie drivers, finishing a respectable fifth out of 26 drivers in F2 last season (Ilott was second). Still, there’s no escaping the specter of his father’s influence, especially when there are more clear and consistent prospects waiting in the wings.
The most awkward case is Nikita’s teammate at Haas Racing, reigning F2 Champion Mick Schumacher (son of Michael), who couldn’t be more angelic, talented and beloved by general fan consensus. Mazepin has outwardly declared his job is “to out-perform Schumacher,” a driver who has unarguably earned his place on the grid through hard work and victory. Their team rivalry will have been fashioned into a tale of two dynasties, with the rich driving heritage of Schumacher in one corner and the corporate nouveau-riche of Mazepin in the other.
Mick’s father is an all-time great who is firmly in the Valhalla of Formula 1 heroes. Dmitry Mazepin, meanwhile, is a chemicals baron with a highly-publicized history of corruption scandals. In Mick Schumacher, Mazepin has unfortunately been paired with a driver many fans want to see succeed, resulting in what will undoubtedly be seen as a comic book-esque showdown of good versus evil. But what if the Russian does the unthinkable? What if he does well?
Haas’s team boss Guenther Steiner knows his driver has potential in 2021. If he can temper his ambitious attitude and set the right example — allow his driving to do the talking instead — fans might see him as more than the sum of his dad’s bank balance. And if Mazepin is happy playing this role, then all the better for those of us following the entertainment on Drive to Survive.
A villain can challenge the very nature of who, and what, our sporting heroes are, and motorsport fans finally get to see what that looks like. Mazepin may even surprise us. As the world champion himself, Lewis Hamilton, often says: “Diamonds are made under pressure.”
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