Mazepin: I’m sure public opinion will change with better results

Nikita Mazepin has made quite the impact on Formula 1, if not yet for the right reasons. While the online trolls are to be expected, his on-track performances have been far away from where he wants them to be. Only when he’s earned some decent results does he believe public opinion will shift in his favor.

Mazepin: I’m sure public opinion will change with better results

All of Formula 1’s crop of 2021 rookies have faced some adversity in their short careers so far, but Mazepin certainly has the most to prove after the first four races of the season. While Yuki Tsunoda hit the wall in Imola qualifying, and Mick Schumacher hit it under the safety car, Mazepin’s first-lap Bahrain exit and early Imola clash with Nicholas Latifi put him under the spotlight straight away.

Due to his privileged background as the son of a Russian billionaire, combined with the Instagram video controversy that erupted following his promotion to F1 with the Haas team, he’s faced a huge amount of negativity on social media. No wonder team boss Gunther Steiner remarks: “The doubters… you’ve got always more nay-sayers than yea-sayers. It’s not how you get down, it’s how you get up.”

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Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Mazepin knows he needs to change the majority of minds about him, and when I ask him about his brutal welcome to life in the F1 paddock so far, he tells Motorsport.com: “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.”

Nikita Mazepin, Hitech Grand Prix and Mick Schumacher, Prema Racing

Nikita Mazepin, Hitech Grand Prix and Mick Schumacher, Prema Racing

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Mazepin arrives in F1 with seven seasons in cars behind him, including two FIA Formula 2 wins (fifth in points in 2020) and four victories in GP3 (second in points in 2018). Speak to people who’ve worked with him in the junior categories and they’ll tell you that – behind his tough Russian ‘shell’ – he’s quite good fun to spend time around.

And while he’s perhaps not the most naturally-gifted driver, he works hard at his craft and is good at soaking up advice to improve his laptimes, which led to him becoming a frontrunner in the series with a reputation as a hard racer.

With F1 testing slashed to just three days per team this year, and 30 minutes slashed off both Friday practice sessions, you’d expect him to use that as an excuse for getting up to speed as he made the big step up. Instead, he shrugs it off: “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.”

That said, he’s found the transition from F2 to F1 tough going so far and with a direct pace comparison at Haas to a fellow rookie in Schumacher, he’s struggling to gain traction right from the start of each Grand Prix weekend.

“We’ve started weekends pretty far off from where we’d like to start FP1 because the car is quite difficult to work with,” he says. “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.”

Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21, climbs out of his car after a crash on the opening lap

Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21, climbs out of his car after a crash on the opening lap

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Following his early exit in Bahrain, Mazepin has managed to complete every racing lap that his pace has allowed at Imola, Portimao and Barcelona. And he has managed to get stuck into some early-lap action with his fellow backmarkers, before they’ve pulled away with superior race pace.

“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,” he admits. “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.”

After the shock of Bahrain, he quickly learned that lesson of not over-driving: “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.

“I learn about the tyres, I get used to the characteristics of the car, which is fair to say is very difficult to handle, but you look back on each weekend and there’s loads of things that I could have done better and paid attention more and could’ve got adapted to the conditions and the track. But it’s a challenge everybody goes through.”

Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21, Mick Schumacher, Haas VF-21

Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21, Mick Schumacher, Haas VF-21

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

There’s an interesting comparison between Mazepin’s two seasons in F2, first with ART in 2019 and then with Hitech in 2020. With ART he struggled badly, lacking confidence in fast corners due to its edgy setup – as teammate Nyck de Vries, who clearly coped with the rear-end instability, thrived and won the title.

When he moved to Hitech, his engineering team worked hard on providing the rear-end support he was asking for. By race four, he’d matched his best result from the previous season – by race five he was on the podium, by race seven, he was a winner.

How similar does he think that 2019 scenario is to what he’s facing now in F1?

“I would say it’s copy/paste, being very honest,” he replies. “Being truthful, it’s something that I hadn’t solved in the second season [in F2], it’s the people working around me that solved it. 

“I’m not experienced in an engineering way to be able to replicate what happened, because in F1 there are probably 100 more tools that you can use to get the same effect but, for me, it was just incredible how much of a difference that five people who are around you can make. As a driver, I was driving a different car in that second [F2] year in 2020.”

Nikita Mazepin, Hitech Grand Prix

Nikita Mazepin, Hitech Grand Prix

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The good news is that Mazepin has a small army of engineers to work with at Haas and he says he’s got no qualms over the support and guidance he’s receiving so far – even if it hasn’t produced the results he’s looking for.

“I’d say the human side and the working relationship is already there,” he says. “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. We haven’t received the ultimate package with reduced downforce from last year in F1, which makes the car already very difficult to work with. 

“They are a very experienced and good bunch of guys, but we’re still in a process of finding how to setup a car for me that will work because, I’m not gonna lie, I haven’t been very happy and there’s certain things that highlight on the data that I don’t understand why the car is performing in a certain way, because I don’t see it across the garage. So we’ll have to wait and see.”

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1, in cockpit in the team's garage

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1, in cockpit in the team's garage

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Although he’s not totally happy with his car right now, he reinforces the point that the support of the team has been strong – and a huge leap forward from F2. He explains it as “a very big step, mostly positive because there’s a lot more people that support you at times where you’re unsure of the racing line you should take or driving profile of the corner, there’s more help in how to do it, based theoretically on the engineering data and their knowledge, and that’s a great tool to be able to use. And I only assume what it’s like to be in the team that’s double or triple the size of ours”.

And that is something that he’s already experienced, having been test driver for Force India for three years and driving for Mercedes in 2019 – topping an official test day at Barcelona.

“I’m not really able to put into words, but I can say the difference is very big,” he says when asked to compare a world-title-winning Mercedes with his Haas. “Those cars that I have driven for them have really been on the top of the balance – you could only imagine how good it feels and how much fun it is to drive!

“As well as how much confidence and consistency those cars are able to give you. It was a very nice and humbling experience because essentially those cars are [all about] performance but also very enjoyable.”

Nikita Mazepin, Mercedes AMG F1, Barcelona testing

Nikita Mazepin, Mercedes AMG F1, Barcelona testing

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

He speaks of the memory somewhat wistfully, and it’s a stark difference to the situation he’s facing today. In Haas teammate Schumacher, Mazepin at least has a direct comparison with someone who has formerly been a rival, the two having fought out some great wheel-to-wheel battles in F2.

“Me and Mick get on very well,” he says. “And we do our best to lead the team in the best possible direction with the car, but it’s obviously not possible to do that too much as the car stays the same [in terms of development]. We’re generally lacking downforce compared to other cars, especially on high-downforce circuits. 

“The atmosphere has been very healthy in the team so far and I’m looking forward to do my best to keep it the same way.”

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1, talks to Mick Schumacher, Haas F1 and Ayao Komatsu, Haas Chief Engineer

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1, talks to Mick Schumacher, Haas F1 and Ayao Komatsu, Haas Chief Engineer

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

One advantage Schumacher has over him is access to Ferrari’s F1 ecosystem, occasionally testing an old-spec car and having time in its simulator. Mazepin says he too is looking for some more extra-curricular tools to help him shortcut his F1 learning curve.

“Obviously there are some tools that I don’t have available to me at this moment in time but I’m working on finding options to find solutions to have the same or more available to me,” he says. “Driving isn’t just about things on track, you can visualize loads of things in your head, you have to be very fit, I train twice a day – with the odd rest day – so I do a lot, and that keeps me happy because I know I’m doing the most that I can. The people close to me see it.”

That said, he knows he has half a second or more to find to challenge Mick on raw pace right now, and on this topic, for the only time in our interview, Mazepin gets a little spiky about a rivalry that goes all the way back to their karting days…

“I wake up every morning with that one goal in my mind,” he says, adding later on: “But I think in the very close future, it will be an intense battle, I can tell you that.”

Mick Schumacher, Haas VF-21, battles with Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21

Mick Schumacher, Haas VF-21, battles with Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

With his goals very firmly set on playing catchup with his teammate on the track, he’s learned some harsh lessons off it. So what’s his opinion of social media now, and how can he change opinions about himself?

“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,” he 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.”

Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21

Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

At 22 he has time on his side. Does he feel that he’s grown up a lot over this experience, both online and on track in F1?

“For sure, it hasn’t been a smooth ride, but when life is most intense that’s when you learn the most,” he adds. “I have personally found in my racing career that I’ve had loads of very successful years but, at the same time, quite a few were challenging. The strength that you gain from these tough times is much more robust than those when you’re winning.

“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.”

One aspect about Mazepin that you might not know, that makes him unique from his rivals, is that he’s still in the education system. He’s a fourth-year student at Moscow State University in the faculty of global processes, and education is clearly very important to him.

“It’s something that I’ve never stopped doing, I’ve never dropped out of education like many other drivers have,” he says. “I finished school, then went to an English college and now I’m in the university back home. I’m pretty fortunate that the world has embraced platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, so that makes it easy to take part remotely from anywhere in the world.

“I guess if you want something you’ll find the time for it, and if you don’t, then no excuses if it doesn’t work. I’m very motivated and so far it’s been going fine.”

Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21

Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Despite his difficult start to his F1 career, Mazepin is clearly determined to make a success of it. He accepts he’s at the bottom of the pile right now, and the only way is up – right?

“That’s exactly how I see it and the people who are close to me,” he replies. “It can only get better and it will get better from this point onwards. In the end, that’s what life and sports are about – facing challenges and overcoming those. That’s why people like to watch it. 

“If everyone was getting on fine there would be no point in getting up on a Sunday to watch the race, would there?” 

Mazepin also sees 2022 as a major opportunity for his Haas team, and himself, to have more of a level playing field as the new rules set comes into play.

He explains: “I’m looking forward to it, as a team we’re looking to execute as much as we can from this year, but at the same time, lots of resources from Ferrari and Haas have been placed into 2022.

“I really feel this team deserves better results and deserves to come back to where it has been – fourth or fifth in the constructors’ championship – they don’t come here for nothing. I’m very excited to be on the same path with Haas and everyone working for it.”

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