Why Mazepin’s misconduct will never be swept away

OPINION: Nikita Mazepin comes into Formula 1 as the most talked about driver for all the wrong reasons. While he says he has learned from his mistakes – ones that were never likely to lose him his place at Haas due to his financial positioning – he still faces a barrage of criticism that he may never escape.

Why Mazepin’s misconduct will never be swept away
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"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy. They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

The summation delivered by Nick Carraway in the final chapter is one of the most powerful quotes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby.

Following the murder of his friend, Jay Gatsby, who was entangled in an affair that saw his lover, Daisy Buchanan, ultimately refuse to leave her husband, Nick is left aghast when Daisy and Tom - part of the 'old money' crowd - simply pack up their bags and move away.

It was a quote that came to my mind last week as Haas unveiled its new livery and previewed the 2021 season.

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Following a fraught winter in the wake of Nikita Mazepin's act of groping a woman in the back of a car and the video being uploaded to his Instagram account, Haas was firmly back in the spotlight.

But the unveiling of the car, bedecked in the red, white and blue colours of the Russian flag - which has now piqued the interest of the World Anti-Doping Agency - and carrying the name of new title sponsor Uralkali, only hammered home something we already knew.

Mazepin was never truly at risk of losing his F1 drive over his conduct.

Haas VF-21

Haas VF-21

Photo by: Haas F1 Team

Haas condemned Mazepin's behaviour in response to the video surfacing, calling his actions "abhorrent". As fans across the world spoke out against Mazepin and called for his dismissal, Haas reiterated just before Christmas that he would be part of its line-up for 2021. The team said it had dealt with Mazepin internally, with the details to remain private. Following the FIA's deferral of the case to Haas, it supposedly meant the affair was at an end - nothing more could be done.

But it was never going to disappear, especially as Mazepin faced an open media call for the first time since the video was posted last week. The opening 13 minutes of a 20-minute session were almost exclusively filled with questions from journalists about what happened, before the team suggested moving the conversation on to other topics such as the new season and the first race in Bahrain.

During the session, Mazepin called what happened a "huge mistake" and that he was "not proud of it". He thanked Haas for its support, saying it had been "very helpful" in helping with his education, and that he felt "way further" developed with his behaviour than ever.

Yet he initially continued to word his expression of remorse in the same fashion of his initial apology - since deleted when he wiped his Twitter account - in which said he had to hold himself to "a higher standard as an F1 driver".

"I didn't behave as I meant to behave being in Formula 1," Mazepin said. "The transition phase of realising what I have achieved has been very short, and I didn't adapt it as quick as I should have had."

When asked directly about what he had learned in relation to treatment of women and his conduct with women, the questioner citing the disappointment of female F1 fans may feel and even the trauma his behaviour may have uncovered, Mazepin again spoke about the example he set as an F1 driver.

"Graduating to Formula 1 and being a Formula 1 driver means that all of a sudden, you become an example to a lot of young kids who are aiming to get into the same championship," he said.

"With that, you have to bring a certain way of behaviour towards yourself. I haven't done it instantly."

But Mazepin's occupation is completely irrelevant. It's an issue of how he acted as a human being.

Asked if he understood his behaviour was not acceptable as a person in general, Mazepin replied: "Yes, I understand. I've taken the responsibility for it, as I said previously, both on and off the circuit.

"We as human beings have to show a certain behaviour towards each other, to live in a calm and humane world. So I'm confident that I will be one of those humans from now on."

The rhetoric coming from figures at Haas throughout the past three months has centred on education and rehabilitation, not punishment. The exact details of that education have never been disclosed.

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1 Team

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1 Team

Photo by: Haas F1 Team

"We spoke a lot about what we think went wrong," Haas F1 team principal Gunther Steiner said when asked by Motorsport.com what the team worked with him on.

"I don't want to expand about the detail. The biggest thing is he got support. It was wrong. He knows that. I didn't need to tell him, because he apologised also after the incident.

"In general, we just move on and we want to build him up to be a good race car driver. And a good race car driver needs to be also a good human being.

"He is eager to learn anything he can because he is very young, and he just wants to move on, and show what he can do in the future."

Mazepin may want to move on and learn, but there is no way the F1 fan community is going to forget about what has happened. A glance at any of Haas's social media posts in the past three months tells you everything, filled with criticism of Mazepin that often results in the hashtag '#WeSayNoToMazepin' trending.

The team is not blind to the fan backlash. The admins of its social accounts are on the frontline when it comes to gauging fan feedback on anything, and while their engagement numbers are through the roof right now, it's not for a positive reason. It's a difficult job they face.

Mazepin is aware of the image that he now carries, accepting he cannot influence how people think. "I'm not going to be able to put words in people's mouths," Mazepin said. "I'm confident with the effort I'm putting in and the direction I'm taking, the results will be there, and I'm going to try and have the racing do the talking."

While Steiner also wanted to shift focus to Mazepin's on-track performances, he acknowledged the Russian driver would have to accept the image that has been built up, and that it would not disappear easily.

Guenther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1

Guenther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

"For sure some people will never let loose of this one, and will find it always to attack him," Steiner said. "But I think he will grow some hairs on his chest and just deal with it.

"He's a strong guy. It is for sure not nice to deal with this when you're young, but it happened. You cannot make it go away. So just move on and behave like you should, or like you think now what you learned out of it, and behave like that, and that is [what] he will be doing."

Mazepin was always going to face criticism upon his ascension to an F1 seat. He's certainly benefitted from having a wealthy father, but has completed extensive private F1 testing and done all he needed to gain a super licence. He's certainly competent enough to race in F1, even if the support he has enjoyed means questions will always be asked, evidenced by pole-sitter and three-time podium finisher Lance Stroll.

But Mazepin's conduct was already a question mark prior to the video being posted. He punched Callum Ilott at an F3 race in 2016, resulting in a one-race ban. On track, he was regularly in the dock in F2 last season, ending the year on 11 penalty points, just one shy of the total needed to trigger a ban. Mazepin said last week he was "confident" he wouldn't need to be so aggressive in F1, as "there's a very different driving style needed when you are fighting for a championship and potentially fighting further back down the grid."

Will Mazepin ever shake what happened last December off? It's unlikely. Regardless of the education he says he has undergone and the growing maturity he may show moving forward - as we all do with age - this is an indelible stain on his image.

When Mazepin does finally make his F1 debut later this month, there will be more to talk about, and questions about the incident are likely to peter out. But if at any point his on-track performances do come into question, and the 'pay driver' debate is reignited, it will be one of the biggest points undermining his place on the F1 grid. Had a driver not bringing the level of backing - physically reflected by the car's livery - that Mazepin is to Haas been involved in such an incident last December, would the team have reacted to his misconduct differently?

Mazepin faces an uphill struggle to gain acceptance within F1, and may never totally get it. But he cannot simply retreat back into money and vast carelessness like Tom and Daisy did. He must live with the consequences of his actions.

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1 Team

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1 Team

Photo by: Haas F1 Team

 

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