Home Featured How Nikita Mazepin made a turn in his career development

How Nikita Mazepin made a turn in his career development

by Elliot Wood

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

When reputation precedes results, it can be beyond an athlete’s own abilities for that to change. This is more than evident in Formula 2 this year, where Nikita Mazepin has turned himself into a de-facto title contender 

After 29 laps of the British Grand Prix-supporting F2 feature race, Nikita Mazpin parked his car at the turn in the Silverstone pit entry, jumped out, and performed the ‘knockout’ punch the air celebration. First F2 win in the bag. Job done.

The victory was built on his best qualifying result of the season in fifth, an expertly judged pass around the outside of Mick Schumacher at Stowe for the lead on lap three, and a calculated job of tyre management to build a comfortable lead.

This was a driver who, along with a few others on this year’s grid, has been easily stereotyped by incidents or spells of underperformance from earlier in his career – as well as by his father’s considerable wealth – and has certainly been accused of not being head-strong. When Mazepin sat down for the post-race press conference at Silverstone, he was demonstrating quite the opposite. A driver at his best is just as representative as a driver at his worst, and either way, Mazepin can often have a lot to say. How did that win feel?

“Fantastic. But to be very honest, I’m not really speaking from my heart at the moment,” he said. “Because there was quite some stress towards the end of the race because I wasn’t sure if I should be expecting a car on the alternative strategy, coming a few seconds quicker a lap, so I was very wary on how properly I have to drive and not make a mistake and the tyres by the end of the race were very difficult to handle.

“Because of that it’s very difficult to smile, because it’s not easy to let your guard down and just say everything is OK when the race is finished. But apart from this I’m over the moon for myself to recover after a difficult year and put in a good trend of a good Budapest; a good qualifying and a good race, and hopefully that will continue.”

More on Mazepin’s own difficult rookie F2 season later, but he also commented on his Hitech GP team’s first campaign.

“At the same time I’m extremely happy for my team because it’s their first year and a lot of things are going on behind the scenes. For the mechanics it’s been very difficult, with so many back-to-backs and being on the back foot after seeing the car very late in December for the first time. We had some issues and I really have a feeling that myself and the team are starting to work as one and really becoming a strong force.”

Those words have stood up to scrutiny, as he scored in both races at the next Silverstone round, was on course to stand on the Barcelona feature race podium before clocking a five-second penalty for going the wrong side of a bollard, then won the Spa-Franorchamps feature race before another five-second penalty picked up in battle dropped him to second. The points lost to those 10 added seconds alone means he’s fifth rather than second in the standings.

“I think most people don’t give Nikita much credit as a driver – the credit that he deserves – as they don’t really know his career and we often see people jump to conclusions,” says Oliver Oakes, who has guided Mazepin’s career since karts and is Hitech’s team boss. “The truth is that he has proved he is a good driver over the years.

“Following the test in Bahrain, I was quietly confident with the pace we had shown, but I knew we had a lot of work to do as a group to be ready fighting at the front. I also think the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown where all the cars and freight basically were away for a few months in transit really made it tough for us a team to progress.

“However, to see the team really hit their stride the past few weeks is something I am hugely proud of.”

After finishing second to Lando Norris in the 2014 CIK-FIA World Championship for KF karts, Mazepin started his single-seater career in the MRF Challenge and Toyota Racing Series as a warm-up for an attack on Formula Renault. He failed to score in the Eurocup and came 12th in the less densely competitive Northern European Cup, but a run of tests convinced him to move up to FIA European Formula 3 for 2016 with the new Hitech outfit, which his father was personally sponsoring

There were snippets of remarkable pace across two seasons, which only came to three podiums, but his time in the series is remembered by most for a physical altercation with Callum Ilott just two weekends in. Finishing second to Anthoine Hubert in GP3 in 2018, with four wins to his name, helped his ability to be taken seriously but that association with success disappeared again when he moved up to F2 in 2019. He finished 18th in the points with reigning champion team ART Grand Prix, while his team-mate Nyck de Vries romped to the title.

“He had a tough debut season in F2, and it is fair to say it did not work out in his favour,” says Oakes. “This being said, he has worked extremely hard to come back strong this year and I am happy for him to prove that he has not just the ability, but also the character to fight for what he wants and push the team to help him move forward.”

Being able to not only rebound from a low point, but use it to raise your game to a new level, is arguably what set up de Vries’ title success. Echoing that trajectory bodes well, in some capacity, for Mazepin.

“From the personal side, speaking honestly, I have lost a lot of confidence,” Mazepin said of his 2019 campaign.

“Because last year didn’t work most of the time, and it was very difficult to put a finger on what had gone wrong. So in terms of the direction of working it was difficult, because I started doubting a little bit how things should be done.”

The 21-year-old praised the “help and support” from ART GP during that troubled season, which included a major crash in Sochi which earned him a 15-place grid drop, and pointed to that experience of F2 – even if a bad one – and of the Dallara F2 2018 car as the groundworks of this year’s title challenge.

“The main secret [of the F2 2018] is there is no secret. As much as it hurts me to say there is no magic, that’s why you see people on the podium changing and if you win the race in Hungary for example it doesn’t mean you’re going to win the race [at Silverstone]. Well it doesn’t guarantee that you will do it, because I think in racing you need to be very adjustable and fluid because the situation’s changing and you have to adapt very quickly.

“So the secret, if you can call that, at the moment is just keeping an open mind and be ready to face challenges and work through them with different working ethics.”

When you start losing faith in your existing working methods, as Mazepin did in 2019, it makes adjusting your preferences a lot easier. When driving for an outfit that’s new to F2 like Hitech, such adjustability is a commodity when trying to learn as much as possible about the championship. Not all drivers require a knock in confidence to be broken out of their set methods – see Francois Sicard’s impact on Dan Ticktum at DAMS this year – but it usually leads to a more-rounded driver.

One-lap pace has been Mazepin’s self-confessed main struggle in 2020, and he made the front row of the grid for the first time at Spa last week. Yet he’s actually seventh best in the field on qualifying supertimes, an average of each’s drivers position in comparison to the absolute pace at each round, and a more distant 12th on average race pace (calculated by taking 10-lap samples of race stints), pegged down by Hitech’s tricky first two rounds in the series at the Red Bull Ring.

The title-contending form has caught the eye of old European F3 team-mate George Russell, who was on the side of the aggrieved Russian when it came to the penalty that earned him zero points rather than 15 in the Barcelona feature race.

“Myself and George [have got on] together for quite a long time. We’re still good friends. He is one of the few drivers who I rate as being a very nice guy, so it’s nice to know that he’s watching myself, he’s watching F2. But these things, they’re very irrelevant of what people think and I think you need to be very careful with attaching yourself to other people’s thoughts because you need to be acknowledging them but not taking too much attention because it can offset you.”

While he claims not to be distracted, Mazepin has talked a lot about the steward decisions that have gone against him recently. He was also one of several to admit that revisiting Spa a year on from the tragic death of Hubert made it a more mentally difficult weekend than usual. On the Friday, Formula Scout Mazepin asked about the Barcelona penalty.

“I think whether it [the Barcelona penalty] was fair or not is a little bit irrelevant to ask,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for the stewards and the people that make sure that the racing is fair. I would never take a chance to say any negative comments about them because they have studied their bit and we have to respect it.”

“On the other side, from the sporting regulations, I think it was a prime example that racing is a special environment in the world where it is very difficult to judge things by the rulebook and just having black-and-white rules because the cases are different. Obviously I tried to make a move on the driver in front, he closed inside, I went on the outside and he did his job – he didn’t leave me any track space. I touched the yellow sausage kerb by probably 30mm, which by the rules you have to abort the corner and go to the left.

“I failed to do it because I was too late in the corner already. So the penalty was fair from the point of view of the book, but I obviously didn’t gain any sort of advantage by doing it, also safety-wise it didn’t really make a difference. But it is what it is, I think it is important to notify myself about it and put it behind us and make sure it doesn’t happen again from my side.”

Then one day later, Mazepin came under scrutiny again. While battling wheel-to-wheel for the lead at Les Combes, Mazepin made Carlin’s Yuki Tsunoda take to the outside line to the point where the Red Bull junior had to go on the run-off and slot in behind afterwards. Unlike Barcelona, where there was a bollard Mazepin had to rejoin the track from when at the receiving end of such defending, at Spa there was no such landmark that Tsunoda was required to take to on a similar fast right-left chicane and so the blame was solely put on the on-track winner.

This was the Mazepin that many were waiting for. They wanted to see his reaction to having victory taken away by a penalty. In parc ferme, he struck the P2 board he was supposed to stop at and it was sent flying into the path of Tsunoda.

Whether it was deliberate or not – Mazepin blames cold brakes and being distracted by asking on the radio why Tsunoda had stopped at the P1 board when he believed himself to still be the race winner – it added fuel to a very old argument about the type of driver Mazepin is.

As if to prove his comments from the day before about incidents going beyond the black-and-white wording of the rules, Mazepin’s answers in the post-race press conference was a statement of intent: I’ve learned, I’ve changed my approach. If I’m still not right, I’ll change it again.

“I have kept my racing line, I hadn’t moved twice, I defended, I was the car in front, and I was entitled to do that as the rules say.

“The penalty is frustrating and it gets even more frustrating bearing in mind that last [time] in the Barcelona feature race, I had a five-second penalty, but on the other side of the coin where I had exactly the same thing done to me and I was forced off the track and I failed to rejoin safely. So I looked at that and learned that if the line is using all the track and you are the car in front then you are entitled to do so.

“I think it’s important to understand the stewards’ point of view here. I might actually go see them, because I think that the good relationships that we have had with the stewards so far allow you as a driver to question things if you don’t understand them.”

While it all came across as a driver very clearly aggrieved by the decision and who still fought he was in the right, Mazepin once again reiterated that he wanted to understand it and learn from it. Maybe that does mean being one-up on the stewards the next time he’s in a dicey battle that pushes the limit, but more likely means he’s going to do what he can to stay out of trouble because he now has a serious title challenge to focus on.

Mazepin’s run of penalties is unfortunate when you consider his title rivals have also been getting into scraps. Prema’s Schumacher and Robert Shwartzman collided at Silverstone without a penalty being issued, and Virtuosi’s Ilott was spun around by Tsunoda last time out in the Spa sprint race.

Oakes is simultaneously convinced that Mazepin has “shown championship potential”, saying “he was in a class of his own in Silverstone, then at Spa him and Yuki were in a race of their own”, but is also quick to downplay the probably of title success.

“Of course, he has made some mistakes in the past that are often pointed out before giving him any credit,” Oakes says. “In reality, we’ve all been young and made mistakes, but he has since learnt from them. I am more than proud of his ability in F2 as he has really shown he is capable of fighting at the front in a competitive championship.

“Without the unfortunate penalties in Barcelona and Spa he would be up there in the championship mix. So, where he was coming from in 2019 is a huge step forward and from this point onwards, I am certain he will keep developing.

“I think it is very early to assume or think that [we’re title contenders], we simply take it one weekend at a time. In F2 you can go from hero to zero very quickly, given the complexities of the series.

“At the moment there are roughly eight or so drivers who can fight for victories each weekend which makes it quite open in that respect. It really is dependent on who gets some momentum at the right moment and is consistent throughout. As a new team we are almost the outsiders and on the fringes of the battle. We will just have to see how the next races unfold.”

This weekend the races are at Monza, a circuit which Hitech’s other driver Luca Ghiotto is an expert at and may well be the team’s most competitive showing of the year. Mugello comes after that, before Mazepin’s home round in Sochi and the Bahrain double-header that closes the season two months later.

Even with the expansive data already available, it will difficult to predict the pecking order for those final four rounds, but Mazepin should be encouraged that his team-mate Ghiotto set was fastest of all in pre-season testing at Bahrain. Are there any other indicator that Mazepin has what it takes to continue his title challenge, and prove himself worthy of Formula 1?

His return to Hitech over winter in Asian F3 was fairly under the radar but he finished third in the points – a helpful haul towards his superlicence, and it was clearly an efficient warm-up for his sophomore F2 campaign. He also had the better of current title rival Ilott by some way when they were ART GP team-mates in GP3.

This year’s campaign is being engineered by the same man behind 2019’s surprise title contender, which may be the single most important factor in whether the Mazeepin title challenge continues. German engineer Jan Sumann was critical in turning around Campos Racing‘s form in F2 last year, which helped Jack Aitken to finish fifth in the points, and the magic he worked there seems to have followed him to his new employer.

Perhaps most interesting about Mazepin’s own ability in the car is his F1 test showings with Force India and Mercedes-Benz.

His first official F1 test came at Silverstone in 2016, when he was 17, and he was fifth fastest in Force India’s JVM09. Mazepin’s inexperience and relative lack of profile then, and when he debuted the VJM11 chassis in pre-season testing two years later, meant his decent performances were used to cite how driver-friendly Force India’s chassis design was.

But comments by drivers Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll since the team was taken over and became Racing Point suggest that the previous design philosophy – before this year’s ‘Pink Mercedes’ – was far from the car Mazepin’s quick adaptation suggested it to be. Especially so when the money ran dry in Force India’s final days and the car was underdeveloped.

On the flip side, the Mazepin family’s personal wealth undeniably was what earned him those F1 tests, rather than his abundant talent, and it was money that was also behind his private programme with Mercedes last year that included replacing Lewis Hamilton for the in-season Barcelona test.

He’s got the money to take him to F1, he’s arguably got a team that can take him to the 2020 F2 title, and Mazepin is now looking like a driver who can deliver the goods too.

Further reading
Crunching the numbers at Formula 2’s mid-season mark
How Hitech GP became the newest force in Formula 3

Photo: Formula Motorsport Limited