Nikita Mazepin has achieved the results he needed to secure his place on the Formula 1 grid in 2021. But the increasing influence of drivers with extreme wealth can and must still be questioned.
Nikita Mazepin’s place on the Formula 1 grid is under significantly more scrutiny now than it was when the idea behind this piece was first formed prior to the announcement that he would be stepping up from Formula 2 this year. The incident that later triggered widespread condemnation – a video of Mazepin groping a woman that was uploaded to his Instagram account – was, as his new team Haas stated, “abhorrent” and questions remain about how it has been dealt with since.
But there were questions that had already been raised by his appointment to a race seat in the first place, and his inappropriate behaviour since then has certainly done nothing to weaken those concerns. If anything, the furore over the incident and the lack of visible action in its aftermath only serves to highlight the problems that can come from drivers using excessive wealth to buy a place on the F1 grid.
Mazepin did well in Formula 2 last season, as he also did in GP3 two years prior. But that doesn’t mean there are not question marks about his ability. As clearly proven by his victories in those championships, he is not a driver without skill. But the inescapable fact is this: he is an F1 driver because his father is a billionaire. And that is a problem – one that is greater than many had originally seemed willing to admit.
Some regularly leap to the defence of pay drivers, often citing the case of Niki Lauda – as Haas team principal Guenther Steiner did to defend Mazepin’s signing – or stating that they’ve always been a part of F1. But such arguments are simply false, because the figures at play now are completely different – and not just because of inflation.
It’s another level of money entirely. It’s money that means these drivers can afford to occupy seats for as long as they want; until they get too old or too bored. And they (or their fathers) can completely control the second seat in a team as well – potentially in a way that blocks opportunities for more talented drivers who might show them up.
Let’s be clear that, putting recent events to one side, the problem is not about Mazepin in particular. He joins Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi as the son of a billionaire on the F1 grid in 2021 – and for potentially many years to come. In other words, three out of 20 in what is supposed to be the world’s most elite group of racing drivers will have come from such extreme wealth. What are the odds of that?
When Stroll was the first of the trio to arrive in F1, it could have been considered simply a coincidence that a billionaire happened to produce a decent racing driver. But that three drivers from such backgrounds have made it in quick succession cannot possibly be a coincidence. It is fair to conclude that money has given these drivers a considerable advantage, and not enough is currently being done to counter that.
Those advantages are not limited to just being able to buy an F1 seat. Less obvious, but perhaps more problematic, are the numerous benefits of almost limitless resources while climbing the junior single-seater ladder. It’s easy to look at the records of drivers like Mazepin, Stroll and Latifi and say they’ve won races or even championships, but it’s important to also consider how they have managed to achieve those things.
It’s fairly well understood among followers of the junior formulae that strong backing provides access to the best teams with the best personnel and the best engineering. But this isn’t necessarily limited only to billionaires, and the same arguably goes for support structures – for example having good managers, coaches and trainers.
Instead, perhaps the single biggest benefit from such enormous resource is track time. Testing restrictions that are designed to cut costs also give the wealthiest an obvious way to use their money to get an edge on the competition. When practice time within championships is limited and testing is prohibited outside of a handful of official sessions, only the most generously-backed drivers can afford to get on track, usually in older but relevant cars. Circuits have to be hired, cars sourced and maintained, and engineers and mechanics employed to run them.
When Stroll was competing in European Formula 3, the Prema squad owned by his father Lawrence used International Formula Master cars to give its drivers experience on tracks before they raced on them. As a result, a ban was put in place that even prevented drivers from racing in other series on circuits that were upcoming on the calendar.
But in FIA F2 and F3, where practice is limited to just 45 minutes each weekend and testing restricted to only a few days, a select few drivers with the necessary means are able to go into a season with significantly more track time under their belts than their rivals through private tests in older GP2 and GP3 cars that closely resemble the ones they will race.
Then there’s private F1 testing: Something that teams are rarely willing to carry out purely at their own expense, however highly they might rate a driver on their books. While such programmes, as Stroll carried out with Williams and Latifi did with several different teams, are primarily about preparing for eventual F1 debuts, there is a handy side benefit for drivers’ racing campaigns, too. While most of the F2 field had a two-month break from racecars before the final two rounds of the season in Bahrain, it’s understood that Mazepin was in the Middle East continuing his private Mercedes test programme, helping him to stay sharp before a positive first weekend back in F2 in which he climbed up to third in the championship.
Last season in F2, strong resources were particularly beneficial due to the introduction of the 18-inch wheels and tyres. With limited pre-season testing possible, it was something of a voyage of discovery for all the teams and drivers to try and understand how to get the most from the new tyres. While drivers undoubtedly play their part in developing that understanding, a good engineer is absolutely key. And the best engineers are expensive, and are naturally attracted to the teams (and, by extension, drivers) with the greatest resources.
For a good example of this, you only need to look at the contrasting fortunes of Mazepin and Jack Aitken last season. After earning credit for his work with Aitken and Campos in 2019, which yielded three race wins and fifth in the standings, engineer Jan Sumann was recruited by new entrant Hitech to work with Mazepin – who was reuniting with the team co-owned by his father Dmitry after a lacklustre rookie campaign with ART Grand Prix, in which he finished 18th in the championship.
Without the ability to attract a replacement from another team on the eve of the planned season start, Aitken and Campos had a difficult second year together as they struggled to find a setup that worked for the new package. Mazepin meanwhile made a huge step forward, especially with strong race pace and tyre management in a season where that seemed more important than ever. It would be unfair to put Mazepin’s improvement solely down to the recruitment of an engineer, but it can only have helped.
It helped him to meet the superlicence points requirement that had previously been the only real barrier to him buying his way into F1. Although the much-maligned system was introduced in the wake of Max Verstappen’s rise, its one key benefit was that it made wealthy drivers work for their seats and ensured they couldn’t simply buy them. In the past, they just had to convince the FIA that they were ‘competent’, but now they had to win races.
This means that money alone is no longer enough, as the likes of Sean Gelael have demonstrated, but it has still been made too easy for rich drivers. In particular, by allowing drivers to score points from two different championships in a year – something that almost always requires a good budget. This move helped the otherwise-struggling FIA-supported Asian F3 championship, which can now position itself as an ‘easy’ place to claim extra superlicence points during the European off-season.
In Mazepin’s case, it enabled him to step down from F2 last winter and score 12 of the target 40 points by coming third while a far-less experienced and lesser-funded driver in Joey Alders won the championship. As it was, fifth in F2 last season paired with second in GP3 in 2018 proved to be enough to reach 40 points anyway, but the generous 12-point bonus helped to make an F1 seat look more viable last year than it would otherwise have been. At least three well-funded F2 drivers are set to deploy a similar strategy in the upcoming 2021 Asian F3 campaign.
As was demonstrated several occasions within a week of Mazepin’s Haas drive being announced, drivers with such backgrounds also don’t have the same pressure to hold themselves to the highest possible standards. Mazepin seemingly admitted as much when he said “I don’t have time to think about reputation” when racing – in reference to his dangerous defensive tactics in the season-ending F2 round that earned him penalties from the stewards and criticism from those watching. Most drivers simply cannot afford to display that sort of attitude. It might lead them to be described as ‘corporate robots’, but doing anything that could upset a potential backer is simply not an option for them.
Then followed the groping incident a few days later. Privilege was at play here too, for a driver in the public eye to think they could behave like that, post about it online and get away with it. The clamour for Mazepin to lose his seat was understandable but unrealistic, because F1 has become reliant on people like his father in order to keep teams afloat. Such drivers are effectively more like customers or investors than they are employees, and cannot be held to account in the normal way like any other sportsperson would be.
Clearly, not all offspring of billionaires push the boundaries of acceptability in the same way and shouldn’t be tarnished with that particular brush. Stroll is relatively squeaky-clean in this regard – although he has been a little stand-offish or arrogant with the media in the past – while Latifi comes across as a particularly pleasant and grounded individual to be around. But it’s a fact that such wealth does create liberties for those who want to abuse them.
None of this is to say that drivers from wealthy backgrounds should be made totally unwelcome. Take the case of Lando Norris, who receives none of the same criticism. That’s nothing to do with his nationality or his social media persona. Firstly, his father’s estimated wealth is only around 10 per cent of the aforementioned drivers, or less – not enough to seriously bankroll an F1 team even if he wanted to.
Still, Norris benefitted from many of the same advantages while climbing the ladder, including private testing all the way up to F1. But he also won championships nearly every year, and his worst season was finishing second in F2 as a rookie, which left few questions about his ability when he stepped into F1. Compare that to Mazepin, who has had off-years despite the resources at his disposal – seasons that would have killed off the careers of some lesser-funded drivers.
Most important though is that Norris has not paid a penny for his F1 drive. It is a credit to him and the management around him that he is in-demand because of his ability and not because of any money he can bring. A driver coming from a well-off background doesn’t have to offend. It’s all about whether they earned the opportunity on merit.
Yes, marketing guru-turned-McLaren boss Zak Brown clearly saw potential in Norris from a PR perspective and the fact that investment in his junior racing wasn’t needed helped make him particularly attractive. But that’s not the same as being signed because you are directly bringing money from your parents.
On that note, it would be remiss not to mention Guanyu Zhou too. After all, this writer considered him to be “F1 material” early in the F2 season, only for him to finish one place behind Mazepin in the final standings. He had many of the same benefits too, like private testing and a strong team built around him.
Zhou does differ in certain ways, though. While he does come from a wealthy family, which helps to fund his racing, he is courted by F1 not because of that but because of his nationality and the fact he is China’s strongest and most realistic prospect at present. His role with Renault brings benefits but also certain responsibilities and pressures. Indeed, Renault was not afraid to say it was disappointed with Zhou’s season, and he’ll need to improve if he’s to truly earn a place in F1 and be appreciated for his driving talents.
F1 has been far too cosy towards billionaire drivers. That’s not just from the likes of Steiner who are trying to keep their teams in business, but also from the very front of the grid. Toto Wolff’s attitude is particularly disappointing. It is his Mercedes team continuing to spend incredible amounts of money while already in a dominant position that puts other teams into difficulty trying to keep up.
To his credit, Wolff as Mercedes boss has stepped in to help talented young drivers such as Esteban Ocon or George Russell with funding. But he is also very defensive of wealthy drivers, which seems somewhat counterproductive: More effort is needed to keep Russell in a drive at Williams when others are offering greater money for his seat. Ocon was forced out of F1 for a year by Stroll’s arrival at what was Force India.
Wolff’s relationship with the Strolls is especially cosy and includes a personal stake in Aston Martin, and that helps to secure and validate Lance’s position within F1. He has also used Mercedes to help facilitate Mazepin’s rise by providing a personal testing programme. OK, it is true that welcoming such wealthy testers can help to finance junior programmes: Russell’s debut F1 test with Mercedes came alongside Latifi, while Christian Lundgaard has driven alongside Zhou for much of his private Renault programme. But there has been little evidence of that with Mazepin, even though both Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne may have gained some limited mileage while serving as his coach.
Last year, Wolff defended Stroll, Latifi and Mazepin to the media, complaining about the “stigma” around them and arguing their merits. Such bizarre comments normalise their presence in F1 and pretend there’s not an issue. He said the situation had been worse “five or six years ago”, which is debatable considering the amounts of money involved. Most other ‘pay drivers’ have come and gone within just a few years.
If F1 is an elite sport – and for the likes of Lewis Hamilton to rightly be considered among the greatest athletes of the moment – then it should not be possible to buy a place on a team with family money. In no other sport is that the case – there is a big distinction between that and sponsorship or investment that is ‘earned’, even if it’s on the basis of nationality.
It’s also important for inspiring the next generation of drivers with realistic role models, rather than enforcing the image of F1 and motorsport in general as a rich kid’s playground – a perception Hamilton had been helping to change. Practical change at grassroots level is most important in that regard, but image matters a lot too.
Yes, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on F1’s income may help to explain why Haas has resorted to taking on Mazepin – but the arrivals of Stroll and Latifi onto the grid preceded this particular crisis. For too long, since manufacturer involvement decreased and true sponsorship all but disappeared, F1 has been too reliant on wealthy individuals to fund teams as a play thing. Once the likes of Vijay Mallya or Gene Haas exhausted their ability or will to keep spending, the likes of Lawrence Stroll and Dmitry Mazepin have stepped in with undesirable consequences.
More needs to be done to ensure that F1 teams can be self-sustainable and take drivers on merit alone. If the planned cost-cutting and revenue distribution measures – which are coming arguably 10 years too late – don’t work to achieve this, they should go harder.
Perhaps more importantly, junior single-seater racing could be made a more level playing field, through tackling the areas that give wealthy drivers an advantage over their competitors and allows them to get near F1. Or, go more radical and take money almost entirely out of the equation.