Nikita Mazepin may be Russian but he is the perfect American anti-hero
The classic American sports villain knows many forms. Bill Laimbeer was the Detroit Pistons’ elbow-throwing rabble-rouser. Bill Romanowski was the Denver Broncos’ late-hitting loogie spitter. Mike Tyson bit off a guy’s ear. And now there’s Nikita Mazepin, the Formula One racing driver who’s fast tracking as an all-time foil too.
Doubtless, Mazepin’s inclusion in this rogue’s gallery will strike some as harsh given that this is the 22-year-old Muscovite’s maiden season driving for Haas, the tanking backmarker representing the United States. But for those of us fans who have watched him over the past five grands prix, his early work reads like hacky Russian literature – slow and meandering. Last weekend at Monaco marked the first time he outqualified teammate Mick Schumacher – but much of that was down to Michael’s boy ringing up about a half-million dollars’ worth of damage sliding his car into a Casino Square exit barrier.
During the race itself Mazepin proved the lesser enemy to the circuit’s boundaries in Monaco, where the prospect of witnessing an overtake on the principality’s narrow streets becomes ever more fantastical as modern Formula One cars grow longer and wider; his biggest crime last Sunday was running wide of track boundaries, a point of contention that most of the drivers have been reckoning with all season. Prior to that, though, the driver – who’d earn the nickname “Mazespin” for a string of unforced wipeouts – was on quite the downward spiral.
Earlier this month at the Portuguese Grand Prix, Mazepin earned his first points penalty for five blue flags – the international sign for make way for the much faster driver behind you. One of those drivers was Sergio Pérez, who was in a desperate fight to keep the lead for his Red Bull team when he ran up against the aggressively obstinate Russian – forcing the Mexican to abandon the pass and lock his brakes to avoid a collision. After an immediate investigation, race stewards slapped Mazepin with a five-second ticket, even though he was already a minute behind the field at the time of his transgression. Pérez’s assessment of Mazepin over his team radio, however, was much blunter: “Fucking idiot.”
Last month at Imola, Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi called Mazepin a “jackass” and “honestly, so stupid” after the Haas rookie interfered with the Italian’s final qualifying run. (Mazepin’s response: “The track is just not big enough for all of us.”) A week later in Catalunya, Mazepin ruined Lando Norris’s qualifying session, dooming the McLaren driver to a ninth-place start.
Naturally, Mazepin picked up another points penalty and was docked a grid spot for this blue-flag foul. But since he qualified dead last for the race and his team remains scoreless on the season, it’s fair to not only wonder if the punishment fits the crime but if it also emboldens the criminal. Mercedes principal Toto Wolff seemed to wrestle with exactly this paradox during the Spanish Grand Prix. Late in the race, Lewis Hamilton, in the lead, was bearing down on Mazepin, who was bringing up the rear with his elbows out yet again. “Blue flags!” Wolff barked to race director Michael Masi over the radio. “This guy makes us lose the position!”
In a championship where words are terse and delivered in coded sequences, this was an astonishing disclosure that, to the well-trained ear of ex-driver Jolyon Palmer, nonetheless sounded like more fodder for Mazepin’s antagonist arc. But Mazepin isn’t just a bad boy. He’s a pay driver. His father, Dmitry, a billionaire chemicals and fertilizer monopolist who’s cozy with Vladimir Putin, tried to buy Force India after the team was put into administration in 2018. But after Canadian motors magnate Lawrence Stroll beat him on that deal, Dmitry reportedly bought his boy a seat with Haas late last year. Earlier this month the two scions nearly came together during qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix, with Stroll flipping Mazepin the bird in an irony too rich even for this sport.
After all, Stroll himself was written off as a rolling traffic cone before rounding into a more than competent midfielder – proof that money can at least nurture racing talent, if not buy it outright. But the elder Mazepin may well be writing checks that can’t be cashed by his boy, who surely would be out of a seat if his last name were Hamilton or even Raikkonen. (Worse, this even more damning video of him quibbling with engineering instructions in the middle of the Monaco GP makes it look as if Mazepin lacks the most basic open-wheel driver knack for high-speed multitasking.) And yet: Mazepin jumped to F1 despite a checkered junior career that includes a ban for throwing a punch that left a rival with a black eye and a swollen jaw.
That Haas would take risks was in some ways inevitable given owner Gene Haas’s dubious past and his cash-strapped F1 team’s dalliance with fizzy drinks sponsor Rich Energy. It was hardly a surprise when, four months after Nikita’s signing was announced, Dmitry’s potash fertilizer conglomerate Uralkali followed as a title sponsor and redressed the Haas livery in the colors of the Russian flag – which Nikita notably cannot race under because of the recent rulings against the country’s systemic doping practices. (Wada is said to be investigating the Haas color scheme.) Ever since, Haas has had to defend itself against rumors of a total Mazepin takeover.
So it figured that when an Instagram story surfaced of Mazepin groping a woman’s breast after the Haas signing, that the driver didn’t suffer much beyond having to deliver a public apology (the woman later said they are friends and it had been a joke, although she later unfollowed him on Instagram after posting a MeToo hashtag). In fact, to watch him do his part in F1’s We Race As One PSA for inclusion and justice is to witness a deeply entitled white man who could not give less of a damn. He all but confirmed as much earlier this month.
After making a point of not joining his fellow drivers, who were showing solidarity with the global fight for social justice by kneeling before races, Mazepin buckled for the Spanish Prix – but to commemorate the Soviets who fell during world war two on the 76th anniversary of the Nazis’ surrender. “My grandparents took part in the war,” Mazepin told Russia’s Match TV. “Yesterday, I saw the statistic saying that it is a holiday that is even more important to Russians than New Year.” Honoring his country’s suffering in the past is commendable of course, but not bothering to acknowledge other suffering is the worst kind of All Lives Matter trolling.
That aside: maybe Palmer is on to something. Maybe it’s a bit wrong to single out Mazepin as Public Enemy No 1 in a sport that owes its global motorsports dominion as much to roguish executives like former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone as to dubious world leaders like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman. Besides, in an America where a reality TV star who brags about grabbing women can be president, where there are “very fine people on both sides,” where citizens think nothing of their local fuel provider paying a bitcoin ransom if it means no more hoarding gas into garbage bags, who could call Mazepin a villain, really? The more he fails upward and coasts on entitlement, the harder it is not to appreciate him for what he truly is: the perfectly timed all-American hero that we so richly deserve.