Issues of sexism and gender inequality matter. They matter in society, and they matter in F1. Particularly when a driver, one of only 20 in total, demonstrates behaviour which the championship cannot warrant in any form.
F1 is a sport that has been trying to improve its image through displays of gender equality. Three years ago, F1 declared a belated end to the use of grid girls. Two months ago, F1 announced that the all-female W Series will run support races at eight grands prix this season.
Yet, one male driver later, and F1’s lack of commentary when faced with a serious issue of sexism suggests the sport still has a long way to go. What’s more, it makes me question how willing F1 is to practice what they only recently started to preach.
Two months ago, F1 newcomer Nikita Mazepin had a video on his Instagram which showed him groping the breasts of a woman while they were passengers in a car. The video was quickly removed, and, in the weeks since, the responses from himself, his team, Haas, and F1 have been predictably underwhelming.
Fans refuse to let Mazepin off the hook
The morning after the incident, Haas released a statement criticising the rookie’s behaviour and the “abhorrent” upload to social media.
In the weeks that followed, a second statement from Haas appeared. Just 15 words broke a silence that was already speaking volumes: “This matter has now been dealt with internally and no further comment shall be made.”
Haas’ twitter was silent about Mazepin until a month later. On 23rd January, the team tweeted about the Russian’s first F2 race win at Silverstone last season. This tweet has been inundated with negative feedback from followers who refuse to let Mazepin off the hook.
— Haas F1 Team (@HaasF1Team) January 23, 2021
Comments usually number in the tens and hundreds on Haas’ posts, but at present this post about Mazepin has over 2,800, which gives an idea of the scale of the reaction from fans. The lack of reaction from Haas and F1 has resulted in a silence that is being filled by condemnation from fans of the sport.
The team tweeted about Mazepin again on 2nd February, this time about the 21-year-old’s second F2 victory at Mugello. They faced similar repercussions in the comments section, with the hashtag ‘WeSayNoToMazepin’ continuing to resonate with many motorsport fans.
New circuit? No problem for Nikita! 🇷🇺
— Haas F1 Team (@HaasF1Team) February 2, 2021
More questions than answers
Mazepin has scrubbed his Twitter of all posts, and this includes his apology which disappeared after just nine days. The young driver has not held himself accountable, and there is little evidence that his team has either.
Haas Team Principal Guenther Steiner added more context to the narrative with his column in The Race in early January. He said: “There will be consequences if this or something similar happens again.
“We have put things in place that will help him to get better and make sure this doesn’t happen again; not to make the same mistake again, because this was a clear mistake.”
This piece from Steiner raised more questions than answers. If Mazepin’s misconduct means consequences the next time he misbehaves, why not this time? What procedures has Haas put in place to help him? And why do the FIA and F1 refuse to take further action?
The two governing bodies issued a combined statement in support of Haas’ handling of the issue, but have not provided further comment since. Their attempt to keep the issue at arm’s-length will only create greater issues.
Money trumps morals
A petition set up on Change.org, calling for Mazepin’s super licence to be revoked, has already amassed 46,000 signatures. The uproar for Mazepin to lose his seat is understandable. However, its impact will be limited in an environment where money trumps morals.
Mazepin, and the money he brings, represents salvation for a struggling Haas F1 team. But the increasing influence of drivers with extreme wealth must be questioned. Mazepin joins Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi to become the third driver on the grid with a billionaire father.
The fact that three drivers from such backgrounds have appeared in quick succession is to me no coincidence. F1 has become too reliant on the money from drivers’ families to keep teams afloat. This reliance is a key obstacle blocking F1 and Haas from taking significant action against Mazepin.
The negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic may help to explain why Haas has resorted to taking on Mazepin. Having said that, the arrivals of Stroll and Latifi to F1 both preceded the arrival of Covid-19.
More needs to be done to ensure that F1 teams can be self-sustainable and rely on their drivers for Championship points instead of for money too.
Hope on the horizon
There is hope on the horizon with the imminent cost-cap era. Starting this season, F1 is taking considerable action to cultivate ten financially stable teams, supported by new commercial terms set out in the Concorde Agreement in August 2020.
Mercedes is leading the way, as is usually the case in F1 these days, in the race for financial stability. Daimler has given up almost half of its stake in Mercedes’ F1 team to form a three-part ownership with CEO Toto Wolff and INEOS.
Wolff reacted positively to the planned spending regulations in F1 and said: “We are capped with a financial limit, that means chassis teams will turn into profitability. And that’s why it becomes interesting. The US sports have already led this transformation 10 years ago and are valuable franchises today.”
Corresponding F1 franchises need to start developing soon or we could potentially see replicas of Mazepin and his father entering the sport.
What about F1 and propriety?
We live in a world where sport, business and politics can no longer be separated, and F1 is no exception. Of course, we would prefer that F1 and politics did not mix, but what about F1 and propriety?
It is clear that Haas and F1 want this matter swept under the rug as a one-off, minor incident, but the reality is that it is neither of those things. Mazepin has not just committed sexual misconduct. The Russian enters F1 after coming close to a race ban’s worth of penalty points in his inaugural 2020 F2 season, and after a suspension earlier in his career for an altercation with another driver.
Last year saw F1 launch the ‘We Race As One’ initiative, aimed at “tackling the biggest issues facing the sport and global communities” and the “condemnation of racism and inequality”. Yet, when faced with a clear offence, F1 has failed to act against a driver with a history of misconduct that contradicts the values promoted by #WeRaceAsOne.
Ignoring the Mazepin incident casts doubt on whether F1 takes this issue seriously. What’s more, ignoring this issue won’t make it go away. F1 need to do more to address societal issues than sharing a topical hashtag.
Will the grass be greener on the other side?
The problem is not so much that no considerable action has been taken against Mazepin. It is a complex situation with the future of the Haas team hanging in the balance. The issue lies in the lack of accountability and transparency from Mazepin, Haas and F1. The lack of public commentary encourages an image of powerful men coming together to conceal and protect their own.
An extensive investigation would have demonstrated that F1 is taking this issue seriously, and eliminated the grey areas of this case. The woman groped in the video initially labelled Mazepin’s actions as a joke between two friends. However, the two have since unfollowed each other which has caused speculation over the veracity of her initial statement.
F1 has been heading in a positive direction over the last few years, with more positive steps promised. But the lack of response to the Mazepin case represents a step backwards and reveals a disconnect between F1’s words and its actions.
There seems to be a lack of desire from F1 for internally driven change. This highlights why figures like Lewis Hamilton are crucial in terms of changing the culture from within. Hamilton played a large role last year in F1 pushing for greater diversity, and he continues to advocate for diversity and equality.
The Black Lives Matter movement, the attention drawn to human rights by the 2021 Saudi Arabian grand prix, and now this incident with Mazepin, all provide opportunities for F1 to engage in wider societal issues and engage in positive change.
F1 fans are not privy to what is going on behind closed doors. We can only react to what we are shown, and many do not like what we have seen since F1 was put under the microscope.
F1, or at least parts of it, still demonstrates a culture of privilege and power, despite claims that it is better and more accountable than in the past. The future must reflect substantial efforts to challenge this image.