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  • Amelia


(17/10/2020, updated for accuracy 06/11/2020)

A promising junior driver, an F1 team short of cash, and an oligarch billionaire with a racing son. What could go wrong?

Throughout this year, Callum Ilott has been in contention for a Formula 1 seat, although at no point has he seemed close to confirming one. After confirmation of a 2021 contract for Hamilton, and the announcement of Alonso’s return to the newly named Alpine team, vacancies remain only at Red Bull, Alpha Tauri and Haas. Ilott has the benefit of being part of the Ferrari Driver Academy, which is significant as Ferrari has a large stake in deciding who drives for its customer teams (Alfa Romeo and Haas). This means he has the possibility of driving for one of those teams.

There are only 2 spare seats here, though. Raikkonen and Giovinazzi are confirmed to be staying, but Grosjean and Magnussen are confirmed to be leaving the team, partially because they have had lacklustre performances in 2020. A large part of this can be credited to Ferrari’s frankly shocking engine, but the teams may also blame their drivers. None have stood out. This might seem unfair given their cars, but consider that George Russell has made Q2 more than Alfa Romeo and Haas have as teams, in an arguably slower car. A great driver can ‘outperform’ their car, and that’s why these seats are available for 2021.

In September, Gunther Steiner (team principal at Haas) said they were considering “close to 10” drivers for 2021 seats. These are likely Grosjean and Magnussen, the incumbents; Nico Hülkenberg, the German who has driven 3 F1 races this year; Sergio Pérez, who predictably lost his seat to Sebastian Vettel last month; and the three FDA drivers, Shwartzman, Schumacher and Ilott (although Shwartzman is perhaps too inexperienced.)

Speaking to, Hülkenberg was informed of another of Marko’s comments: that he and Pérez are available and don't have any other options. Hülkenberg dismissed this, assuring “three F1 cockpits are still available” outside of Red Bull.

So another seat is taken, and yet another competitor enters the picture for the remaining three.

Nikita Mazepin.

So who is he? Well, he’s not slow, by any stretch of the imagination. With 5 podiums in Formula 2 this year, the ART driver sits comfortably in the standings in 6th place.

His first open-wheel championship was in MRF Challenge Formula 2000. He continued racing in several single-seater series, struggling for success until he reached GP3 in 2018. He was runner up to Anthoine Hubert. Moving to F2 the following year, he ended his rookie season in 19th, despite his teammate (Nyck De Vries) winning the series that year. He competed in Asian Formula 3 immediately after, securing an impressive 3rd place.

This seemed to set him up well for this year: he won the feature race at the first Silverstone, finished first at Spa (but was given a time penalty), won the feature race at Mugello, and finished 2nd in the abandoned Sochi spring race. That gives him 2 feature race wins - no one this year has more than that.

So how does he compare to Ilott? Well, on that metric, he’s equal. Ilott has 2 feature race wins too. Ilott leads by 29 points in the championship, partly thanks to his sprint race win in Monza, and they both have 3 other podiums. Overall, the drivers seem relatively equal. Ilott comes out slightly better in average finishing positions (7.1 to 7.7), especially if you don’t count retirements (5.6 to Mazepin’s mean 6.9). Ilott also dwarfs Mazepin in qualifying statistics, as he does with, well, everyone. This is important for a team like Haas, as George Russell has shown - a great qualifying lap that puts you into Q2 sets you up for a great race.

Comparisons between drivers are always fairly fruitless, though, and in this case, they don’t really matter. Steiner seemed to defend his consideration of the 21-year-old Russian, stating "It is a very good year for drivers in F2 and of course Mazepin is one of those drivers. So why wouldn't he be on the shortlist?" But the fact of the matter is that Ilott, due to a combination of performance and his status as an FDA driver, was the only driver near to confirmation for a Haas seat.

If you want to compare the two on one characteristic, compare them on maturity. (Spoiler, Ilott comes out on top by a mile). When choosing between two promising prospects for Formula 1, an important factor is whether they’re enough of an adult to handle it. Mazepin’s inferiority in this category can actually be proven by one run-in between him and Ilott 4 years ago, when they were both in European F3. Post-race reports describe Mazepin, furious that Ilott had blocked him in qualifying and then taking pole, storming over and punching Ilott in the face.

And then punching him again, after they were separated.

Even if you can excuse that as adrenaline-fuelled teenage stupidity, it’s hard to look past the incident at Spa just last month, where Mazepin was handed a 5 second time penalty after repeatedly pushing Tsunoda off track multiple times to retain the lead. Following the incident, he appeared to drive very aggressively into the 2nd place parc fermé board - well, yeeting - it at Tsunoda in the process. And if that’s accidental, threatening to tell the world an alleged secret regarding F1 driver George Russell can’t be. On an Instagram Live at the Eifel GP featuring the Williams driver, he commented he had a secret about him “that people might call a coming out”. Which, regardless of what it actually means, is frankly disgusting from Mazepin.

So why is Mazepin even part of the conversation? Unfortunately, as is always the case in F1, (and as I’m pretty bored of talking about), it’s money.

I’m not denying Mazepin’s ability. He can compete with Ilott in the same Dallara F2 2018, and on some days, he can beat him. But Mazepin’s appeal to Haas isn’t his performances, it’s his money. It’s no secret that F1’s only American team operates on a smaller budget, but it still operates the biggest legal budget under the 2022 Financial Regulations. If we assume all teams will aim to operate at maximum budget, Haas only needs a few million dollars investment to be equal to the top teams. Granted, Steiner told the press back in February that they would not increase their budget to match the $175 million cap, but that doesn’t factor in external investments.

At the end of the day, money makes F1 go around. But do Haas really need it? Sergio Pérez is likely to be the other driver signing for Haas after being kicked from Racing Point. He brings with him various Mexican telecommunications companies, all more than happy to invest. Haas isn't legally allowed to take more than a few million dollars until they hit the cap, which means that in theory, Callum Ilott doesn’t need to bring huge sponsors.

Cash makes sure that F1 teams can operate and race. There’s a reason it’s important. But a lack of it can be devastating: the infamous Esteban Ocon story proves that. Ilott made it clear on a livestream earlier this year that if he doesn’t make Formula 1 for 2021, he’s not staying in F2, due to the costs (sometimes up to 2 million pounds). If he’s not racing in Formula 2, he can look at other series, but it makes securing an F1 seat for 2022 even harder. Mazepin, on the other hand, has the financial security to race in the main support series for years to come.

It’s not the first time that money has led to one driver being prioritised over another - as I spoke about in this article a few months ago. But that doesn’t make it okay, and it doesn’t mean it should happen as blatantly as this, where a driver who has proven himself in every way he can loses a seat to someone he has outright beaten.

We have one Formula 2 driver going against another, in a fair specification series. He has outperformed him fair and square. And yet the other driver is awarded the seat.

What is the point of a spec feeder series if this continues to happen? The fact is that it makes Formula 2 redundant.

It’s frustrating to see such an obvious case of what can only be described as corruption. The world is changing around us so much, and yet Formula 1 remains more about investment than talent and entertainment. There are no rewards for working hard and beating others. In short, I’m disappointed.

What do you think? Let me know! Tweet me @formulaAMELIA, and leave a comment below⬇️

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