Russian driver’s ties to Putin shine light on Formula 1’s seedy underbelly

March 10, 2022, 4:57 PM UTC

The latest round of Western economic reprisals against Russia is shining a harsh light on Formula 1’s love of blood money.

On Wednesday, the European Union listed former F1 driver Nikita Mazepin as the 732nd legal individual, person, or business, to be sanctioned by the bloc.

The move served as punishment for his father’s ties to Vladimir Putin and the war of aggression his regime is waging against Ukraine.

This is the second straight career setback for the Russian national in just a week after Haas F1, the sole U.S. team in motorsport’s most elite circuit, terminated his contract on Saturday. 

Disappointed his proposal to race instead under a neutral flag had been “completely ignored” in the run-up to his employer’s decision, Mazepin told his fans on Wednesday—likely before he knew he was sanctioned—that he planned to launch a foundation to help other athletes targeted for political reasons. 

“We will be providing jobs, financial support, psychological and legal aid in case the athletes wish to debate their position,” he said in a video posted to his nearly 600,000 followers on Instagram.

To call Mazepin an athlete is, however, a bit of a stretch. In his debut season, the Russian finished with zero points and ranked at the very bottom among all F1 racers. Instead of innate talent, he brought another quality to the grid.

It is widely known that competition for a seat in a Formula 1 team is among the most brutal of any sport around owing to the very limited number of potential starting spots.

Just 21 men competed last season for the Drivers’ Championship. With the possible exception of a few rare prodigies like Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, drivers often need to bring a wealthy sponsor just to get their foot in the door.

Mazepin took that to an all-new level, however, buying his way onto the team with the help of his father, Dmitry, a billionaire oligarch and owner of a parent company that controls Uralkali.

The Russian producer of potash, a key raw material in fertilizers, had been title partner of the Uralkali Haas F1 team.

Now that he no longer employs the oligarch’s son, Ohioan racing stall founder Gene Haas severed ties to the sponsor as well that same Saturday. 

Dmitry Mazepin is now suing the termination of the contract, claiming most of the money had already been transferred in advance of the inaugural F1 race in Bahrain next week. 

“Haas has thus failed to perform its obligations to Uralkali for this year’s season,” the Russian company said on Wednesday, adding it would request reimbursement of the funds in order to finance Nikita Mazepin’s planned We Compete As One foundation.

Closest circle to Putin

The F1 pilot’s father has also been targeted for sanctions, after the European Union argued Dmitry Mazepin’s corporate interests provided a “substantial source of revenue“ to the Russian government.

It added he had transferred all his company’s assets in December from EU member state Cyprus back to Russia and was one of 36 businesspeople to meet with Putin in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.

“The fact that he was invited to attend this meeting shows that he is a member of the closest circle of Vladimir Putin and that he is supporting or implementing actions or policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine,” the EU said in its official journal.

The glamorous Formula 1 circuit serves as an antithesis to the more working-class and rural appeal of NASCAR in the United States.

Yet alongside the season’s traditional highlight, the annual race down the narrow streets of Monaco on the French Riviera, its racing calendar also includes competitions in shadier destinations. 

Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and China are just some of the countries often looking to deflect attention from human rights violations and gain legitimacy on the world stage by serving as patrons of the sport and hosts of F1 races.

Previously the schedule also included a stop in Russia scheduled for September. The day after the invasion F1 organizers froze its plans following pushback from champion drivers including Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel, and Fernando Alonso but left the door ajar should “current circumstances” change.

Six days later, as the fighting intensified and civilian deaths mounted, F1 terminated its contract with the Russian Grand Prix promoter altogether.

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