“Is Nikita Mazepin Good Enough for F1? Well, That’s Complicated…”

Few drivers have courted as much controversy on their promotion to Formula One as Nikita Mazepin.

The Haas racer debuted in F1 with a desperately poor personal reputation, but does this correlate with his on-track analysis? The answer is rather complicated.

Even beyond that, questions are raised, such as, “When is any driver good enough for Formula One and how does one truly make that assessment?”

It is important to maintain a distinction between those in Formula One who are ‘racing drivers’ {note 1} and those who are merely ‘drivers of an F1 car’.

Those who fall in the former category are obvious: Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Jim Clark for example (and a whole host of others).

The latter are a far more interesting bunch. These are the drivers who are reasonably capable of competently piloting a Formula One car and – maybe – on occasion will achieve respectable results. However, their level of talent is so unmemorable, so unremarkable, that their appearances in F1 would quickly become an almost impossible tiebreaker in a regional pub quiz.

The drivers are often the Diniz’s, the Modena’s, the Latifi’s, the Ericsson’s, the van der Garde’s, the Bernoldi’s of this world – all drivers in this bracket are solid competitors, but all are limited to some degree. They are perfect examples of the Peter Principle in its fullest effect, where they have also reached their level of incompetence, but they are not so incompetent that they are an embarrassment to themselves or their team, nor are they a danger to others.
Generally, they were decent enough to occasionally pick up podiums and maybe wins along the route to F1, but would do so without ever truly distinguishing themselves.

Underpinning the level of performance is the ability to spend, probably moreso today than in previous years given the sums involved. Several years ago, I asked the boss of one of Britain’s most successful junior team’s just how much a season in one of his Formula 3 cars would cost and he bluntly replied, “How fast do you want to go?”

Alas, some have more money than others; others have more money than everyone and those with the most disposable income often use it to easily dispose of the obstacles others fight hard against.
Whether the amount spent extends to influencing the personnel that work with drivers is another question entirely, but many teams will have first engineers, second engineers, third engineers (and so on) and these structures flow through various aspects of each company.

Anyone who tells you that a championship is even and fair because all the cars are the same is either a liar, a fool or a salesperson.

It’s often forgotten that the superlicence points system, introduced in 2015, was developed to stop future Max Verstappen’s jumping from karting to Formula One within the space of sixteen months.
Deliberately or not, it has had to effect of killing off championships that were seen as rivals to FIA sanctioned categories. It has also driven up the price of competing on the ladder, particularly with the best teams, as key seats in key championships become ever more valuable.
When one has the highest income, those best seats become swiftly available, sometimes with the option of shareholding if one sees opportunities to go from the lowest rung to Formula 2 with the same company. Of course, those with the deepest pockets can also make special efforts to buy teams outright or even create new ones, while recruiting the best staff in the process.

We may never truly know how much these practices skewer the outcome of races, championships and, ultimately, the application of superlicence points, but to ignore the effect how money is spent would ignore one of the greatest flaws in junior motorsport.

In recent years, many of these rejigged categories have been sold as cost effective compared to what went before, but I fear this is a case of the truth being overtaken by the sales pitch.
Some of the numbers quoted to me by drivers looking at Formula 2 and Formula 3 are frankly eye-watering, but these flaws could probably be fixed if anyone wanted to fix them. There just needs to be a desire.

Of course, all things connected to the superlicence points system is made irrelevant by the very fact that depth of talent within every championship changes constantly, as drivers either progress move to other forms of motorsport or leave racing altogether.
Far more important than the points awarded for winning a title is this question, “Who did you beat?”
Several years ago, I remember congratulating Jordan King upon winning the British F3 Championship. He simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “Who cares,” acknowledging that it was valuable seat time, but given the perceived low level of competition, the title did not amount to much. Sometimes the fight is tough, sometimes less so, but it always fluctuates, and this alone should render the superlicence points system as pointless.

There are those who will argue that the superlicence points system does much to stop under-qualified drivers from getting to Formula One, but I am not convinced that this enters into the conversation today.
For one, the kind of desperate day-to-day debt that eventually killed off the likes of Forti, Arrows, Pacific, HRT is not currently present in F1. There is debt in F1 and plenty of it, but the days where bringing in a stop gap driver with £500,000 for three Grand Prix in order to keep the lights on are long gone.

Realistically, when a team was doing those kinds of deals with drivers, permanent closure was not far away. For now, we will not be seeing Deletraz’s, Yamamoto’s, Lavaggi’s, et al in Formula One.

When teams in Formula One talk of debt nowadays, the numbers are often in the multi-millions and no amount of short-term cash flow is going to fix that. Indeed, £500,000 in 2021 wouldn’t even get you a t-short and headphones at the back of the garage.
The teams in F1 that are currently struggling are in straits so dire that they need far more than a weekend warrior with an inflated wallet; they need significant investment, and this is where the likes of Mazepin come into play.

An argument was put to me recently that it makes no sense for teams in financial strife to bring in heavily under-qualified drivers in exchange for cash, for the lack of performance they would deliver could actually do harm the potential for significant investment or may even reduce the asking price for a team wishing to sell in totality.

Returning the original question, “Would Mazepin be in F1 with or without the superlicence points system?” The answer is probably ‘yes’. Haas need the money; Mazepin wanted a drive; all that’s left is to print the receipt.
Mazepin is relatively competent driver, but the chance of seeing him ascend the order are incredibly slim. He has spent much of his career showing wildly erratic form; he has won some races, taken some podiums and also has crashed out. He has displayed some very poor judgement on-and-off track too.

So, “When is any driver good enough for Formula One and how does one truly make that assessment?” A lot of this comes down to the relationship between the driver and engineers, for often they are the ones who will truly be able to offer a close assessment. They can tell you where their driver’s strengths are, but also – more importantly – where their weaknesses are, and what their plan for improvement is.

Looking at results on a Wikipedia page will tell you absolutely nothing about a driver and will tell you even less about the quality of a championship.

Mazepin could eventually become a solid-to-middling runner, or he could spin his way into infinity, as he did for much of his opening Grand Prix weekend.

Only now will we see if he has the ability to learn and develop, although his personality traits suggest that expansion of thought may be beyond him.

{note 1}
By ‘racing drivers’, I am using the distinction that these are drivers who have reached an exceptional level of quality and it is not a reference as to their perception as a ‘racer’ or otherwise.

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