It is no secret that Haas is currently in a dire situation. With more controversy surrounding them than ever coupled with a lack of sponsors, change is inevitably coming for the American team. To understand where they are going, we need to track how they got here.
Haas came into Formula One in 2016 with Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutiérrez driving for the North Carolina-based outfit, led by former Red Bull technical director Guenther Steiner. Since their establishment in the sport, they have had a deep relationship with fellow team Ferrari, who supplies their engine as well as technical and financial support. Since that first year, Haas has gotten mixed results with constructors results ranging from a high of 5th in 2018 to 9th in the most recent 2020 season.
Haas’ time in Formula One has not come without its fair share of controversy. After their partnership with Ferrari was announced in 2016, other small teams, like Force India (now Aston Martin), criticized them for allowing themselves to act as a B team by Ferrari. While their partnership with Ferrari was hotly debated, other problems were ahead. Their failed partnership with Rich Energy was the beginning of the end for the American team.
In 2019, Haas signed a new title sponsor for the season in British energy drink company Rich Energy. The partnership was complicated from the start as Rich Energy was involved in a lawsuit over its logo that revealed CEO William Story’s unreliability.
Before the British Grand Prix, the Rich Energy Twitter account claimed that they had ended their relationship with the Haas F1 team. However, it appeared Haas themselves were not made aware of this decision. After Silverstone, Haas continued to run the Rich Energy livery but seemed to have cut ties with the company and reverted to the original Haas colors for the 2020 season.
In 2020 Haas decided to part ways with drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen. They signed Formula 2 champion Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin for the 2021 season. Their decision to sign Schumacher was met with praise by many fans; however, the addition of Nikita Mazepin tainted the reputation of the American team among many fans. It was rumored earlier in the season that the Formula 2 Vice-Champion and Ferrari Academy driver Callum Ilott would be taking that seat; however, the week of the Sakhir GP, they announced that Mazepin, who finished 5th in the 2020 Formula 2 season, would drive for the team.
This announcement came with a wave of backlash. Mazepin had a reputation through his junior career of being an extremely aggressive driver with a long list of incidents where he made dangerous moves that jeopardized himself and other drivers’ safety. His off-track actions were equally criticized as he had built a reputation of lousy sportsmanship with incidents like punching Callum Ilott after an F3 race in 2016 or knocking his P2 card in Yuki Tsunoda after the Japanese driver took victory over him at the 2020 F2 Feature Race in Belgium. There have also been various insensitive social media posts and comments from the Russian driver, including an Instagram story where he appeared to grope a woman without her consent that he posted only a few days after the Haas announcement was made.
The only quote to come out of Haas about the incident was from team principal Guenther Steiner who said, “He’s apologized, and he knows it was wrong, and now we need to work on it to give him the best opportunity to learn from this, concentrate on his racing and ensure he doesn’t do it anymore.” Many fans felt that this statement wasn’t enough.
After he began to receive criticism for those actions, he posted an apology that has since been deleted, and Haas stated that they would “deal with the issue internally.” Female F1 fans and allies have been very vocal about their disappointment in the FIA, Formula 1, and Haas for how they dealt with the situation. They felt that the FIA and Haas were trying to bury the problem rather than hold Mazepin accountable for his actions which hit close to home for many female fans who have experienced sexual assault.
Since the initial statement, the only quote to come out of Haas about the incident was from team principal Guenther Steiner who said, “He’s apologized, and he knows it was wrong, and now we need to work on it to give him the best opportunity to learn from this, concentrate on his racing and ensure he doesn’t do it anymore.” Many fans felt that this statement wasn’t enough and that Mazepin deserved punishment from the FIA for his actions. Some have pointed out how this incident highlights the power that money has in Formula 1.
It is common knowledge that F1 is a sport that runs on money. A junior career can cost over $1 million, and sponsorship is essential for smaller teams like Haas to run. Nikita’s father, Dmitry Mazepin, is a prominent Russian oligarch who owns Uralchem and Uralkali, the second of which is the new title sponsor of Haas for the 2021 season. Mazepin Sr. is no stranger to controversy himself. Back in 2018, he made attempts to purchase Force India but lost out to Lawrence Stroll. Mazepin subsequently filed a lawsuit against the administrators overseeing the team sale, claiming that they weren’t protecting the shareholders’ interests because they accepted a lower bid. In December of 2020, all of Mazepin and Uralkali’s claims were dismissed by the court. In October of 2020, it was rumored that Mazepin wanted to buy Gene Haas out of the team, guaranteeing a sponsorship deal for his company and a seat for his son Nikita. It is important to note that Gene has also had a history in court, as in 2006, he was arrested and charged with criminal tax evasion, which led to him spending 16 months in prison and paying a restitution fine of $75 million.
While Haas is still the team’s name, their appearance has changed drastically going into the 2021 season. Gone are the standard black, white and red that have been essential to the Haas brand over the years. Replacing them are white, blue, and red- colors representing neither the sponsors nor Haas, but rather the colors of the Russian flag, where Mazepin is from. In early 2021, the World Anti-Doping Agency ruled that Russian athletes in World Championship level motorsports would not be allowed to race under the Russian flag according to the ban outlined in 2020 for the recent doping scandal. This ban prohibits Mazepin from using national symbols, emblems, or flags on clothing and equipment. The WADA has revealed that it is looking into the Haas livery, as elements on the car bear a striking resemblance to the Russian flag.
Amidst all this controversy, Gene Haas and the brand itself have a decision to make. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and many sponsors pulling out after they signed Mazepin, the brand is struggling financially, and they only have a few options to remedy this. One option that many fans have called for is dropping Mazepin and replacing him with Pietro Fittipaldi. He could bring in Brazilian sponsors as well as excitement for a Schumacher/Fittipaldi line-up. Another option would be signing Ferrari Academy driver Callum Ilott, becoming a true Ferrari B team. Ferrari has already given them access to personnel based at Maranello. By taking this partnership one step further, they could save the brand and secure some stability similar to the new collaboration between Williams and Mercedes. The final option seems to be the most likely, but also the most disliked.
With Uralkali already being a title sponsor and the primary source of funding for the team outside of Gene Haas, there is a great possibility that Mazepin Sr. will buy Haas out of the team and take over leadership. Many fans are hesitant about this move; they see it as Haas signing a death wish. If Mazepin Sr. buys the team, his priority will always be keeping a seat for Mazepin Jr., who has yet to prove he is a competent driver worthy of a seat in Formula 1. With the controversy surrounding both Mazepin men and the constant legal battles Mazepin Sr. is in, a possible Uralkali F1 team might be considered a stain on the reputation of F1.
While Haas hasn’t necessarily been a front-running team over the years, they have always kept their reputation as the “scrappy American team who could,” and it would be a shame for them to give up now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kristina developed her love of motorsport through years watching Top Gear with her dad every night. She specializes in Formula One and it’s feeder series F2, F3, and F4. Her favorite teams are Williams & McLaren and supports Prema & ART Grand Prix in feeder series. Outside of motorsport Kristina spends her time supporting the Washington Football Team and studying film. You can find her on Twitter as @agrestaP1.
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