Maturing into a title contender in 2020, Nikita Mazepin has had to battle and graft to win over his critics in Formula 2. Winning twice and scoring two podiums, the 21-year-old Russian has earned his shot in Formula 1 with HAAS.
We take a look at five pivotal moments on his journey from the second tier.
1. FIRST POINTS IN F2
Nikita Mazepin’s arrival in F2 as the 2018 GP3 vice-champion was somewhat overshadowed by the late Anthoine Hubert in 2019. Stepping up as champion, Hubert consistently scored points and even won twice in his rookie season, instantly acclimatising to the second tier, whereas Mazepin was a little slower to adjust.
Finishing 19th and 13th in the opening weekend isn’t how the Russian would have envisaged his start to life with race winners ART Grand Prix, which is why his first points’ finish felt so crucial.
Taking eighth in the Feature Race at Baku got the monkey off his back and proved that he was capable of making the step up. The finish allowed him some slack in what was an up and down opening campaign.
Mazepin only took four points finishes throughout the season but was more focused on building towards his second season. If he could click into gear, it would all be worth it.
2. TESTING WITH MERCEDES
What better way to silence your doubters than finishing top in a Formula 1 session? Mazepin was granted the enviable opportunity of testing world championship winning machinery during his rookie campaign, taking to the Mercedes during an F1 test at Spain.
Yes, he was in sitting in the fastest car in the paddock but handling the extraordinary power and pace of the W10 is no mean feat, and neither was beating out the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull.
Not only did Mazepin finish top of the session on his first official F1 test, he did so by more than a second, while he was only two tenths off Valtteri Bottas’ best time on the day prior. Given his struggles in 2019, his performance in the Mercedes was proof that he had not become a poor driver overnight, and confirmation that he was cut out for F1 machinery.
Arguably, it was the most important moment of his young career to date.
3. FIRST TASTE OF SILVERWARE
Swapping ART - who had just led Nyck de Vries to the drivers’ championship – for F2 newcomers Hitech Grand Prix appeared to be a pretty risky move by Mazepin given his need for results in 2020.
The Russian had full faith in Oliver Oakes’ outfit though, thanks to his lengthy history with the team. He had previously raced with them in European F3, at the Macau Grand Prix and in Asian F3 and knew what they were capable of.
The Russian driver accepted that it may take them a few races to get going and indeed it did – the team struggled in both rounds at Spielberg, but everything seemed to click into place at Budapest.
His weekend actually got off to a pretty poor start, as the team’s qualifying woes continued, Mazepin struggling to just P16 on the starting grid. The team got their strategy spot on in race and handed him fresh soft tyres when the vast majority of the field were on heavily degraded hards.
Mazepin then held up his end of the bargain and charged through the field and onto the podium, showcasing the talent that he knew he possessed.
4. MAIDEN F2 VICTORY
If his first podium was going to count for something, then Mazepin knew that he needed to follow it up emphatically and announce himself as a potential title contender. A maiden victory in the championship was certainly one way to do that, coming just two races later at Silverstone.
It was clinched in some style too. Mazepin’s move on Schumacher was extremely classy, the German had flung himself into the lead from third at the start of the race but was powerless to hold off the Russian, who clawed past at Stowe with a daring overtake around the outside.
From here, he closed out the win in dominant fashion, showing the defensive steel within his armoury to cross the line more than five seconds ahead of second placed Guanyu Zhou.
Having taken just one point from the opening four races, he added 51 to his tally in the three following races.
5. THAT DRIVE IN MUGELLO
If his maiden victory was dominant, his second win was spectacular, as well as wholly unexpected. Mazepin’s form following Silverstone was solid, taking seven points finishes from eight, as well as a third podium. It looked as if he had a battle on his hands to add to his tally in the Mugello Feature Race though, Qualifying back in 14th place, at a circuit which was meant to be extremely difficult to overtake on.
Granted, a safety car turned the race on its head after Guiliano Alesi dove into the gravel trap, but the 21-year-old still had a whole lot to do on the alternate strategy.
Fighting up to third on a shiny new pair of soft Pirelli boots, he made light work of long-time race leaders Christian Lundgaard and Luca Ghiotto, dispatching off them both in one stunning move. Going three wide at the exit of Turn 1, Mazepin clawed his way ahead. He was suddenly making it extremely difficult to ignore him.