On August 16th, 2011, the Haas F1 team was founded by Gene Haas. It is an American-owned racing team currently based in Kannapolis, North Carolina with almost exclusively American drivers and executives.
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The Russian military launched an invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, February 24, causing astonishment and indignation throughout the globe. It placed the Haas team’s relationship with Dimitry Mazepin and title sponsor Uralkali in a new light in Formula One. Haas was in the paddock for preseason testing for the 2019 Formula One season as many sports started prohibiting Russian participation and withdrawing from business connections with Russian corporations. This is the narrative of how the team handled the hectic early days of the season, and how they have subsequently put the pieces together to challenge at the front of the midfield in the first two races of the season.
Images of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were shown on all three wall-mounted TVs surrounding the Haas team’s camper at the Circuit de Catalunya, almost 2,500 kilometers north of Barcelona. The modest structure, decorated in the red, blue, and white of Uralkali, a big Russian chemical firm, stood at the end of a paddock holding an F1 preseason that, at that time, seemed insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Nonetheless, an obvious correlation between the two occurrences could not be overlooked.
Dmitry Mazepin, whose firm essentially rescued Haas and kept the team in Formula One at the start of 2021 by becoming its largest financial sponsor, began the week by witnessing his son Nikita race during a commercial shooting day for the team at the Barcelona track. By Thursday, he’d met Russian President Vladimir Putin and a group of other Russian business heavyweights in the Kremlin.
The focus of the second day of F1 testing at the Barcelona track was no longer on the Ferrari’s early speed or whatever vehicle design had captured the attention of the paddock’s tech writers. It was all about Russia: the race scheduled for September and Haas’ relationship with one of Russia’s most powerful businesspeople.
As Thursday continued, neither F1 nor Haas had given any indication of what they would do next; the Russian Grand Prix was postponed till Friday. The journalists had focused their attention on Haas’ motorhome at the end of the paddock. As negotiations proceeded behind the scenes, the team decided to cancel media appearances for the day.
Gene Haas, the company’s owner, and Guenther Steiner, the team’s F1 team manager, were both at the track when they heard the initial news reports of the invasion, which had started in the early hours of the morning, at 5 a.m. Spanish time. It was clear to Haas what the implications would be for his Formula One team right once.
In a mid-March interview with ESPN, Haas said, “We had extremely fantastic ties with Nikita and Uralkali.” “They were a fantastic supporter.” They contributed much-needed funds.
“We put forth a lot of effort to make this thing function. This wasn’t going to work, however, when you saw photographs in the media of people being bombed and fired at.”
Mazepin’s strong friendship with Putin has always been well-known.
Steiner told ESPN, “It wasn’t a problem since there was no invasion of Ukraine at the time.” “We were completely aware of the situation, and there was no problem. Everything would have remained the same if the invasion had not occurred. We couldn’t see one and a half years ahead [when the contract was initially signed], and we aren’t this good now.”
Dmitry Mazepin is a powerful businessman in Russia and a close supporter of President Vladimir Putin. Getty Images/Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
The conversations Haas had with Steiner were crucial in the choices that followed. Steiner’s reputation as a potty-mouthed and eccentric guy who happens to be leading an F1 team has been shaped by Netflix’s hit series “Drive to Survive,” but his no-nonsense approach and habit of putting things exactly how they are are also qualities that make him such a brilliant team principal.
The fourth season of that Netflix program was released two weeks later, by which time Haas had entirely broken up with Uralkali and Mazepin, and it featured Steiner at his finest. In one scenario, Steiner says to Mazepin, “This is why people hate you,” after Mazepin spins out at the second turn of his maiden F1 race, while in another, Steiner tells his driver, “You have an identical vehicle to teammate Mick Schumacher.” The Mazepins disagreed, and one of the most memorable scenes from the Haas episode is Dmitry threatening to remove financing if his son is not given a vehicle that is better than Schumacher’s.
Mazepin’s dual roles as banker and father definitely complicated the interaction.
“This is very acceptable behavior for a racing car driver’s father! I’m not looking for a sponsor “ESPN quoted Steiner as saying. “Fathers are typically very concerned about their children. Aren’t we all hoping for the best for our children? We’re all in the same boat. He wasn’t the most pleasant person to work with.”
Before he had ever raced in a race, Nikita Mazepin’s stint with Haas was problematic. Prior to the season, the Russian driver posted a video on Instagram showing him grabbing a lady in the back of a vehicle, which he later apologized for. As a rookie, his performance on the track was unimpressive. He consistently struggled to match Schumacher’s speed and acquired a habit of spinning out of races, despite the fact that the team was comfortably bottom in the standings.
Taking the ties off
A decision was taken at 7 p.m. local time on Feb. 24, one hour after the test on Thursday had ended. All Uralkali branding, as well as the red, white, and blue flashes that made the vehicle seem like a Russian flag, would be removed by Haas. During the day, several team members had made it apparent that they could not continue to work with Uralkali’s brand. Haas had been eager to speak with the board of directors of Haas Automation, situated in California, when the decision was made in the evening.
“It was basically a case of ‘we have to stop this right now and deal with the ramifications afterwards,’” Steiner said. “You don’t find a resolution to any of this in eight hours. There isn’t enough time. I believe we behaved appropriately.”
Mazepin, on the other hand, will continue to test on Friday as planned. On that particular day, Haas believed it was unjust to penalize the Russian driver for factors beyond his control. However, being in the vehicle on Friday only served to confirm Mazepin’s belief that his F1 career would be unaffected by the events in Ukraine, and that his contract with the team was wholly distinct from the one with his father’s business.
“Call me naïve, but I didn’t really, honestly believe that I or my seat were in any danger,” Mazepin later told ESPN in an interview.
Mazepin alleges that the last thing Steiner told him before leaving the paddock on Friday (Feb. 25) was that the team would not remove him unless the FIA, the sport’s governing body, barred Russian drivers from participating. He fully anticipated to be in Bahrain for the second preseason test of the Formula One season.
Mazepin’s account of events was unequivocally refuted by Steiner. Steiner told ESPN, “I didn’t say that.” “I never said anything like that.”
Between Mazepin’s final laps in the car on February 25 and the announcement on March 5 that the team was parting ways with both driver and title sponsor, eight days passed. Mazepin described it as a “strange quiet,” since he didn’t hear from Haas at any time throughout the team’s deliberations.
“I certainly would want to live in a society where if you say something and have a trustworthy connection, I’d love to sleep well on it knowing that I can trust,” Mazepin replied when asked whether he felt deceived by Steiner or Haas.
“Every unclean station, in my opinion, should be managed better. We are all human beings with the potential to communicate. And I believe it is critical to use it.”
Mazepin, on the other hand, does not seem to have contacted Haas for explanation following the Barcelona test.
“They [Mazepin and his crew] weren’t requesting to remain in the vehicle,” Haas told ESPN.
During the eight-day delay, Mazepin’s optimism was bolstered by the FIA’s confirmation that Russian and Belarusian drivers would be permitted to race provided they did so under a neutral flag and signed a waiver of political neutrality.
Haas had hoped that the FIA would make their choice simpler, but another racing federation, in reaction to the FIA news, did just that. Russian drivers will be barred from competing in the British Grand Prix, according to Motorsport UK. Other racing federations might clearly follow suit.
“The writing was on the wall once the UK came out and banned Russian drivers,” Haas told ESPN. “Sitting there with a Russian driver who can’t drive the car isn’t going to help us.”
Mazepin claims he learned he was fired when a 50-word press statement arrived in his email on Saturday morning. Haas claims he was informed earlier. It’s unclear how much time passed between the two communications.
Mazepin’s name was added to a new list of sanctioned Russians four days later, alongside his father’s.
Mazepin told ESPN, “I was very astonished to see myself there.” “I believe it is fair to say that I understand why some people believe I should be punished. However, I disagree with it.
“When you just wave that indiscriminately, rolling over everyone, I think it’s the dark side of the cancel culture. There doesn’t seem to be any method to it. There is also no capacity for rational thought.”
It was a vindication for Haas’ choice.
“It was completely out of our control,” Haas said to ESPN. “It was all quite professional, in my opinion. And we all felt it was beyond of our control, I believe on both sides. We didn’t have any influence over the situation.”
Mazepin was visibly upset by the team’s decision, stating that his contract and the team’s relationship with his father’s firm were two different things. While this is true on paper, it is also true that one would not exist without the other: Mazepin, like many other “paid drivers” before him, would not have made it to Formula One on his own merits.
To run under an FIA flag, he had to sign a statement of neutrality, which was neither a denunciation of Putin nor a support of the conflict. He was given three additional opportunity to separate himself from the invasion and Putin during his ESPN interview, but he declined all three. Instead, he used every opportunity to discuss what he considers to be the injustice of excluding athletes from a certain country from participating.
Mazepin has established the We Compete As One foundation for Russian athletes who have been barred from participating in sports as a result of the current sanctions imposed on the nation.
In answer to one of the inquiries, he replied, “There was a period when athletes from opposing countries would join together to compete.” “And, you know, it was a very strong message that they were putting their differences aside and recognizing that, at the end of the day, they’re all humans,” she said.
“They’re all excellent athletes in their own right, and they’re capable of competing against one another. Furthermore, I do not believe that individuals should be punished. They have a right, in my opinion. And I truly want to respect men and women’s neutrality and rights in general.”
Mazepin said he never had a chance to read the neutrality waiver since the Haas announcement came so quickly after he received it from the FIA, but he has never expressly stated that he would have signed it to compete in Formula One.
Recent Russian regulations scare individuals with 15 years in jail if they mention anything other than a “special operation” when it comes to the military invasion of Ukraine.
The Mag’s Return
After the break was established, Haas began the process of finding a successor for Mazepin. The only person Steiner contacted was Kevin Magnussen, who drove for Haas between 2018 and 2020.
Magnussen and his wife, Louise, who now lives in Copenhagen with their 1-year-old daughter Laura, were planning a vacation to the Bahamas through Miami before heading to Sebring for a sports car race with Chip Ganassi when the phone came in.
Magnussen informed Steiner that he liked the new car’s competitiveness and that he wanted to drive it again. Magnussen agreed right away.
Magnussen went to his wife after hanging up the phone, a boyish smile on his face, and exclaimed, “I’ve done something dumb!”
Louise Magnussen needed considerable persuasion, having experienced F1’s hard schedule before becoming a mother. She also saw Magnussen’s dissatisfaction with F1 after a succession of uncompetitive racing vehicles and wanted to make sure he wasn’t returning to do so.
Magnussen’s comeback would also be a significant move. In 2021, his racing schedule was much less demanding than that of an F1 driver on the road. Magnussen was enjoying his new life as a stay-at-home-racing-driver-dad when that phone came in.
Magnussen subsequently told the media about his mental state: “I was in a pleasant place when Guenther phoned me, a wonderful place.”
It was, however, just too excellent a chance to pass up. The comeback was on once Louise came on board.
Thankfully, Steiner was correct. The car’s pace was shown in the second test in Bahrain. The possibility of Haas being a highly competitive midfield team has suddenly become a reality.
Magnussen’s beaming smile didn’t seem to fade during the Bahrain test or the race weekend that followed. He gave one of the most feel-good sights in recent F1 history the day before the race, putting Laura in the cockpit of the Haas car and beaming ear to ear beside Louise as they snapped photographs of her.
Magnussen’s comeback exceeded everyone’s expectations. At the Bahrain Grand Prix, he finished fifth. If Steiner had guaranteed such during their phone discussion, Magnussen says he would have “called bulls—-.” A ninth-place result in Saudi Arabia followed, with Lewis Hamilton commenting on Haas’ speed over the radio during the race.
It’s a difficult pill to chew for the Mazepins to watch Haas succeed in a vehicle constructed primarily with their money.
Nikita Mazepin told ESPN, “Of course it aches.” “I would have liked to have had the opportunity to show myself in a competitive vehicle and had been waiting for it all season, only to have it snatched away at the last minute.”
“Year two was supposed to be the main aim,” says the author, “but all that hard work and commitment of both time and money did not lead to the chance to display a meaningful outcome.”
Haas still has a bleak future ahead of him.
Despite the positive sentiments produced by Magnussen’s comeback and his first two results in the vehicle, the team’s future remains uncertain. Haas was quick to dismiss concerns that it wouldn’t be able to exist without Uralkali, and there have been no signs of imminent financial calamity in the absence of the Russian firm.
The whole situation has clearly affected Haas’ perspective on “paid drivers,” a typical aspect of F1 for lesser teams that involves bringing in a driver based on financial reasons rather than skill.
“Everyone thinks we’re running out of money,” Haas told ESPN. “But it’s about spending the appropriate amount of money.”
“We’re doing our best to stick to these budgets. So, we definitely overcompensated by having to [hire] pay drivers in that case, but we won’t do that again.”
The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix served as a timely reminder that the squad is still walking a tightrope. According to Steiner, Magnussen’s teammate Mick Schumacher wrecked badly in qualifying, causing roughly $1 million in damage. Schumacher was OK, but the team decided not to race him because of the repair work that would be necessary and the possibility that another collision in the race would jeopardize vital vehicle components needed for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix.
Given the team’s past record, it’s probable that Haas’ next championship partner will be scrutinized much more closely. Uralkali isn’t the only firm with which Haas has had to terminate relations unexpectedly. Rich Energy, led by the unstable and eccentric William Storey, inked a title sponsorship arrangement with the team in 2018, however the deal broke apart halfway through the season due to delayed payments.
“You never say ‘I don’t need to learn anything,’ but it was two entirely different instances,” Steiner remarked when asked whether the team could take lessons from both events.
“A war was engaged in the second one. I pray I never have to go through it again in my life. That is something I wish for the world, not for myself. If you ever thought you’d find yourself in a situation like this, think again. But all of a sudden, we’re in the middle of it. Lessons will always be learnt.”
Whatever the next six months hold for Haas on and off the track, the owner’s commitment and willingness to persist to his F1 enterprise should not be questioned.
When asked whether the trouble and expenditures of striving to be competitive in Formula One over the last five years are worth it, Gene Haas’ answer was as straightforward as he could be.
“When we win a race, it’ll be worth it.”
Ryan McGee and Laurence Edmondson contributed additional reporting.
Haas is a world-renowned company that has been around for about 70 years. The company was founded by Walter Haas Jr. in 1947 and has since become one of the largest suppliers of metalworking machinery in the world, with more than 50,000 employees worldwide. Reference: haas clothing.
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