If we thought the Rich Energy debacle in 2019 was going to be the toughest off-track situation for Guenther Steiner to have to handle as Haas team principal, we were clearly very wrong.
One year later, COVID-19 nearly led to the team closing down, and part of the solution was found in Nikita Mazepin and the funding from one of the companies his father Dmitry runs – Uralkali.
Dmitry Mazepin had been involved in motorsport for a while with Hitech GP in junior categories, had a track record of delivering on his contractual promises, and Haas really needed the money.
But right now, things in Europe are a bit bigger than money after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and from a Formula 1 perspective it has put Haas right at the center of the story.
Mazepin Sr is a close ally of Vladimir Putin’s, and you don’t have to scroll back far on his son’s Instagram feed to find an image of the pair with the Russian leader alongside a caption that reads ‘Thank you for everything you do for Russian sports’. The ties are clear, whether the driver himself supports Putin’s invasion or not.
So the team acted swiftly upon learning of Russia’s moves last week, removing the Uralkali livery and branding from the car for the final day of testing in Barcelona, while the title sponsor’s presence on the team transporters, motorhome and online assets also disappeared.
In fact, Uralkali is no longer listed as a team partner on its website, with the name now simply ‘Haas F1 Team’ on display.
After that initial burst of action, Steiner fronted up to discuss the situation and said he had a lot of legal items to work through this week with regard to both Uralkali and Mazepin’s drive, with the not-so-subtle responses suggesting neither would be part of the team for much longer.
But Haas could have been helped from a contractual situation by the FIA, which had received a recommendation from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to suspend all Russian and Belarusian competitors in response to the Ukraine invasion. Instead, the FIA bottled it, using the examples of sports that have national teams as the excuse to ban national teams (because that’s clearly what we have in top level motorsport) but allow drivers to race under an “FIA Flag”.
I honestly sympathize with the drivers themselves who have done no wrong and almost certainly don’t want a war, but are unable to speak out against Putin’s regime. But I sympathize more with the innocent people that are losing the lives during Russia’s invasion, and the majority of top-level Russian drivers have had some form of state-linked backing to get them onto the world stage. To allow them to inadvertently represent a success story of that regime – even if they don’t get to carry the national flag or anthem – isn’t right.
Mazepin has become the number one target because of that, thanks to the Uralkali ties. But Haas is not in the easiest of situations even if it wants to distance itself from everything at the earliest possible opportunity. It would be foolish in the extreme for the team to cancel its contract and drop Mazepin – taking on the financial penalties that come with that and jeopardizing its future – when international sanctions are likely to mean Uralkali can’t pay the team as required.
If Uralkali can find a way of paying despite the economic sanctions imposed on Russia, then Haas has the moral obligation to end the deal but needs to be able to plug the not-insignificant financial gap.
Steiner insists the team’s future is not in doubt even if that happens, but it would certainly become far less stable if it hasn’t made up for the shortfall before any split. Other partners are being spoken to to gauge whether they are willing to increase their investment, but even those who want to might not be able to, and so new partners need to be found.
If there’s a time to be doing it, it is now. Haas wrote off last season to focus on this year and has a much more sophisticated car than 12 months ago, plus a very attractive name in Mick Schumacher in one of the seats. F1 is booming and commercial deals for other teams have involved some eye-watering numbers, so by standing up for global values of democracy, Haas could put itself in a position where new partners want to support it.
But then there’s the driver situation, which also needs addressing urgently. The risk here is Haas could sign a replacement for Mazepin only to need to buy him out of his existing deal if there’s nothing legally preventing him from driving, costing it even more money.
With that uncertainty, it’s tough for other teams or drivers to know where they stand. Pietro Fittipaldi is best-placed as the existing reserve who is already in Bahrain and first in line to test in place of Mazepin if required, but he will need to find additional backing to secure the seat for the season.
That’s not because Haas doesn’t rate Fittipaldi – it holds him in high regard – but the second seat at this stage would be something to sell to the highest bidder when there’s plenty of quality around.
From a Ferrari perspective there’s Antonio Giovinazzi, who would provide an excellent benchmark for Schumacher to allow the Scuderia to really understand how good the German is. Giovinazzi would need releasing from a Formula E contract, but you sense Ferrari would have the means to do that if it wanted.
Then there’s Alpine, where Oscar Piastri is set to spend a year as reserve. The Australian has won three junior category titles on the bounce and should be in F1 right now, but there were no seats available. He could have an excellent year of learning at Haas, would be race sharp if ever needed by Alpine and is also a high quality candidate even as a rookie.
Or a left-field suggestion if Mercedes wants to muscle in on the action would be Nyck De Vries. The reigning Formula E champion was linked with Williams and Alfa Romeo last year but that never looked realistic, and it felt like his F1 chance had gone. A Mercedes driver in a Ferrari-powered car seems odd, but then Alex Albon is driving for Williams this year and Guanyu Zhou for Alfa, so it’s not the barrier it might seem.
All three could open up new sponsors and some sort of funding from their respective parent teams, but weighing all of that up and making a decision while simultaneously not tying the team in a knot of contracts is the problem facing Steiner right now. And that’s even before Andretti knocks on the door once again to see if there’s scope for a takeover.
The latter has always been repelled and it’s unlikely Gene Haas and Steiner will change their stance right now, but they essentially have two weeks to try and address two of the major aspects that comprise a Formula 1 team. Against that backdrop, it’s understandable that things might take a little bit of time to be resolved.