Guenther Steiner’s address of the Nikita Mazepin controversy marked the end of a sustained period of silence over the matter from the Haas Formula 1 team.
In the month or so since Mazepin uploaded a video on Instagram of him grabbing a young woman’s breast, Haas’s public commentary was minimal. The morning after the incident Haas shared a strongly-worded message, criticising Mazepin’s behaviour and calling the upload to Instagram “abhorrent”.
However, the weeks that followed were marked by silence punctuated only by a second statement that added a grand total of 15 relevant words. And those words translated roughly to ‘we’ve handled this privately and it will stay private’. Which was not nearly enough. Even if action of the utmost severity – cutting ties with its 2021 signing before he ever made his F1 debut – was never likely, despite the demand for it on social media.
Steiner’s remarks last week, in his column on The Race, added more than 300 words to the narrative. It has shed further light on a nasty, messy issue. And it was a welcome step from the parties involved. But it cannot be the last because what that light has revealed is not very much at all.
And it certainly will not draw a line under the matter because there is a sustained anti-Mazepin campaign on social media reminding Haas of the ill-feeling towards its new driver every single time it posts anything, however detached from the subject it may be.
Steiner used a lot of language that, on the surface, condemned Mazepin, but that condemnation doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Regardless of what exactly he did wrong (and nobody involved seems willing to specify exactly what was wrong), Mazepin did admit to misconduct of some kind. And this incident, the response, and Steiner’s initial address prompt many follow-up questions.
The questions merit closer, bespoke scrutiny. This will come. For this piece, it’s sufficient to raise a few initial red flags. If that misconduct merits consequences next time, as Steiner says, why not this time? What is wrong with disclosing more of what’s been done behind-the-scenes? What has supposedly been put in place to help him? And why do F1 and the FIA continue to remain silent on the matter, indicating they are happy for this to play out as it has?
Mazepin saying sorry during a brief and coordinated flurry of statements the morning after his video emerged, and everyone being expected to accept it was just a mistake and move on, is not acceptable. Accountability is everything. If an offender takes complete responsibility for their actions, apologises sincerely, and takes charge of making sure they do actually learn from it and don’t repeat the offence – that’s being accountable.
Mazepin has deleted his tweets, his timeline has been wiped clean, so the apology isn’t even there in his official channel anymore. He has not held himself accountable. It’s questionable his team has. F1 and the FIA certainly haven’t. They issued a combined statement leaving it to Haas, and have not gone near the subject since.
So what evidence is there to suggest this is anything more than a slap on the wrists, if that? How can anyone be certain that the culture and attitude that allowed Mazepin to think this was acceptable in the first place can be overcome and prompt him to change? And has anyone at F1, the FIA or the team stopped to consider what precedent it sets and the impact it has for the perception to be created that a few blind eyes have been turned?
Asking these questions and keeping the pressure on is not just making a fuss over nothing, as some will have you believe. That attitude is exactly why serious incidents of everyday sexism and sexual abuse get underplayed and go unreported. This matters. It matters in society and it matters in F1 because there’s a high-profile driver, one of only 20, who risks representing ideals the championship should not enable in any way.
The F1 bubble has burst. It’s not a separate environment to the rest of the world anymore, and rightly so. People say F1 and politics shouldn’t mix, but what about F1 and morality? The championship has made a big thing in the last six months of holding itself to a higher standard yet here we are with a clear offence, admitted to in some capacity. It has triggered a hugely emotional response tied to a wider reality riddled with deep-rooted inequalities, entitlement and predatory behaviour, yet there are no discernible consequences for the offender.
Ignoring this problem rides roughshod over We Race As One and as much as Steiner says it isn’t, it does look very much like this is being swept aside. If there is action being taken behind the scenes, being secretive about it doesn’t create much confidence that this action is anything of substance.
Challenging F1 to clean up its act and recognise the depth of the problem is vital. This goes well beyond the specifics of the Mazepin case. The dissent to the push for him to be held accountable for his actions highlights just how prevalent old-world attitudes are. While this is largely a wider societal problem, F1 has a role to play in being a leader pushing for better standards rather than dragging its feet and waiting for the world to stop being so wicked.
F1 is a better place for being subjected to this level of scrutiny. The comments in the vein of ‘you wouldn’t have complained about this in James Hunt’s day’, or ‘all he did was grab a boob’, or ‘you’re all just social justice warriors’ are mind-boggling. What is justifiable about these attitudes? What possible, legitimate reason can there be for F1 not to try to move away from this mentality? Or are we supposed to believe that as this is a white male dominated world that has historically had men as the participants and women in trophy or promotional roles, that gender inequality and the consequences of that are fair game? Not that long ago F1 was proudly declaring the removal of grid girls from regular use, but that was quite a simple act that pales in comparison to the silence now a serious issue has emerged.
The role of community is important in these incidents. A report from the World Health Organisation on sexual violence says that deeply entrenched community beliefs in male superiority and male entitlement “will greatly affect the likelihood of sexual violence taking place, as will the general tolerance in the community”. This is hugely relevant to F1, and this particular case, given we are witnessing a rare and high-profile incident of a sexual nature involving a driver. The response from the authorities is to turn away, the response from the team is to handle it behind closed doors, and the response from the public includes a significant portion of people asking why this matters or criticising the criticism. That does very, very little to support the view that male superiority and entitlement isn’t a problem for F1, and it clearly indicates a level of tolerance.
Community response can have the opposite impact. In 2012, British writer Laura Bates started a project called Everyday Sexism, to document all kinds of sexism from wolf whistles in the street to serious acts of aggression and rape. Bates said in a 2013 appearance on BBC Radio 5 Live that one of the positives of this project was it fostered an enormous sense of community, not just among women but among supportive men as well. That sense of comfort empowers victims to come forward, as do stronger laws that create some confidence action will be taken against offenders. In this context, the response to Mazepin achieves the opposite.
Many still hold the view that F1, or sport in general, should just be about sport. I believe that’s rubbish. The lines are too blurry and F1 is a global sport with an enormous, diverse audience. I believe it therefore has a responsibility to that audience to espouse better values, and that includes championing equality. It has become very clear in recent weeks that F1 as a whole needs to do a better job of understanding gender inequality and the consequences that come with that, and establishing what its place is in trying to combat it.
This situation has many layers. The social response is one of them. While #WeRaceAsOne has now been firmly dismissed by a large part of the online community, replaced with feverish support of #WeSayNoToMazepin, I don’t think boiling things like this down to a popular hashtag always works. But in this case, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s as empowering as an F1-specific version of #MeToo. I’ve certainly seen plenty of emotional, personal testimony shared as a result of the Mazepin response. I’d welcome suggestions, recommendations of what to read or listen to or watch to understand that further.
I’ve made it clear already I would like this to be taken much more seriously than it has been, and for F1/FIA to be more involved. The inaction means I have lost faith in the organisations to practice what they preach. It’s damaged my belief that F1 is capable of being better and more accountable than it has been in the past, and I believe the authorities have let down female personnel and fans.
Everyone seems to agree it was unacceptable behaviour, both the action itself and uploading it to Instagram. So the lack of response makes me angry, and I am deeply uncomfortable with some of the unknown questions that still linger, such as what exactly Mazepin thinks he’s sorry for and most importantly what really happened from the victim’s perspective. Though her first statement exonerated Mazepin, subsequent ones have created uncertainty over whether she subsequently stands by it. It is her story to own and she shouldn’t be pressured into further comments but an attempt for authorities to ascertain whether she was referring to Mazepin with unclear, negative remarks since then would seem logical.
I do have some sympathy for Haas because its hands are largely tied. Mazepin, and the huge financial backing he brings, represents the team’s salvation. It’s not a straightforward ‘one person does something wrong, one person takes the consequences’. While I would like to hope is that if he did something to deserve expulsion and the team obliged then Haas would survive, but given its economic fragility I honestly doubt whether it would. And many who are angered by what Mazepin did do not feel comfortable championing his exit if that would mean the demise of an entire team and the jobs connected to it.
For similar reasons, I expect the FIA will go nowhere near using any potential means – such as the International Sporting Code and rules around ethical conduct, or bringing the championship into disrepute – to challenge Mazepin because the cost of punishing him may be deemed too high to pay.
That might sound cowardly and convenient to dismiss ultimate ‘justice’ to protect other people, mostly men, and to protect a championship that allows the kind of culture that makes this action possible (or even likely) in the first place to exist. But the massively biased reality of this situation is that it’s almost certain other people will pay a bigger price if Mazepin was punished in an extreme way.
Still, it’s important we don’t just let the issue die. Like the anti-racism narrative F1 began to embrace last year after Lewis Hamilton’s efforts, and like the conversations around human rights that a new grand prix in Saudi Arabia must encourage, flashpoints such as this are an opportunity to discuss a wider issue that F1 might have otherwise continued to ignore.
It’s uncomfortable to speak about, difficult to address and can feel hypocritical. As one of the thousands of men who dominate the world of F1, I feel that way writing this piece. But it’s our responsibility to confront it. In an article for the American Psychological Association, University of Texas professor James Campbell Quick noted: “It’s not just a woman’s problem. Women continue to be the primary victims of sexual harassment, and they are carrying the burden of suffering.
“Until males own their responsibility in the problem, it’s going to be really tough to get a big movement in addressing it.”
It’s therefore a shame that trying to address it gets torn to shreds. Many who believe this situation has been handled appallingly are angry that there’s so little accountability and instead a desire to just quickly move on, because of all that represents.
As much as some people want F1 to operate in its own little world, it doesn’t. And all the while F1, or at least large parts of it, happily reflects the entitlement, privilege and power that is still enjoyed in the wider world by (white) men, it must also reflect the wider efforts to challenge that.
When Bates performed a TED Talk on the subject of her Everyday Sexism project, she ended it by reminding the audience that “our voices are loudest when we raise them together”.
This is a message F1 must seek to amplify, not ignore.