With no avenues to return to Formula One at the moment, Nikita Mazepin might be turning his attention to rally raid, having expressed interest in competing in events like the legendary Dakar Rally, the Silk Way Rally, and domestic races.
After just one year, Mazepin was booted from his seat at Haas F1 Team prior to the 2022 season in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although he is legally permitted by the FIA to race under a neutral flag, many motoring authorities like Motorsport UK have forbidden Russian and Belarusian drivers from competing in their countries. International penalties against Russian oligarchs and assets have also included the European Union imposing sanctions on Mazepin and his father Dmitry in early March.
Decrying the sanctions as the classic and widely misused “cancel culture”, Mazepin launched the “We Compete As One” foundation to provide support for Russian athletes who would be unable to participate in their respective sports for “political reasons.” Such bans extend beyond motorsport, such as Monday’s Boston Marathon having forbidden Russian and Belarusian citizens from running and Russia being ejected from the FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championship in favour of Ukraine (a matter of coincidence, as Ukraine was the next highest team that did not qualify).
With major racing options in 2022 and the immediate future running out, Mazepin seems to be looking at rally raid as a possible route.
“My career is on pause for now,” Mazepin told Russian news agency RIA Novosti. “I’ve been in motorsport for eighteen years and I’m not going to give it up. I keep myself in shape. I hope that I will return to Formula One. If it doesn’t work out, I will consider other options for racing on four wheels. Am I interested in racing in “Dakar”? Yes, it’s possible. Like the Silk Way Rally.
“I believe that I was unfairly suspended. But I remain positive. Five days a week I work on my fund. This takes up most of my time. My life has changed dramatically in just one month. There are still many months before the end of the year. Imagine how much more can happen and change. I intend to continue my career.”
Although Mazepin has little off-road experience, he has trained in the discipline with 2017 Dakar Quad winner and current UTV racer Sergey Karyakin, who denounced Mazepin’s firing as a “purely political decision” and accused the West of using “dirty methods” to pressure countries into acquiescence. In early April, Karyakin declared his intent to run for Sysert’s single seat in the Sverdlovsk Oblast assembly for United Russia, the country’s largest party and pro-Vladimir Putin in ideology.
“Nikita and I had several desert training sessions. He reads the lines perfectly, sees the dunes,” said Karyakin in an interview with Match TV. “Considering that he tried real sand for the first time, the results were very good. I would be interested in trying to compete with Nikita in serious races such as the Silk Way and Dakar. I think Mazepin will be ready for the Silk Way in July and will be able to show a good result. I advised him to go to the race. I will only be glad if Nikita goes to the rally as part of my team. It is easy enough to work with him, he has a huge roll, he understands where to slow down and where to accelerate, how to turn. You just need to give off-road specifics, otherwise it has great car feel.
“Nikita listens carefully to advice, he is motivated to show a good result. He adheres to the tactics that I say. Now you need to go train for long distances, keep the car in off-road conditions, it is important to adapt the driving style to the rally-raid format. It is very cool for me to work with a driver of such a high level. I also learn things from him. Today, my task is to pass on the experience so that he can achieve results in this discipline. I think we have a good relationship.”
Most Russian success in Dakar has come in the Truck class, where KAMAZ Master has won or appeared on the podium every year since 1999. The 2022 edition, which saw Russian drivers compete under the Russian Automobile Federation flag, featured a KAMAZ podium sweep. KAMAZ has also won the Silk Way Rally’s Truck category every year save for 2011. Of course, the company’s involvement in manufacturing Russian military vehicles has raised question marks about future rally raid endeavours, though KAMAZ Master could likely continue competition as an independent operation without factory backing. The invasion of Ukraine, now in its fifty-fifth day, also resulted in the FIA World Rally-Raid Championship‘s Rally Kazakhstan being cancelled.
The 2022 Silk Way Rally is scheduled for 6–16 July.