Formula 1’s new ‘punching bag’ not going anywhere anytime soon

Formula 1 saw the debuts of three rookie drivers in the 2021 season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, and one stood out for all the wrong reasons.

As huge as the Max Verstappen vs. Lewis Hamilton buzz has been for the sport of Formula 1 following the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit, there is another driver who fans can’t seem to stop talking about, and that driver has been at the complete opposite end of the field — that is, when he has even managed to stay on the track.

Three drivers made their Formula 1 debuts in this 56-lap race around the 15-turn, 3.363-mile (5.412-kilometer) road course in Sakhir, Bahrain, a race won by Hamilton in his Mercedes by just 0.745 seconds over Verstappen in his Red Bull following an epic late duel between the two.

Two of those rookie drivers made headlines for all the right reasons. Yuki Tsunoda piloted his AlphaTauri to a ninth place finish, scoring two points in his first ever start, and Mick Schumacher’s debut made this year’s season opener the first race to feature the legendary Schumacher name since 2012.

Now onto Nikita Mazepin.

His debut went quite differently. After spinning out at the track once in preseason testing and twice in practice, he spun out again twice in qualifying, with the second spin causing further controversy since he violated the “gentlemen’s agreement” en route to doing so. To nobody’s surprise, he qualified in 20th (last) place, and nowhere near 19th on time.

Then two laps into the race itself, he found himself unable to control his VF-21, and he went off the track and crashed in turn three, just 25 seconds after lights out.

Formula 1 fans were loving every minute of it. Even the Sky Sports F1 commentators, who had taken other slight digs at the 22-year-old Russian throughout the weekend, had a few things to say about just how terribly his debut went.

Mazepin has been in the news quite frequently throughout his career leading up to his shot in Formula 1, and not just because his father Dmitry’s deep pockets are funding his ride and giving him a ride that many believe several other drivers deserve.

The list of things that Mazepin has done both on and off the track to become the sport’s most hated driver in Formula 1 even before making his debut is one to behold.

You name it, he’s done it: bribed a girl for nudes with paddock passes, posted a video of himself groping a woman on Instagram, punched a fellow driver in the face, threw a party after several of his father’s workers were killed, made and supported other inappropriate comments about Tsunoda’s Japanese nationality, joked about COVID-19, made a creepy and suggestive comment about George Russell — and that’s just the stuff we know about.

And let’s not forget the on-track antics. He was penalized several times for unsafe driving in Formula 2, at one point sending himself and Nobuharu Matsushita to the hospital after a crash in Sochi. He even slammed into the P2 board after a penalty stripped him from a victory last year at Spa. The board nearly hit Tsunoda, who inherited the win.

We can debate about “is it really that bad?” all day for any one of those points.

But the fact is, most of the sport’s fanbase can’t stand him because of it, and given those long lists, that should not be of any surprise to even his biggest fans.

He knows it, too. And he knows he can’t do anything about it.

Why else would he decisively blamed the hate he gets on the fact that he is Russian, of all things?

But part of this could actually be a positive for Mazepin, with all things considered.

He has earned his spot as the sport’s most hated driver, and no matter what he is able to do on the track — or even off of it — that hate and disdain isn’t going anywhere.

Anything that even remotely involves him in the future is going to be blamed on him. He will be at the center of that backlash.

Formula 1’s “punching bag”, if you will, is here to stay.

No, he can’t change it. We know that. But how he responds to that is solely up to him — again, both on and off the track.

Having more terrible showings like he did in Bahrain is only going to make it worse for himself, nobody else. Formula 1 fans will continue to eat it up, make memes, the whole shebang. Perhaps the hate and the added pressure is getting to him already. We have no way of knowing, unless it truly becomes a habit.

But on the other hand, proving the critics wrong is only going to make it better for himself, and that’s the only thing he needs to focus on, because at the end of the day, nothing good is going to come from getting caught up in the criticism.