Earlier this week, Haas Formula One Team boss Guenther Steiner lamented the social media backlash against his newly signed Russian driver Nikita Mazepin. He told RACER, “We continue to have dialogue with Nikita about many things, including what happened at the end of last season. He took immediate responsibility for his actions—he apologized; he’s learned from this experience, he’s undoubtedly been chastened by it, and he’ll apply that moving forward in his Formula 1 career.”
If you missed it, Mazepin posted a video on his Instagram story of him groping a woman’s breast in a car. Race fans immediately responded to the incident with annoyance: not only did Mazepin grope a woman who was trying to shield herself, but he put the video of the incident on the internet, which exposed a woman in a vulnerable moment.
The woman in the clip initially said that she and Mazepin were friends, but she later began tweeting about sexual harassment, which has led many to wonder if it’s tied to the Mazepin situation. Mazepin, for his own part, posted a Notes app apology on Twitter before deleting it soon after.
Fans took to social media to not just take Mazepin to task for what he did by kicking off the #SayNoToMazepin hashtag, but they also wanted to know what F1 and Haas would be doing about the situation. This is the same global sporting organization that spent 2020 promoting equality, so the hope was that it could open a dialogue about the female experience in the racing world. But F1 opted to let Haas deal with the matter, and the team has opted to do so personally—which seems like PR talk that basically means the whole thing has been swept under the rug.
“The response on social media towards him is still strong, we’re naturally aware of that via our team posts. While respecting that people are entitled to voice their opinions, no matter how vigorous, as a team we feel we have provided Nikita with the best environment to learn from this, and now with Bahrain fast approaching, the opportunity to concentrate on the season ahead,” Steiner told RACER.
Team owner Gene Haas seemed, for his own part, like he wasn’t totally sure how the situation was handled: “Our response to it was I think Guenther told him that he was an idiot and you can’t do things like that and it was totally unacceptable. I think he got a lot of criticism from all sides that just piled on him—he’s 21 years old, for a young man the deluge of criticism must have been difficult to take, so I’m hoping it’s a good lesson learned.”
It’s that last part I can’t help but hone in on, the one about social media. I have to say that the response to Mazepin has been demanding, but it hasn’t often been cruel; people simply want to see a man held accountable for his actions in a way that goes beyond a now-erased Twitter apology. Especially when women have been dealing with shit from men in the motorsport world for ages.
Listen. I get it. Having people dogpile your Twitter mentions sucks—I know that firsthand. It’s a downer opening up social media to find that people are being shitty to you yet again. But let me take a minute to tell you a story.
Some of my first forays into automotive writing came via my efforts to discuss what it’s like to be a woman who loves racing. That was my first post on Jalopnik about 100 years ago. It was something I talked about on my old personal blog several times. That last article I just linked, the one about Formula One banning grid girls, got decent traction because people had a lot of thoughts about the subject. And a lot of people had a lot to say to me about it.
I got some comments that were genuinely funny, like the dude who told me that women were “infiltrating the pantheon” of male-dominated sport. I had some people tell me that the real travesty here was that I wasn’t writing about all the men in motorsport who were nice to me. I had people tell me that I should just get a thicker skin because “getting ribbed” is the point of going to sporting events.
But the worst thing that came of it was that a former championship-winning racing driver quoted my article on Twitter to lecture me about how the real sexist disparity here is the pay difference between male and female models and that it’s a travesty that grid girls were banned from F1. He posted a few more tweets mocking me. And then some of his followers started going in on me. I opened my DMs to find photos of the apartment complex where I lived and rape threats. I was told that I’d be shown something really worth worrying about if I went to the Circuit of the Americas by myself and they found me. And I lost track of how many phone numbers I blocked because they wouldn’t stop calling me or leaving threatening voicemails.
In his defense, that champion took down the mocking tweets and said he didn’t condone threats of violence, but it stuck with me. I’ve been Firmly Online since I was a wee child, and I’ve received my fair share of online hate before, but never before had I actually been scared. A pizza guy knocked on my door trying to deliver pizza to the wrong apartment, and it took me days before I actually calmed down.
At the time, I was younger than Mazepin.
Now, I’m not going to make the argument that some people deserve the online threats they receive, because I don’t stand for people being shitty. But I’m also not going to categorize a legitimate criticism of someone’s bad behavior as “people being shitty.” No one blinked an eye at the harassment I underwent for writing a blog; I have a hard time extending sympathy to Mazepin for being upset that he posted a video harassing a woman.
And before my experience is discounted by someone in the comments, I want to note that I’ve spent the last several months talking to female race fans and professionals from all walks of life, and there’s often a similar theme. There’s a line to be drawn between criticism and harassment. There’s a difference between asking Haas how it handled the Mazepin situation and telling a young woman she’s a slut for thinking Lando Norris is cute. There’s a difference between wanting to see F1 take a stance against harassment and in making spam accounts to continue calling someone names after they block you.
I do agree with Steiner and Haas. I hope it’s an incident Mazepin has learned from. But I also hope it’s an incident that can grant us a wider perspective on the way motorsport views women.