The Haas Formula 1 Team — the only American team in F1 — debuted a Russian flag with a race car behind it on Thursday. I can only describe the Haas VF-21 chassis in such a fashion because the influence is so blatant.
The team’s new title sponsor, a Russian potash fertilizer producer called Uralkali, is owned by Dmitry Mazepin, the Russian billionaire father of Nikita Mazepin, one of Haas’ new drivers for 2021. As you can see, Uralkali’s colors are those of the Russian flag. (Nikita Mazepin is bad enough on his own, having publicly groped a woman on his Instagram story.)
This has provoked the interest of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), because Russian athletes are forbidden from competing in “world championship sporting events” until 2023 as punishment for state-sponsored doping during the 2014 Winter Olympics.
It’s for that reason that Mazepin won’t compete in F1 as a Russian driver for the next two years. Motorsport.com reports that WADA is now investigating whether Haas’ chosen design falls within the rules:
Haas claimed its livery was not designed to circumvent the CAS ruling, but WADA has revealed it is looking into the matter.
“WADA is aware of this matter and is looking into it with the relevant authorities,” a spokesperson from WADA told Motorsport.com.
The uncertainty would appear to lie within the clause of the ruling that says Russian athletes “shall not display publicly […] any national emblem or other national symbol of the Russian Federation, including without limitation, on their clothes, equipment or other personal items.”
The key here is that the decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) places the onus on athletes, not their sponsors. Yes, Mazepin is Russian — and yes, the “equipment” he uses (in this case, his car) is subject to the same rules he is. But Haas is trying to argue here that it’s not Mazepin flying the white, blue and red, but rather the team’s title sponsor, whose branding is not the Russian flag but just so happens to utilize the same colors because it is a Russian company. That both Mazepin and Uralkali are Russian is but a mere coincidence. (As we’ve established, it’s not.)
I’ll let Haas F1’s straight-shooting boss Gunther Steiner, who has a knack for explaining things in the simplest terms possible, paraphrase the team’s rationale best:
“Obviously we cannot use the Russian flag as the Russian flag, but you can use colours on a car,” said Haas F1 boss Gunther Steiner.
“In the end, it’s the athlete which cannot display the Russian flag and not the team. The team is an American team.”
Is this reasoning adequate enough to stand up to WADA’s scrutiny? It might just be. Is it in the spirit of the CAS ruling? Hell no. It’s shrewd and exploitative, and I think you could make a solid argument that the layering and proportions of the white, blue and red strips on the front wing is tantamount to a Russian flag graphic.
The design has also been panned by some fans as a big middle finger to the team’s “American” roots — the roots it so proudly proclaims in its Twitter bio, and simultaneously in the smallest possible way on the car itself. Do you see the American flag? It’s right there, against the floor.
What makes this all even sadder, to me — as if the team employing a sexual assaulter wasn’t enough — is that the season hasn’t even begun yet and this year’s Haas is already so futile. The team didn’t spend any of the development tokens allotted to it on progressing its design, and so the VF-21 is essentially a carry-over of the VF-20, itself never updated throughout the 2020 campaign.
Steiner says this “transitional” strategy is very much by design. It’s to save money and focus on preparing a challenger for the vastly unique aerodynamics requirements of 2022 and onward. The team’s two rookie drivers will get to use 2021 as a low-pressure environment purely for gaining experience, before Haas can chart a course for its true ambitions next year. It’s an understandable approach, but it’s also reflective of the team’s hopeless position these days — a far cry from the promise shown in its early years. This flag debacle is just self-inflicted insult to injury.