ANALYSIS: Why Haas retained Schumacher and Mazepin – and what it means for the last seat open at Alfa Romeo
On the eve of the Russian Grand Prix, Haas announced Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin would be staying put for another season, leaving just one seat left on the 2022 grid. F1.com’s Senior Writer Lawrence Barretto looks at the reasons behind that decision…
Schumacher heading in the right direction
When Guenther Steiner signed-off on a deal to bring Mick Schumacher - son of seven-time world champion Michael - into Formula 1, he did so with the intention of running him for at least two seasons, so it is of no surprise that the German was confirmed to stay on for the 2022 campaign.
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There had been a desire from inside the Schumacher camp to explore the possibility of moving to Alfa Romeo next season, but that was always unlikely given Steiner had a contract with Ferrari to run him, and I understand neither side were interested in changing their plans.
Schumacher has done a decent job so far in his rookie campaign. Yes, there have been errors – such as crashing at the pit exit during a Safety Car period in Imola. But that is to be expected from a young driver finding his feet in what is a very difficult – and slow – car to drive.
Encouragingly, there have been peaks, including setting a time good enough for Q2 in France in a car that is the slowest in the field by some margin. The team have been impressed by the German – as have Ferrari, with whom he remains part of their junior programme.
Ferrari have worked with Schumacher for several years now. They know that he takes time to get to grips with a new championship. So the fact he hasn’t crushed team mate Nikita Mazepin from the off will be no surprise.
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A second season with now familiar surroundings, in a car that should be significantly better next year – Haas were the first team to switch full resources to the rule change for next year and they will continue to take many parts from their technical partnership with Ferrari that will include an all-new power unit expected to be a good step forwards – is the perfect scenario for the Scuderia to properly evaluate Schumacher.
History has shown Schumacher kicks on in his second campaign with a team, which is encouraging for Haas as they will be hoping to become regular points scorers next year – and running a driver with a famous surname, who is attractive to sponsors, continues to be beneficial for the team’s stature and bank balance.
Now it’s up to Schumacher Jr to prove he has what it takes.
Mazepin remains a part of the Haas rebuild
Like Schumacher, Mazepin’s presence at Haas beyond this season was always the plan, helped in part because his billionaire father Dmitry pumps significant funds into the team.
As it stands, that looks likely to continue for the foreseeable future, which means Mazepin remains part of Haas’ future going forward.
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The Russian has been outperformed by his team mate this year, only twice finishing ahead on the 10 occasions they have both seen the chequered flag, but he has shown an upturn in form since receiving a new chassis.
There have been too many clashes between him and Schumacher on track – with neither driver guilt-free – and like his team mate, he needs to improve his consistency. But a year of learning should stand him in good stead for next season.
And providing the car is significantly better as hoped, the thousands of miles he clocked up in a more responsive and former championship-winning Mercedes ahead of his F1 debut should be of more use to him as he looks to show he deserves a place on the grid in the long term.
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Zhou the favourite to take remaining Alfa seat
And so we’re left with just one seat to fill, leaving all eyes on Alfa Romeo.
Guanyu Zhou has been the frontrunner to get a seat with the Swiss team for months, but their priority was to lock in nine-time race winner Valtteri Bottas.
Once that deal was inked, more focus could be put on the second seat – and it is here that the team have more leeway than they have done in previous years. This is because engine supplier Ferrari no longer have a say on who drives in one of the cockpits.
The Ferrari relationship remains a strong one, so Team Principal Fred Vasseur will continue to have dialogue with the Italian team with regards drivers, not least because the works team has a strong driver academy – but ultimately he can be his own man.
Zhou is currently second in the F2 championship, 15 points off the top and has kicked on this year, showing a more mature approach to racing. Vasseur is experienced in blooding young talent, so taking the Chinese driver under his wing won’t faze him.
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The 22-year-old brings financial backing, too, which would help push Alfa Romeo closer to the budget gap – though I understand it is nowhere near the eye-watering amounts being touted in some media outlets.
Zhou’s profile is growing dramatically in China – a market that many teams would be keen to tap into – and that’s before he’s even got a reserve role, let alone a race seat. Should he make it onto the grid, the commercial opportunities would be huge.
With that in mind, while perhaps not the outright fastest young driver on the market, he is a cracking all-round package – and that’s what makes him favourite to take the seat.
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A deal has not yet been signed, though, so there remains hope for Antonio Giovinazzi to find a way to keep his seat for a fourth campaign or Formula E champion Nyck de Vries, who is backed by Mercedes, to force his way into contention.
But as it stands, it’s looking very good for China to get their first-ever Formula 1 race driver.