Nikita’s debut in endurance racing.
After a year of rest from racing on the ring, the fourth Russian in F-1, Nikita Mazepin , returned to the Asian Le Mans Series: it is organized by the same promoter as the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, the races are held on those the same cars, and in general the series itself is seen as a good warm-up and preparation for the world championship in endurance racing. Great place to start rolling into a new series.
Nikita got down to business in a corporate style: he showed up with, it seems, his own 99 Racing team in the LMP2 class and took the vice-champion of the 2021 series and the 2022 champion in the GT class and an old acquaintance from the junior series as partners (he even raced in F-3 for the Mazepin-owned High-Tech) Ben Barnikot and the former pilot of the Renault World Series, GP2 and the WTCC World Championship of road racing Felix Porteiro.
The line-up looked like an application for victory – there were simply no comparable ones in the standings. However, three days after the announcement, the first difficulties began: Barnicot found “crossovers with other contracts for participation in races and tests”, and he refused. I had to urgently look for a replacement for him – and a few days before the first practice, Neil Giani joined the 99 Racing squad: a former member of the Red Bull program, a former GP2 pilot and Toro Rosso tester, Le Mans winner and WEC champion in part of the factory Porsche. However, after finishing second in the GT World Championship, Neil almost dropped out of active racing due to the closure of most of the German automaker’s programs – he had to settle for at least something.
The next turn was waiting for the Mazepin team already before the start of the practice: the series first accepted the application of the crew from Porteiro, but then, due to protests from competitors, it revised Felix’s status upward from bronze to silver status – and 99 Racing was again left without a pilot .
Nikita and Neil had to work out training together while the management was hastily looking for a third one – after all, according to the rules of the Asian Series, such a driver in the crew is mandatory and it is he who must drive the prototype in qualifying.
A few hours before the reporting race, 99 Racing announced the application of a new veteran – 54-year-old Warren Hughes: a former Lotus and Williams tester in F-1, vice-champion of the Italian F-3000 (similar to ” F-2″ at that time) and the winner of “Le Mans” just in the LMP2 class. He has not actively raced since 2014, but has remained in business as a coach – for example, he mentored Matevos Isahakyan and Yegor Orudzhev from the Russian SMP in 2017.
And again, the plot twist: it turned out that Hughes received the “bronze” status only in 2023, and applications for the “Asian Series” were formed according to the categories of 2022 – when Warren still held the “silver” status. The 99 Racing rider was again rejected, and the newcomer had to be looked for just a few hours before qualifying.
They found the 47-year-old Portuguese Gonçalo Gomes, the 1991 Portuguese karting champion and the 1993 Portuguese Formula Ford winner, Formula Opel vice-champion, switched to endurance racing back in 1998, then raced only in Portugal and stopped in 2004. After – only club races like the Mini Cooper monoseries and historical GT-class endurance races: he had no experience with prototypes at all. But the Mazepin team just had to take the one who was on the spot and exactly went according to the rules.
The result was not too great: Gomes rode at the level of the lower LMP3 class in qualifying and eventually showed the eighth time out of nine LMP2 crews (worse – only retired by United Autosports), 3.6 seconds behind the leader.
Only in the four-hour race, Dzhani’s experience and Mazepin’s speed (and for the regional LMP2 he is still quite good – his fastest lap is 2 seconds better than Dzhani’s, but 1.5 seconds slower than other “prototypers”) allowed him to climb 3- That is, 9.3 seconds behind the leader after 118 laps. Taking into account the additional pit stop (7 against 6 for the main rivals), associated with the forced cuts in segments of the sudden “newcomer” – without chaos with re-bids, “99 Racing” would have fought for victory.
In the second race, it was no longer possible to break through: Mazepin’s crew again made 1 more pit stop and finished the race 6th, 38 seconds behind the leader after 115 laps. This time Nikita rode quite at the level of the tops, but Jani let him down: his best lap was 5 seconds slower than the best lap of the Russian.
What was it? Russophobia? Did they try to remove Mazepin from the championship?
The situation does not really look too pretty, but in fact it has nothing to do with Nikita’s personality and his presence in the sanation lists of the EU and the UK. The former No. 9 of Formula 1 himself quite calmly received a neutral status from the FIA, showed up and went to the start without a single problem – it seems that he signed all the necessary FIA papers with rather harsh wording . It is ironic for a person after a military department who has undertaken to spend a month of the summer of 2022 in the barracks.
But the point is in the maximum desire to win through the “hack” of the regulations.
It’s just that in endurance racing, pilots are divided into several categories according to age, experience and previous accomplishments. Categories four:
- “Platinum” – the owner of the F-1 super license, professional factory racer, winner of at least Le Mans and a number of other races, and not older than 50 years;
- Gold – Pro who started his career at the age of 20+, meets only one platinum criterion, but with racing success, an average lap time like other gold drivers, has won podiums in F-3 races for the last 10 years old and not older than 55 years old.
- “Silver” – a driver with the first racing license, who started his career at the age of 20+, demonstrates the pace at the level of other “Silver” and earns by racing. There is also a paragraph “other criteria at the discretion of the Categorization Committee”.
- “bronze” – a rider who has received a license after 30 years, racing at the level of other “bronze” or “at the discretion of the Committee”.
And if for the WEC the crew needs one “silver” or “bronze” for qualification and several segments, then the regulations of the “Asian Series” in the LMP2 class are a little tougher: it requires exactly “bronze”.
“99 Racing” was clearly going to win the “pre-season” and think about going to the European or World Championships – that’s why Porteiro was returned to racing: yes, he graduated back in 2012, but he founded the coaching company Porteiro Motorsport and mentored, for example, Carlos Sainz, Jaime Alguersuari, Vitaly Petrov and Roberto Meri – former F-1 drivers and successful in principle. In addition, the updated guidelines really do not prescribe such a strong automatic downgrade for Porteiro: after all, the 39-year-old Spaniard, although he ended his active career, had a “platinum” status 10 years ago – and taking into account the application rule for statuses 2022- his achievements had not yet “expired” and he could not get a license again.
Otherwise, the current categorization regulations simply do not imply such a significant reduction in the class of the rider: it only occurs when certain age levels are reached (Felix has not yet reached them) or when results are shown at a lower level for 3 seasons in a row – and data on times from laps are accepted only from those series where the driver has completed at least 75% of the races. Porteiro simply couldn’t prove it (because he has no active results), but there are no clauses about breaks and their length in the rules.
Why was he first given the “bronze” and accepted? Due to the confusion with the years of the application: yes, it’s a little strange that in the “Asian Series” of 2023 you need to race according to the categorization of 2022, and apparently the judges in the series itself sometimes forget about it (Hughes flew off for the same reason ). In addition, it seems that the initial issuance of the “bronze” status was indeed erroneous: for racers of Felix’s age, it is issued only upon obtaining the first racing license – and it is easy to prove that this is not his case. The indignation of rivals was seen as extremely predictable.
And there is no Russophobia here – exactly the same thing would have happened to any other crew. There is no national or sanction sign here.
And in general, the desire to “hack” the regulations through the search for an extremely fast “bronze” rider is a common theme for endurance racing. For example, prior to the introduction of the indispensable age limit, LMP2 teams organized entire test castings for fairly fast juniors from the youth series, who for some reason did not attract the attention of large sponsors or factory programs for career advancement. Usually these guys had a direct path to touring car racing, but it was the richest LMP2 organizations with goals in the form of victories at Le Mans and the WEC that gave them a new chance and salary.
One of the most striking examples is directly related to Russia: G-Drive Racing has found 18-year-old Franco Colapinto for the 2021 campaign. The Argentine won the Spanish F-4, took third place in the Formula Renault Eurocup and the New Zealand F-3 (Toyota Racing Series), riding on a par with the students of the Red Bull and Alpin academies, but did not find sponsors to continue your career. The Russians from G-Drive chose him in the tests, gave him a salary and helped him to stay in the sight of the top racing world. As a result, Franco managed to keep his place in the Regional Formula (class F-3, but with a status slightly lower than the world youth team), in 2022 he moved to the main F-3, won two races and got into the Williams program .
Now, with the new regulations, the attack on the boundaries of the rules has turned in the other direction: the teams are returning from the “retirements” of fast riders in the past, who switched to mentors due to lack of money, and are testing amateurs who started late. But among the latter, it is much more difficult to find a pilot capable of driving at the “gold” level, and the LMP2 class in the regional championships turned to “returnees”. Mazepin’s team is not the first here, and not unique, and hardly even the most impudent – it’s just the circumstances.
And the fault lies primarily with the promoter, who twice accepted the application from 99 Racing, then rightly canceled it after the bewilderment of competitors. And you can’t call it “sanctions”, because there would be no outrage at not quite correct categories – Nikita’s crew would have left with Porteiro. At first, the organizers simply made a mistake, but they calmly allowed everyone.
Nevertheless, there will still be one stage in the championship, and if you win it or successfully move to the European Le Mans Series, Mazepin’s crew may even be invited to the legendary 24 Hours. Now 99 Racing is in 5th place in the championship with 23 points, the leader has 37 points, and if you win the next two races, you can still bounce back. The season is just starting.
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