Force India development driver Nikita Mazepin spoke to Motorsport.com about his impressions from his first F1 test, his plans for the future and how he met Michael Schumacher.
Co-author: Oleg Karpov, F1 Editor, Motorsport.com Russia
In June, Mazepin made his debut behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car in the Silverstone test, and was able to make an instant good impression.
Running with Force India, the 17-year-old Russian, who races in European F3 in 2016, did two days of post-British GP testing and even surpassed the qualifying time of regular driver Nico Hulkenberg.
Nikita, it's been a few weeks since your test in Silverstone. How do you look back on it, how was the experience?
It was an incredible experience to get from the team and I'm very thankful for it. And it definitely has helped me in Formula 3. This year, I've also done some Formula Renault 2.0 races - and every time I went back to F3, it felt on the limit. But the F1 test, it just helped me to kind of feel more confident in the F3.
I think I did a pretty good job on the test. I helped the team as much as I could, didn't make any mistake, and I think the laptime from my performance runs - which I didn't have many of, really - wasn't too bad at the end of both days, so I was quite happy about it. And it was an incredible experience.
Do you feel the team was satisfied with the data you provided?
I think so. I mean, obviously, the main idea was to test all the components that they can't really use on the race weekend because they don't have enough time. And they also were interested in testing the other compounds and seeing how Pirelli chooses the tyres.
I was running mainly on softs, which was the tyre for the weekend, but we also tried the supersofts and the ultrasofts. They just wanted to see whether the compounds were good enough for the circuit or not. I reckon I gave good feedback, especially, you know, putting a supersoft set on for the first time, I was able to really say what I felt on it and, it turns out, it wasn't bad.
What was the most surprising thing about driving an F1 car?
I think the amount of power it has out of the corners. In Silverstone, you have a lot of corners that are mostly straight but with a little kink - and in the beginning it's really hard to build up confidence. The brakes are so good, you don't really feel any worries before you brake. And, obviously, when you accelerate, you don't want to spin and go off track because there's quite a lot of rain as well, so all the astroturf was wet. You wouldn't want to exceed the track limits.
So, yeah, the power was the biggest thing. And the downforce at a high speed was big - but, then again, the F3 car has quite a lot of downforce as well, so that wasn't such a big difference.
Obviously, the modern F1 car is pretty complicated. How long did it take you to learn the procedures?
Yeah, the car is very complicated - but, to be honest, it didn't take that long to learn. I mean, the engineers in the team are very good. I got a chance to work with Sergio Perez's crew and it was awesome. They were just so helpful, everyone in the team. There were, naturally, things that I didn't know, and I could ask anyone about it, and they were very open.
When you're testing, you want to make a good impression, and you don't want to risk looking stupid by asking too many questions. But I felt really comfortable and I think it's partly why it went well. I knew what I was doing, I wasn't at all close to damaging the car or the engine - it all went well.
Was the physical side a problem?
No, not really. F3 cars are quite difficult now and I do work hard to prepare myself for races. And, for a driver that wants to graduate to higher categories in the future, it was perfect, really.
Do you feel like you've made an impression?
I think so. I definitely feel that I can be a helpful driver to the team. If I do get another chance, it'll be a great opportunity - as well as helping the team, every time I get in the car I help myself.
You can't rent an F1 car and go for a day's drive. It's such an exclusive opportunity, such a small number of drivers get it in their lives. I'm thankful to be one of those and I'm hopeful for another chance, because I did really try my best in the test.
The Schumacher connection
How did you get your start in motorsport?
The same way pretty much everyone did, really. I went to a rental go-kart place, tried it out, and, thanks to the people around the go-kart centre, they got me into it. And, you know, when you're six, seven, you're looking for activities to do after school.
I came there three times a week, just having fun, and I got pretty good at it. They said there was a chance to do a higher level - Moscow championship races, Russian championship races. I went there, it was a shock, obviously, as it was such a different level, but I got into it. I slowly progressed into the European Championship, then the World Championship. And when I finished second two times in a row, we thought there was potential in me as a driver, so we progressed into cars.
How quickly did you realize that this was what you wanted to do?
I knew that I wanted to be an F1 driver since I was nine years old. And that's why the test I did was such a great feeling. We all want to be successful, and when there's something you've been working for for so many years, and you finally get a taste of it, it motivates you more - and it makes you feel like you're close to making it.
Who was your hero growing up?
Oh, I think this will be a very common answer - obviously, Michael Schumacher. I raced against his son in karts, in the same team and same class. And seeing Michael coming over to our team's tent all the time, being very humble around us, asking how I feel about the kart and things like this, it was great. So Michael was the main inspiration to me, really.
What was it like meeting him for the first time?
Well, when you're building up to be a racing driver, you aim for the top. Michael was the top, still is. The main thing for me was just seeing how he acts - how he acts with fans, how he talks to people. When you want to replicate a champion, you want to replicate everything, not just the driving. Especially when you're building your personal character as a kid. So, I mean, that was a great opportunity.
Did you get along well with Mick?
Yeah, we were good friends. He spent a lot of time at the track, as did I - and it's quite lonely, always being at the track, so we used to always have dinners together and stuff like that. We used to spend a lot of time together when we raced in the KF Junior class - but when I went to the senior class, he stayed in juniors for another year. And we kept in touch, but now, obviously, me racing in F3 and him racing in F4, two different categories...
So we haven't really kept in touch so much recently - I'm just so busy, with F1 commitments, F3 commitments and the Formula Renault races I'm doing. It's not easy. In the end, you're not out here to make friends, but I'm always up for a good friendship with people.
Do you recognize anything in Mick from Michael?
Hard to say, I've never really known Michael. I can only guess from what I heard from people.
I myself have never been the nicest driver out on track, I always enjoy a good battle and I'm here to win - and, to be honest, I had a few collisions with Mick. He wanted to do his best, he's quite an aggressive driver, as am I.
And that's the thing - Mick's a great driver. Fair play to him, he's doing well in F4, we did well in karting together. Hopefully we'll meet up one day somewhere at the top.
Is is true that your karting coach was the same as Daniil Kvyat's?
Yes - and it's thanks to this coach that I got into karting, really.
Did you hang out with Daniil at all?
Not much. He gave me a few bits of advice back in the day - but, obviously, he quite was high up the ladder at that point already, we were on different career paths. But with Daniil, I always kept an eye on how his career was going.
"You have to arrive in F1 ready"
What do you think about Max Verstappen's path from karting to F1 in basically the span of two years?
Well, obviously, Max is a great driver. I've known him for quite a long time from karting. To do what he did, you really have to be in the right class at the right time and everything - but he worked hard, obviously, he did a good job. But if you don't jump as quickly, I don't think that's a big deal. The main thing for young drivers is to get to F1 and eventually win the world championship.
If you get there early, it's great. But it doesn't mean that, if you don't do it, it's the end of the game. You have to take your time in every category, and that's what I'm doing. I'm doing my best everywhere I go. It's not easy jumping to F3 from Formula Renault last year, maybe it was a year too early - but where I am now is F3, that's my main focus. And I'm improving my driving, getting used to the car.
Have you set yourself a certain timeline to try and get to Formula 1?
Well, the main thing about F1 is that you have to arrive there ready. You never know, every driver progresses differently. And it's not just when I feel I'm ready - there aren't many teams in F1, just two places in each team. I'm very thankful to have a commitment with Force India and, hopefully, when I have enough superlicence points, when I've done well in this championship [F3], they'll be interested in me, or some other team will be.
Do you think you're ready to run FP1 sessions for Force India, in the role that is now occupied by Alfonso Celis?
Alfonso's older than me, he's got more experience. I think I've shown good potential in the test that I've done. It's hard to compare yourself to other test drivers - I've done just two days, everyone is on a different strategy. But I think the team should consider me, that I can be just as useful as Alonso, maybe more.
It's their call. I'm there, ready with my helmet and my suit. If they want me in the car, they can get me.