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MRF Challenge, Round 1: Nikita on podium at series opener

Barely a month after he completed his impressive karting career as the vice-World Champion in France last month, Nikita opened the next chapter of his career with a terrific performance on his car racing debut.

The 15-year old Muscovite had flown to Doha to contest the opening round of the increasingly important, Indian-based MRF series and faced a schedule of testing, qualifying and four races crammed into three days. Not only had he got to contend with the challenges of making his single-seater bow but also the high temperatures at the Middle Eastern venue.

In Friday’s two practice sessions Nikita fared well, adjusting positively to using a traditional gear stick and the strains of a two-minute long lap, with a variety of different corners to learn. In his first session, Mazepin was 9th-fastest and improved to 6th-quickest in his second run.

A blistering lap during timed qualifying saw Nikita overcome a spin early on to claim a superb 2nd on the grid for the inaugural race of the championship.

“I was happy with my performance,” Nikita said afterwards. “I out-paced a number of older and far more experienced drivers which was satisfying, as this is all new to me.”

Despite this early confidence boost, Nikita’s lack of experience in a racing car environment punished him in Race One. Having made a good start from the start-line, he was squeezed onto the rumble strip of the exit of Turn One and dropped to 6th position. Keeping his cool, Mazepin re-took a place and went on to set the second-fastest lap of the race – taking the chequered flag in a fine 5th.

“Given it was my first ever car race, I think I handled the pressure and my nerves quite well”, Mazepin reflected post-race. “It was a comfortable start to my career and gave me a solid platform to build on for the next races.”

Starting again from P2 on the grid for Race Two, Nikita made another strong getaway but made sure he didn’t repeat his earlier mistake. Able to use his natural speed, Nikita was able to create a small gap over his rivals and home in on the race leader’s rear wing. Yet, despite his best efforts, he was unable to launch a passing manoeuvre, as he explains: “Every time I got close, I suffered from a balance problem caused by following in the other car’s ‘dirty air’. For sure, not knowing how to deal with it and overcome it straight away meant that I had to go for Plan B and bring the car home safe and sound, rather than risk something. Naturally, I was really happy with achieving 2nd place in my first ever weekend of car racing. Was the win possible? Yes, perhaps if I had more experience of understanding how the aerodynamics change when you’re racing at such high speeds, perhaps, but 2nd is still good.”

The team’s joy was tempered in Race Three, when a spin prompted his maiden DNF (Did Not Finish). Whilst closely following the car in 4th place, Nikita underestimated the lack of aero balance and spun off in a high speed corner. His subsequent disappearance from the race meant that he would start the fourth and final encounter of the weekend from the back of the field.

Using all the experience he has gained from karting and what he had learned in the space of the three days in Qatar, Nikita won a legion of new fans with his charge up the order, to an eventual 6th position. An understandably delighted Nikita described the action: “It was a great race – really fun. I had a good start -moving up to 11th – and gradually started picking drivers off. I felt much more comfortable with how to pass cars neatly and efficiently. This helped me to catch the leading pack and I think that may have surprised a few people.”

Summing up his thoughts, Nikita’s driver coach and mentor Oli Oakes said: “Overall Nikita performed very maturely throughout the weekend. At 15, it cannot be easy going into your first car qualifying session with just two 30-minute practice sessions in which to learn about the characteristics of the car and track. So, to qualify in 2nd place was really impressive.”

He added: “During the weekend his performances in the races got stronger and stronger. Naturally, the first race was always going to be a little nerve-wracking for him – especially starting off the front row – but he handled it well to keep out of trouble and come home in 5th. Race Two was also impressive; he really looked way beyond his years. The Qatari heat, which was in the mid-30s (degrees Celsius) all day and then race during the evening, presented him with new challenges and it was enormously encouraging and satisfying to see that all his preparation paid off. We’re looking to continuing his development in readiness for his entry into the Formula Renault 2.0 NEC series in 2014”.