Here in Sochi the sun was shining today. The coastline along here is nice, so I am told, and rather reminiscent of the Cote d’Azur. The climate too is nice. It has long been a place where Russian leaders have gone for their rest, while in Soviet days, good workers and other heroes were sent to Sochi to enjoy life a little. Stalin had a dacha in Sochi which was painted green to camouflage it from the air. Brezhnev too was a regular Sochi visitor.
Today Sochi is known for having hosted the Olympics and now the Russian Grand Prix. It is big weekend for Bernie Ecclestone because he’s been after a Russian GP for more than 30 years. In GP+ this week we’re going to tell that story and a few other unknown tales of Russia’s F1 aspirations, so if you want to know more, go to www.grandprixplus.com and sign up.
As a taste, however, check out the letter that has fallen into my hands, by way of my colleague Keith Sutton. How he got it, I have no idea, but I know it is genuine and I know rather more of the story than the letter tells…
The fact that Russia has not managed a Grand Prix up to now, is the result of politics or economics and the event this weekend is going to be tainted to some extent because of the tension that currently exists between Russia and the United States over Ukraine. Bernie says that F1 is sport and sport alone, but President Vladimir Putin was expected to show up on Sunday for the race and a lot of people think that this is not an association that is good for F1. I did not want to get into that today, but I did want some reassurance that this is actually a sporting event, rather than a political exercise, and I concluded that there would be one sure-fire way to find out. In the middle of the circuit is a large plaza, filled with international flags. If this was a sporting event all the flags would be flying, even the Stars and Stripes. If the US flag was not there, then there would be a political agenda. I am not saying for one moment that this is exhaustive evidence that sport and politics can be separated, but it would be an indication that the Grand Prix is not wholly for propaganda purposes. I hope that the TV cameras pick this up on Sunday and broadcast the Stars and Stripes gallantly streaming over Russian soil, sending out the right message.
What F1 does not want at the moment is any politics: either at global level, or within the sport. What we need is a good race, to lift spirits. F1 is a sport in pain right now. Jules Bianchi’s accident in Japan was a huge shock for those who have not seen the cruel side of the sport before. The last serious injury in F1 was Felipe Massa five years ago in Hungary and of the current drivers only Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton, Rosberg, Räikkönen, Button, Sutil and Massa were there that day. There are a lot of F1 people who have never had to deal with the darker side. Some of them feel uneasy, some of them are plain scared. The older F1 folk still feel the pain but they have learned how to deal with it. That does not mean they do not care. It simply means that they understand what the sport really is. The key point, I think, is that Bianchi’s accident should not become part of any political public agenda. He deserves more respect than that. There is ample opportunity for those who wish to stir up trouble to do so, but none of it will help the sport, nor will it help Bianchi. And for those of you who see conspiracies behind every lamp-post this is not me justifying an F1 or FIA cover-up. If I thought that was happening I would be screaming about it, but I see nothing that changes my view that everything that was possible was done to avoid such an accident. Having a knee-jerk reaction and worrying too much about what the sensationalist media says, is not good leadership. The spotlight of the world is on F1 this weekend, for all the wrong reasons, and it is important to keep everything in proportion.
One thing that is interesting in Sochi is that there is a level of security that we have not seen in F1 before – anywhere. Getting into the circuit was like going through an airport. We walked in from the hotel (a very short distance) and I was required to empty my bag completely because a travelling journalist has a lot of things in his bag that might seem suspicious: all kinds of wires, plugs, hard drives and even wireless transmitters. Oddly the security were more excited about an inhaler. What was it? I must show a prescription for it.
“No,” I said, “I am not here in Russia to waste energy on stupidity. An inhaler is obviously an inhaler. If you want to check for poison, I’m happy to prove what it is by inhaling the stuff. Do you know why I am in Russia? I am here because you want me to write good things about your country. That is the purpose of the F1 race. If you insist on a prescription, I am going home and my view of Russia will not be very good, will it?”
I guess I was feeling tired, but in view of what happened in Suzuka, I was keen for F1 to mean something. Racing is sport. It is entertainment. It should put smiles on the faces of race fans the world over, it should be a force for unity, the stars should be role models, it should be more than just commerce or politics. And you know, probably by accident, it worked. International relations can be very successful when you let people just be people and you keep the politicians out. I showed them boiled sweets that had come from Japan. Maybe these were suspicious: I couldn’t read the ingredients, but the sweets taste of apples. They looked curious. And there was a keyring with a “Remove Before Flight” tag.
“Those are the keys of my private jet,” I said.
They laughed and we made progress with international relations…