I enjoyed most of the Russian GP weekend. I did not feel that I could not say what I thought, did not feel that I was being watched or whatever. The facilities were decent, the fans were enthusiastic and the place itself seemed nice enough, although we never really had the time nor the energy to venture out of the Olympic area, where we were staying. Those that did, came back with some interesting tales. I had a few minor gripes about silly things like the quality of Internet access, the colour of water in the bath tub and the troubles some folks had being fed, not to mention the ease of access to the region. But we have these kinds of things at other places as well, notably in Korea and Indian in recent years. There was wildly excessive security at times, but then again I fully appreciate the Russians do not want Chechan suicide bombers in the crowd.
It probably did not help that the Grand Prix came straight after the Bianchi accident in Japan and the stress and strain of an intercontinental back-to-back. But once the cars started running in Sochi, things began to settle down.
The one discordant note, as far as I was concerned, was the feeling that the sport was being used for propaganda purposes by President Vladimir Putin. When someone famous turns up (or leaves) in the middle of a race you know that their motivation is purely related to photo opportunities and video clips. They have no interest beyond that.
Commercial folk like Bernie Ecclestone have no qualms about trading with anyone, as long as there is money in it. It was the same in Bahrain a couple of years back. He believes that any publicity is good publicity.
After a while in Sochi I began to wonder if it was just me and so I asked a few senior F1 figures – off the record – about their private feelings on the subject. Remember that teams are contracted to race and so go where they have to go, even if they don’t want to. “I think it is disgusting,” said one. “The sport should not be mixing with…” well, I’ll leave out the rest because Russian readers will not like hearing their leader described in such terms. Needless to say “blood on his hands” was a phrase included in the rant. Others wondered whether it was wise strategic thinking, given Putin’s reputation outside Russia at the moment.
I understand Bernie. Money is money and if giving politicians what they want gets you more money, then some people will do it. Ecclestone seems to look upon Putin as a kind of Thatcherite hero, who made Russia more competitive and is trying to change Soviet era attitudes. Some of this is probably true but being too enthusiastic is perhaps not wise.
I don’t understand FIA President Jean Todt at all. Perhaps he wins votes in Syria, Cuba and North Korea but he is going to be doing himself damage in other key regions. Will this really help with his ambitions to become the czar of road safety for the United Nations? I just don’t see it. Perhaps he felt it was a good idea given that Russia’s FIA representative is General Victor Kiryanov, an important man in Russian policing in his role as Russia’s Deputy Interior Minister. He is a man of influence at the UN.
In essence there is nothing wrong with racing in Russia, it is a good market and the people seem keen, but the timing was dreadful and it might have been wiser to wait until things have calmed down a little more.
I don’t believe for one minute that sport can really transcend politics. It is a nice idea but utter rubbish. Politicians like Putin are using the sport to enhance their image and F1 is foolish not to appreciate that.
I have a Russian colleague who has views on these subjects that have shocked me of late. Of course, one must remember that most Russian media, especially the television, is controlled by the state or by those close to Russia’s leadership, but he actually seems to believe in the Russian coverage of the Crimean crisis, the activities in the Donetsk region and the shooting down of flight MH17. This has featured some spectacular explanations that do not appear to be supported by the facts on the ground. My colleague is now refusing to go to the United States GP or to next year’s British GP because he thinks that these countries have been unfair to his homeland.
My view is that a journalist who picks and chooses events based on his political beliefs is fundamentally flawed, because one should always go and report on what you see and what you feel, and if you feel that you cannot speak out then you should report on that as well…