This is the “On The Grid” column written for GP+ in Sochi. I think it is worth repeating for non-subscribers, as there are things that perhaps should be said about the event. It was entitled “Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie…”
The locals would like the world to think of the coastline around Sochi as “The Russian Riviera”. This is rather optimistic, although it is a rather a scenic area. The Russian government poured inordinate amounts of money – something in the region of $50 billion – to create new infrastructure for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and they hope that this will mean economic benefits for generations to come.
It is a bizarre fact that President Vladimir Putin’s dabbling in Crimea and Ukraine – and the ensuing economic sanctions and manipulations of the price of oil – have caused the ruble to halve in value in the last 12 months. This would logically mean that foreigners could enjoy cheaper Russian holidays, but Putin’s behaviour has done very little to attract tourists.
The plunging ruble has, effectively, doubled the cost of foreign holidays for Russian citizens and so rather than jetting off to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat or The Hamptons, they have been taking domestic holidays instead. According to Russia’s Federal Agency for Tourism, the total number of trips Russians made abroad in the first half of 2015 dropped by 24 percent compared to the same period in 2014.
This has worked in Sochi’s favour, because Russians are taking more domestic holidays than ever before and the Black Sea coast is seen as being an exciting place to be.
For the seasoned travellers of F1, it has a rather 1970s feel to it, particularly when it rains, but generally F1 folk are polite about where they go and, while some have very serious misgivings about what the sport is doing in Russia, people do not come out and say it. It reminds me of the behaviour in a childhood rhyme, called the “Smuggler’s Song”, by Rudyard Kipling. It goes as follows: “If you wake at midnight and hear a horse’s feet, don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street. Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie. Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by.”
The darlings of the F1 world have been watching the walls in Sochi with considered concentration. They may not like the idea of being used as a propaganda tool, but there is not much that can be done about it and so the only solution is to stick one’s fingers in one’s ears and go “la-la-la-la” loudly, so as not to hear any disapproving noises. Putin is big on cultivating a macho image, hunting, shooting, fishing, riding Harleys and other manly pursuits, and so F1’s image is just the kind of thing he wants.
I cannot say that I know where the line should be drawn. It is not my job to do that, but sometimes I do wonder whether the motorsport authorities have been sufficiently serious about these matters, or whether everything is dictated solely by money.
Let us not forget, that Russia is not at the top of the international hit parade at the moment. It was thrown out of the G8 organisation in March 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. Let us not forget also that a few months later 298 innocent people died when a civilian airliner was shot out of the sky. Everyone denies having done it, but a few weeks ago Dutch investigators announced that fragments of a suspected Russian missile system had been found at the crash site. This came after a draft resolution put before the UN Security Council to set up an international tribunal into the incident was vetoed by Russia.
Let us not forget also that as the F1 circus was heading in to Sochi, the Russians were launching salvo after salvo of rockets from ships in the Caspian Sea at targets in Syria, 1000 miles away. The goal was to keep the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, but at the same time one can argue that it is also an attempt to get Russia seen as a major player in international relations once again, something that will help rally support behind Putin, by instilling the Russian population with a new sense of pride and patriotism.
We talked of none of this in Sochi, but there was an undercurrent in the paddock, an uncomfortable sense that maybe, just maybe, F1 should be a little more standoffish with Russia. People who one expects to see at races, were not there. Others kept their heads down and talked only of racing matters, and mumbled quietly about getting the weekend over and done with, and looking forward to going to the other extreme in a few days time in Austin, Texas.
There were small hints of resistance. Up in the media centre on Friday, some wag created a wireless network called “CIAspyfi”. It was not long before some mysterious men appeared in the room with what was clearly a radio detection device, keen to try to find out who was responsible for this act of defiance. After a few minutes, the network disappeared and another popped up. It was called “Not-CIA-Spy”. The radio detection man continued to wander about, trying to identify the source of the signal. A few more minutes passed and another network called “Youcantfindmeeeee” appeared.
Anyone with an idea about these things knows that if you want to pinpoint a signal you really need to have two direction finding devices so that one can use triangulation techniques to flush out the offender(s).
On Saturday morning it was no great surprise to see that there were two Russians with radio detection devices… but the signal was gone. The birds had flown.
The FIA, feeling somewhat caught in the middle, issued a statement saying that the free wifi network provided for the media was being “unduly stressed by the large number of private networks being connected to the system” and asked those involved to respect the efforts made in recent times to provide the press with free communication.
This was ironic, of course, because the federation entirely overlooked the fact that a Grand Prix is designed to make places look good and that it has always been absolutely outrageous to force the media to pay large sums of money to deliver that message. We understand that this happens simply because the promoters are trying to claw back money that they have been forced to pay for the events, but it is wrong.
It was all harmless fun (although perhaps the Russians did not see it that way), but it did underline the fact that beneath the surface in F1, some people are aware of the bigger picture.