Russia is a complicated place, in a lot of different ways, not least geographically. The vast country consists of 85 “federal subjects” – which, in principle, are similar to the counties of Britain, the states of America, the départments of France or the lands of Germany. The only problem is that not everyone agrees on the number because some outside Russia don’t recognise two of these entities on the Crimean Peninsula, because they don’t like the fact that Russia annexed the area back in 2014 and upset folks in The West by being expansionist.
Anyway, these so-called “federal subjects” have several different legal statuses, although I doubt the average Russian could explain the difference between a krai and an oblast. All I can say is that there are only nine krais, while other “federal subjects” are republics, okrugs or “cities of federal importance”.
If I go on trying to explain all this, I could end up writing more than Leo Tolstoy did for War and Peace and Mikhail Sholokhov did with his Don novels: And Quiet Flows the Don, The Don Flows On, and On and On and On Flows the Don (I am making a joke here, in case people wish to write in and complain that Sholokhov never wrote the latter two books). The point I am trying to make is that the two aforementioned authors were rather wordy by nature, Tolstoy’s masterpiece, for example, is an impressive 600,000 words.
Now, I am told that the longest “book” ever is a Japanese fantasy story that runs to a nine million words, although I doubt that anyone has ever counted them.
A Russian might riposte that Tolstoy was not verbose at all compared to Britain’s Henry Williamson, who wrote “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight”, which runs to 15 volumes and about 2.4 million words. God alone knows how Williamson had time to dash off “Tarka the Otter”, which sold rather more copies than his magnum opus.
This is because people don’t want to have to rent a truck when they pop into a book store to buy something, and because everyone likes cuddly animals like otters. This, by the way, also explains why Daniel Ricciardo is so popular amongst F1 fans as the so-called Honey Badger. This is a sweet-looking animal, until it tears your head off…
The point that I was trying to make here, is that Russia is a country rich with literature, music, art and culture and yet we in The West tend to think that it as a dark and threatening place, filled with people who look like villains from James Bond movies, who are constantly scheming to take over the world, blow things up and to kill people who drive Aston Martins. Perhaps this explains why Aston Martin boss Lawrence Stroll spent the Sochi weekend driving around in a Porsche (I didn’t see it, but I was told that this was the case). It may, of course, be that it is hard to find Aston Martins in Russia, not because SMERSH has blown them all up, but rather because Sochi is a long way from the Aston Martin Moscow showrooms.
The image we have of Russia is odd, but I guess comes from a century of mistrust, beginning after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. We even have a word “bolshie” for people who are deliberately combative and uncooperative, which derives from Bolshevik. So, to put it another way, we are biased, but most of us probably don’t realise it.
However, when you arrive in Russia for the first time, it is a bit daunting. Very few people speak English and the unsmiling immigration officials tend to perpetuate the myth. I am sure that somewhere there is an Institute for the Development of Smiley Officialdom, but not many of its graduates have made it to the front line as yet.
I must say that arriving in Moscow’s Unpronounceable International Airport is never very joyful and getting into Sochi in the early hours of the morning tends to add to the stereotypes. Finding a taxi is an instant dive into the world of Bond villains. I’ve tried for years to explain to officialdom all over the world that a country’s primary ambassadors are not the folk who drink gin & tonics on embassy terraces, but rather immigration officials and the taxi drivers.
The selection of this year’s Sochi taxi driver was simple enough: the old boy who looked like he had just fallen out a laundry basket was a much better option than the silver fox who gave the impression that he might recently have strangled his elderly mother – and her kittens. I showed the old boy the hotel address, written in Russian (I had taken the precaution of having this ready). He looked puzzled and asked the murderer if he knew this place where the foreigner wanted to go. This earned him a dismissive stare and convinced me that my man wasn’t really a taxi driver at all, but rather someone who had gone to the airport in the hope that a visitor might emerge and ask him to drive them somewhere.
We walked a long way to find a Brezhnev-era Lada (once the height of Soviet class) and then he drove me through the night to the hotel, with only a couple of near-misses on the way as Bond villains in shiny SUVs, sped by, headlights flashing angrily, overtaking on the right, presumably rushing to an important meeting with President P, who has a very large palace, where he spends much of his time, on a cliff top overlooking the sea, between Sochi and the bridge that now links Crimea to mainland Russia. This palace is about 180 miles from the Sochi Autodrom, which is just round the corner in Russian terms.
At the hotel the receptionist greeted me with a lovely, if rather tired, smile. She looked a little like a dark-haired version of Michelle Pfeiffer – after a heavy night on the town – but she seemed very pleased to see me – presumably because I was the last missing inmate. Despite good intentions to learn more, my efforts in Russian are still quite hopeless and she spoke not one word of English and so our communication was fairly complicated, but we managed to tick all the right boxes and I went off to my room having parted with a large sum of money.
Things were going far more smoothly than some previous visits…
I stay, deliberately, on what we call “the Russian side” of the circuit, away from the sterile Olympic Village of old, where one is lost in a strange cultural vacuum, which is neither one thing nor the other. It is close to the border with Georgia. I used to stay in the Village in the early years of the race, but was never happy and only began to enjoy my trips to Russia when I moved to “the Russian side”. This is because one meets real Russians.
One of the most fascinating things about travelling is that one can experience different mentalities and, sometimes, that can give really helpful insights into the world. When you are among the real people, you invariably find them helpful and friendly. Google Translate has revolutionised the process and life is a lot easier when, for example, you need to borrow an umbrella. This was the case on Saturday when Sochi was swamped by torrential rain. I negotiated to be loaned a suitable brolly, with a fancy automatic opening device that made it spring open with youthful vigour if one pressed the correct button. This worked very well until I got to the circuit security check where a group of policemen were (wisely) sheltering in the tent where there were x-ray machines to check that F1 pass-holders were not carrying sticks of dynamite. As I picked the soggy umbrella from the conveyor belt, it burst open, showering the assembled representatives of law enforcement with a great deal of water. It is at such moments that one wants to know the Russian for: “I’m terribly sorry old chap”, but all I could do was to shrug and look sheepish – and then we all laughed and went about our business.
Russia is fascinating. Russians may seem to be unsmiling and mistrustful, but they see this as being rather more honest than the small talk politeness of Western culture. Russians only act like friends with their real friends, while in the West people often act like friends without knowing anything about one another. In some respects this helps to explain the way things are in Russian government and business. Russians don’t see giving a job to a friend as being nepotism. It’s just what you do – and loyalty to friends is important.
In the West there is a tendency to see rich folk as impressive, but in Russian culture such people are not trusted at all – probably for good reason. Russians seem to value discussion, intellect, talent and those who display a sense of unity with their peers. There is a reason that communism survived so long in Russia.
What I find fascinating is that while many country’s talk of their homeland or fatherland, Russians use the expression motherland. Mother Russia implies a protective maternal nature, that is something that is worth defending. Sacrifice for the greater cause is also part of the national character. There is a reason that Russian war memorials depict female figures.
As I was heading back on Friday night to see Michelle at my funny little Russian hotel, I was literally stopped in my tracks by music coming from the Autodrom’s public address system. Why? Because the beautiful Swan Theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is not something that you ever hear at racing circuits. As I wandered onwards, I wondered whether this might be the music they would play in place of the Russian national anthem on Sunday. Why? Well, because Russia is not perfect and it got itself into all kinds of trouble with the World Anti-Doping Agency over test samples and ended up with a ban on playing the national anthem and flying the national flag at World Championship events of all kinds – for a two year period.
Because it is not easy to understand and we have so many preconceptions, many F1 people don’t like going to Russia. The paddock always feels empty and those who don’t HAVE to go, find ways to avoid it. It’s not just about the alien language and the Bond villains. Perhaps it is also because there is a distaste for the way that President Vladimir Putin does business. This is understandable, but at least he seems smart and competent, which is more than can be said for some of the Western leaders these days, but let us not dwell too much on this. Putin is obviously not Mr Nice Guy. Having said that, it is interesting that an awful lot of Russians seem to be completely ambivalent about politics. They don’t care, as long the country is stable and the economy is OK. Putin has led the country for more than two decades and as many as 40 million young Russians have never known any other leader, so they don’t really know what a better choice might be. Their parents in any case support Putin because he gave the country new pride and stability after the upheavals that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then the Russian economy has grown six-fold, Russia has become a little more integrated into the global community, joining international organisations and hosting events such as the World Cup, the Winter Olympics – and the Grand Prix.
I am wondering whether I will miss my Sochi visits when the Grand Prix switches to Saint Petersburg in 2023. The answer is probably yes, but I suspect that I will find the people in the north just as friendly (although they might not be as nice as Michelle). The folks in charge of the Igora Drive facility, where the 2023 Russian Grand Prix will take place, are already busy adding a new section of tarmac to create a straight on which F1 cars will be able to overtake. There continues to be speculation that this event will be a rather unusual affair – as a night race held in daylight. There is logic to this apparently daft statement because the circuit is so far north that the only possible dates for a race are limited to the summer months. It is a ski resort and there is snow on the ground until the late spring. This is not a problem except that from late May there is a period when it never gets dark, which peaks with the so-called White Nights, between the second week of June and the first week of July. A night race in daylight would be a new idea for F1 – and good for F1’s developing US audience.
With all but one 2022 seat decided and most of the 2021 calendar fixed, the focus of F1 gossip has now switched to the future, although there is still one question mark regarding the current calendar, as Brazil needs to agree to grant exemptions for F1 people travelling from Mexico.
The problem is not related to Mexico but rather to a Brazilian rule which means that any non-Brazilian who has been in the UK 14 days before entering Brazil must undergo quarantine. This rule was highlighted recently when four Argentina football players, who play in the British Premier League, were escorted from the pitch during a World Cup qualification match between Brazil and Argentina, causing the game to be cancelled.
These exemptions should be a formality, but they still need to be done.
The TBA on the calendar is Qatar and this will be confirmed on Thursday this week. There will be a race in a few weeks time and then another in 2023, at the start of a long-term deal. The reason 2022 will be missed is that between November 21 and the World Cup Final on December 18 next year, Qatar will be focussed on football. It is a race that will likely last for many years as the country cannot get a big new sports event until the 2030s as the World Cup will not return for at least a generation and the next available Olympic Games is not until 2036 as Paris, Los Angeles and Brisbane have already snapped up the events in 2024, 2028 and 2032.
Elsewhere have been headlines that France will be replaced in 2022 by an Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola, under a new multi-year deal. Stefano Domenicali says that France will happen in 2022, although he was not asked whether that would still be the case in 2023.
Imola may still get a date in 2021 because of the uncertainty surrounding a number of races, notably Australia, where the government continues to restrict access for everyone arriving from foreign parts. It is worth noting that the English cricket team is due to visit Australia in December and January for a series of test matches to win The Ashes. Australians love sport – and excel at it – but all international sport in Australia is still under threat. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (who looks like some of the Sochi taxi drivers) has asked Australia’s Scott Morrison to ease quarantine rules to allow the families of cricketers to tour with the players. If this is granted, it is hard to see how Australia can turn away F1 people. And, one must bear in mind that there are fears inside Australia that if the race does not happen in 2022, F1 will give up with the country, will cancel the contract and go somewhere more lucrative, although this will probably be less attractive. Still, I suppose that the one surviving member of Save Albert Park, will be able to rattle his or her zimmer frame and claim victory.
What else? Well, Aston Martin Whitmarsh (as the team may soon be called) recently started digging up the countryside next to its current factory and team boss Lawrence Stroll boomed forth on the subject of how his team will soon be transformed into a “Formula One World Championship-winning organisation” and how it will become “a £1 billion business”.
I have to say that I think there is a serious flaw in the strategic thinking, although it can be fixed if Stroll is willing to pay out even more money.
The logic is very simple: a customer team is never going to be allowed to be in a position to beat a factory operation on a regular basis. Thus, if Aston Martin wants to be a World Championship team, it MUST have its own engines. Other teams might be able to secure an exclusive supply of power units provided by a manufacturer that does not run a factory F1 team, but that is not possible for Aston Martin because it is a rival of all such companies and you cannot have an Aston Martin-Lamborghini F1 car nor an Aston Martin-Chrysler come to that. So the only way that Stroll’s team can become a World Championshp contender is to build its own engines. Stroll is right to say that teams will have more value in the future, but the down side of that is that if a team makes money and promotes a manufacturer there is no real reason why any of the existing companies would quit and sell him an engine programme. Customer teams always come second… and while one might argue that McLaren is doing rather well against Mercedes this year, one must also be reminded that Woking got a big advantage this year by being the only team to change its engine and thus the only team that was able to make a really significant improvement to its car. Everyone else had to stick with the same design as 2020…
So, Stroll will need a few more truckloads of cash (and probably an even bigger factory) if he wants to win a World Championship…
At the moment the sport has two other manufacturers who are in the same boat, enjoying the advantages of F1 without having to make the full investment: Alfa Romeo and McLaren being the other two. The reality is that none of them are likely to be able to win the World Championship without their own engine programmes.
Thus it is logical for all concerned to argue for cheaper engines, opening the way for more in-house programmes.
Red Bull is already on that path… creating a structure which can win and at the same time can ultimately be sold to someone else wanting the full package.
But rumours that Red Bull is trying to do a deal with Audi or Porsche, both of which are showing interest in being involved in F1 in the future, make no sense at all. Both Audi and Porsche already have their own F1-level in-house facilities at Neuburg an der Donau, near Ingolstadt, and at Weissach, near Stuttgart. Why would either spend a huge sum to buy something in Milton Keynes when they already have what they need at home? These factories could thus become the homes of new F1 teams if the two brands do enter F1 in 2025 or 2026. The fact that Red Bull is developing its own engine division, based on Honda technology, backs up the logic that one must have your own engine supply in order to win World titles.
Anyway, we will see.
The plane from Moscow landed in Paris at the same time as a flight from Manchester. This meant that I found myself in a lengthy queue with hundreds of British football fans – en route to a game between Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain – enjoying the “privileges” that come with being a British passport-holder these days.
Still, at least I knew that when I finally got through the formalities, there would at least be some fuel available so I could drive home…