After a sombre weekend that captured the emotions of the entire Formula 1 community, thoughts are now beginning to turn to the future; namely this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, which marks the 16th round of the Championship. It isn’t just a race, though. The Russian Grand Prix has become a symbol for the governmental manipulation of sport in general. Regardless of the standard of the on-track action at the new Sochi Autodrom, the event will be constantly overshadowed by the political turmoil that has unavoidably consumed what should be a demonstration of human excellence and sporting achievement. It’s a real shame, but it signals the changing times.
The controversy boils down to one key issue: does Formula 1 need Russia? The question will herald a different answer depending on the interviewee. For the global Formula 1 community it’s a no-brainer. Russia’s recent humanitarian record and treatment of domestic affairs have been enough to trigger a moral condemnation from many fans. However, for Formula One Management, the deal is like gold dust. The Russian government gave a reported $200 million dollars to FOM in order to host the race, which benefits both parties. FOM receive a healthy sum of money and open several doors to investors, while Russia gets the chance to put on a show that will gloss over the real-world problems that they have been at the centre of, especially their intervention in Ukraine.
Formula 1 Doesn’t Need Russia
The majority of Formula 1 fans haven’t bought Vladimir Putin’s plan, though. As a result, large numbers have pledged to boycott the race broadcast on Sunday morning, highlighting the damage that FOM has already inflicted on the sport with the decision not to cancel the race earlier in the year.
FOM is essentially taking an unnecessary risk. Why should they have to taint their moral reputation just to seal sponsorship deals and new investments? True, Formula 1 is a hugely profitable brand, and Russia is a booming market where investors are willing to part with their cash. But, one can only think that there are plenty of other countries that would be better suited to holding a Grand Prix than Russia. France, for example, has a huge fan-base to bring in ticket revenue and several circuits that could host a modern Grand Prix. But it’s not as profitable as Russia. As a result, Formula 1 the business has prevailed over Formula 1 the sport. This is wrong, but in the eyes of Bernie Ecclestone and co, it’s the only way.
The sheer fact that political negotiations have been taking place to determine whether or not this weekend’s race will actually run exemplifies how little Russia matters to the actual Formula 1 World Championship. It has become a question of politics, not sport. Russia’s recent drive to host almost every major sporting event on the planet has been met with a barrage of criticism, yet the nation’s leaders won’t care. They have the money, so they can get the acts. It’s a hypocritical situation whereby Formula 1 tries to come across as an ethical championship, but decides to fall into the trap of Russian politics anyway. Besides, if the Russian Grand Prix fails Bernie Ecclestone always has a trump card up his sleeve, in the form of the even more lucrative European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan. And so the cycle continues.
Russia’s contribution to global motorsport is minimal to say the least, and its first Formula 1 driver only sprung onto the scene four years ago. There are Russian Formula 1 fans out there, but they aren’t the reason why the championship is moving to Sochi. Let’s face it; the FIA wouldn’t lose much sleep over concern for the Russian motorsport fan-base if their Grand Prix was scratched from the calendar. There is obviously the underlying possibility that the venture into Russia could be dropped in a similar way to the South African Grand Prix in 1985, but this would cause political tension rather than tension from fans.
I’m all for having new races on the calendar. It’s important to travel to new areas and showcase what Formula 1 has to offer. But, there is a definitive point where politics and money become more important to the FOM than the sport. This has happened in Russia, and it’s now unavoidable. The FIA needs to consider the long-term impacts and realise that Russia is not the place to make a quick buck. The race this weekend may end up being a cracker, but few people may decide to watch it. They might be tuning into the World Endurance Championship round at Fuji instead; a sign that on this occasion Formula 1 has got it massively wrong.
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