Bernie Ecclestone is expected to visit Russia next weekend amid new rumours that he is planning a Grand Prix in Russia. He is reported to be heading to St Petersburg to discuss holding a Russian Grand Prix on a purpose-built track from 2010. He said:
Nothing is done yet but this could be an interesting development for the sport. We’d like to get it in the calendar as soon as we can but that depends on them. It’s down to how long it takes them to get the circuit ready.”
But there have been attempts to organise a Russian Grand Prix in the past – and the combination of political rivalries in Russia and Ecclestone’s flabbergastingly high prices have killed them off.
Organising a Grand Prix in Russia has been high on Ecclestone’s agenda for several years. Seven years ago he said: “It is the FIA Formula One world championship and it’s about time we had a round of this championship in Russia.”
The Nagatino project
In November 2000 the government of Moscow city signed a $100m deal with Tom Walkinshaw to build a circuit on Nagatino Island alongside the Moskva river, close to the city centre.
Walkinshaw later revealed that Ecclestone had been working on the project for over a decade. Nagatino Island was chosen over a competing bid to build a track near Sheremetjevo airport.
The plan for Nagatino Island was to construct a circuit in a similar mould to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Notre Dame island in the St Lawrence Seaway. Access to the venue would be via a three-lane motorway underground rail stop and ferry terminal. It would also feature a yacht club, hotels and a kart track. Hermann Tilke would design the 3.6km circuit.
In February 2001 Ecclestone said: “If people behind the project keep their promise of building a modern race track in Russia in the next two to three years, then it would be a right thing to have a Formula One race in Russia within two to three years.”
The following May, on his first visit to Russia, Ecclestone made arrangements with Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov for the Russian Grand Prix to join the F1 calendar in 2003. The meeting ended well – Luzhkov sending Ecclestone home with a jar of his home-made honey!
The attraction of holding a race in Russia at the time was clear: many of the teams were backed by tobacco companies, and Russia offered another venue where their branding could be displayed without restrictions, as well as a vast and untapped source of money.
Ecclestone returned in March 2003 to finalise the deal. But construction of the circuit had run into delays, which may well have been linked to the collapse of Walkinshaw’s Arrows team the previous year. A spokesperson for the constructors told the press: “The project is ready, but I don’t think they will start construction until all the documents are signed.”
The press conference to announce the arrival of the venue on the F1 calendar was cancelled. Luzhkov said: “We have postponed the signing for a month because we do not agree on several points in the contract.”
Nonetheless Ecclestone remained positive: “The deal was agreed a year ago and there is no going back on the agreement, it’s only a postponement.”
Hopes that the problems could be resolved in the coming weeks were quickly dashed. It emerged that the sticking point was, as ever, the difficulty of meeting the costs involved.
Politics and the price
Luzhkov’s deputy Iosif Ordzhonikidze said: “We want to lift the burden from the city budget and put responsibility for financing the project completely on the investor.” The projected cost of construction had ballooned to $1.5bn. The plan was finally axed in September 2002.
Accusations of blame for the failure flew in all directions. Luzhkov said Ecclestone “wanted to keep all the rights for the event – ticketing, television, advertising – which would leave us with only engine smoke. That’s why the negotiations failed.” It certainly sounds like Ecclestone’s standard operating practices.
But there were also claims of failure on the Russian side. The vice-president of the Russian Motor Racing Federation Igor Yermilin said the city council’s tourism committee chairman Grigory Antyufeyev had let Luzhkov down: “They did not inform Luzhkov properly, putting him and Ecclestone in an awkward position, It’s understandable that the mayor has now grown a bit cold to the idea of Formula One racing in Moscow.”
Ecclestone said again in 2005 that he was hopeful of a race in Russia in the near future, while he was attending the launch of the new Jordan following the team’s purchase by Russian company Midland: “It will certainly happen. We would like it to be in Moscow, or if not here then in St. Petersburg.”
Two prominent Russian drivers in the lower echelons of motor racing are GP2 race winner Vitaly Petrov, and Mikhail Aleshin, who is sponsored by Russian oil company Lukoil.
The story of the attempts to hold a Russian Grand Prix wouldn’t be complete with a little intrigue. Sergei Zlobin, a Russian racing driver who tested for Minardi in 2002, was lucky to escape with his life when a bomb exploded under his car in September last year.
Photos copyright: Midland F1 / Crash Media Group | Alastair Staley / GP2 Media Service
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