Formula One could be forced to abandon the inaugural Russian Grand Prix, as tensions continue to tighten between Moscow and the Ukraine.
The sport could find itself trapped between the political battle in the east and the sanctions of the West as many fear that the dispute over Ukrainian territory is edging closer to war.
The inaugural edition of the race is scheduled for October 12, to be held on a circuit constructed through the vast Olympic Park in Sochi that staged the Winter Games in February.
British politicians are closely watching events unfold, although unwilling yet to call for the Grand Prix to be scrapped. Sir Richard Ottaway, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, described the Grand Prix as “wildly unrealistic” against a background of mounting tension between the West and Russia, and warned that further sanctions could put paid to the event.
“If a new round of tougher sanctions is introduced, F1 may find it impossible to put on a race because of restrictions on the flow of cash,” Ottaway said.
The race was already going to be one of the more bizarre events with Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s chief executive, told by local organisers that spectator viewing would probably be limited to a single, purpose-built grandstand in front of the pits complex.
That would leave cars driving around the wide-open expanse of asphalt between the stadiums erected for the Games, unseen apart from by the TV cameras.
That could all be irrelevant if the race is dragged into the politics of the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. US sanctions have deliberately targeted President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle of friends and their capital, which means that an event seen as a personal vanity project for him may prove too hard to resist for western governments looking to ramp up pressure.
The Russian Grand Prix has been a long time in gestation, with Ecclestone meeting Putin personally several times. Their first chosen venue was Moscow before St Petersburg, Putin’s home city, was mooted. The final decision was to boost interest in the Black Sea resort of Sochi after the Winter Games.
Ecclestone insists the race will be safe, but political events are accelerating faster than an F1 car and it seems certain that the race will be become a target for activists unless the Ukraine crisis is resolved before October.
F1’s team will be anxious about becoming a focus for political attention again after their experience of Bahrain in 2012, when the sport was the target for agitators and protesters in the troubled island kingdom. More important, leading sponsors may also want to distance themselves from a Grand Prix on the soil of a nation being seen as an aggressor on neighbouring territory.
The problem could be more immediate for Daniil Kvyat, the young Russian in his first season with the Toro Rosso team. Although the 20-year-old has impressed, Toro Rosso clearly had a publicity opportunity in mind when they picked an untried driver from one of the world’s biggest markets.
Sergey Sirotkin, the Sauber test driver, faces a tougher test: he is supported by SMP Racing project, backed by Boris Rotenberg, Putin’s childhood friend and a billionaire who has been included in US sanctions of the Russian president’s inner circle. SMP’s European accounts have been frozen, which could jeopardise Sirotkin’s funding.
F1’s swing from traditional markets to more lucrative pay days in the east will go on, though, with CVC Capital Partners, the sport’s controlling shareholder, determined to reap as much as it can, no matter where Grands Prix are scheduled.
As revealed last month, the Azerbaijan capital of Baku, formerly part of the Soviet Union like the Ukraine, is being touted as a venue for 2015 season with the authorities saying that a contract only has to be signed for a street race.
Oil-rich Baku is one of the most ambitious sporting cities in the world, gathering a range of high-profile events that will include the European Games, a regional multisports event modelled on the Pan-American and Asian Games that features 19 sports and about 6,000 competitors.