SHAFAQNA – The inaugural Russian Grand Prix will take place on Sunday in a strained atmosphere, part-subdued and part-celebratory, amid high security and dramatic speculation, all intensified when, as expected, president Vladimir Putin arrives in the paddock before the race.
Just as he did during his fan-fared visits to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, held in the Olympic Park that is now the venue for the Sochi Autodrom, Putin will be accompanied by a small army of security guards whose activities – including a radio wave bombardment — may also cause interruptions to television broadcasts.
The drivers, have hailed the challenge of the new circuit by the Black Sea, focus on their jobs and the scrap for the championship just a week after Jules Bianchi’s life-threatening crash at the Japanese Grand Prix.
The teams have also been discussing proposals from the ruling body, the International Motoring Federation (FIA), to learn from the Frenchman’s tragic crash and improve safety standards.
Nearly all of them, when confronted by questions about politics, ethics or morality, have avoided the issue.
Many will, probably, want to avert their eyes, too, if the sport’s long-serving commercial ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone introduces him on the grid.
The Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost on Friday proved to be an exception when, rather than remaining silent, he spoke in clear support of the race taking place just months after the implementation of sanctions following Russia’s activities in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
“I must say thank you very much to Putin and to Bernie Ecclestone that they realised that we have a race here in Russia,” he told a news conference.
“The Russian market is very important for the future, although we know there are currently some political sanctions, but earlier or later they will be stopped.
“Russia is a country for the future. Therefore, I think it’s very important to be here.”
Tost’s unequivocal support was not repeated universally.
Ferrari team chief Marco Mattiacci swerved to avoid a question about the media’s negative reception of the event. “It’s a question to the wrong audience,” he said. “We are team principals, not media moguls…
“I think we’re here at a very difficult moment, trying to put in place a decent race. That’s it. About the media spin, I couldn’t care less.”
Pushed, by a New York Times reporter, others said more.
“Formula One is a sport and we are all sporting teams,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner. “When we enter the world championship, there’s a calendar and obviously that calendar is put together by the promoter and approved by the FIA, controlled by Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt accordingly.
“I think that we have to place our faith in their judgement… Sport can be a fantastic unifier and we see ourselves not in any way political, but purely as a sporting team, coming here to do the very best job that we possibly can.”
Tost added: “Nowadays the big events always are being criticised, whether it’s the Olympic Games or the football World Cup or Formula One. There are always negative critics.
“I think it’s simply unjustified. We should be concentrated to do our job. We do Formula One. We are responsible for entertainment. People want to see (on] Sunday afternoon an interesting race and we are not – and we should not be – involved on the political side.
“Because once we are being taken into this corner, we can’t race anywhere — because there are problems in Arabia, there are problems maybe in Brazil, there are problems in Europe as well.
“There are problems in China, there are problems in Russia. To be honest, I don’t care about this. The only thing I’m interested in is that we have a fast car. The rest is politics.”
Tost’s views may be seen by many as blinkered if their televisions go blank or fuzzy for the benefit of Putin’s walkabout as frequencies are scrambled to search for remote bombs inside the chain-fenced circuit.
“The worst scenario would be if we are live and got no warning about when they will interfere with the frequencies,” the BBC’s Formula One editor Mark Wilkin was quoted telling Britain’s Daily Mail.
“Then we could go blank for a moment, but we have a contingency plan with cameras that are not reliant on radio.”