History Shows Ecclestone and F1 Will Do Everything to Avoid Canceling Russian GP

Oliver HardenFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2014

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone talk during a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. Ecclestone signed a contract with Russian officials giving Sochi the right to host the Grand Prix from 2014, the same year the city hosts the Winter Olympics. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Pool)
Alexei Druzhinin/Associated Press

Should sport and politics ever mix?

It's a question that is asked perhaps too often—and its answer largely depends on the sport in question.

For Formula One, a sport that sees many of its bureaucrats gain more recognition than some of its participants, a blend of the two worlds—so different yet so eerily alike—is inevitable.

F1's great political debate of 2014 surrounds the Russian Grand Prix, scheduled for October 12, with pressure building on Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's evergreen ringmaster, to drop the Sochi event from the 19-race calendar.

The Crimean crisis and the recent MH17 disaster are at the root of the widespread calls for the FIA and F1 to follow the lead of the FIM, which canceled the Russian round of the World Superbike Championship in April due to political concerns.

The FIA team principals' press conference ahead of last weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix was littered with questions over the viability of the Russian race as well as the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which is set to join the schedule in 2016. Christian Horner, the boss of four-time world champions Red Bull Racing, invited those present to point their dictaphones toward the mouths of Ecclestone and Jean Todt, the president of the FIA.

The chances of Ecclestone even hinting at wiping the Sochi Grand Prix off the calendar, however, are remote to say the least.

Only last week, the 83-year-old reiterated his support for the event, with the Daily Mail's Jonathan McEvoy quoting Ecclestone as stating: "I don’t see any problem with going. We are not involved in politics. We have a contract with them. We’ll respect it 100 per cent."

Ecclestone's unflinching stance on the Russian Grand Prix is hardly surprising, with the race arguably as important, if not more so, to F1 than the last new addition to the calendar, the return of the United States Grand Prix in 2012. 

A race in Russia has been on the horizon for over four years, since Vitaly Petrov became the first driver from the nation to compete in F1 for Renault in 2010.

Although Petrov achieved very little in terms of results in his debut campaign, his very presence on the grid seemed to open the floodgates, with a deal for the Russian Grand Prix signed that season.

In November 2010, Vladimir Putin, Russia's president and a friend of Ecclestone, drove a single-seater in the colours of Renault at a track in St. Petersburg in a bid to increase interest in the sport.

The following month, Petrov announced that he would remain with Renault, soon to be renamed Lotus, for the 2011 season at a press conference in Moscow when a short, simple press statement would have sufficed.

The Vyborg-born driver's first and last podium in the opening race of his second full season only increased the fanfare, which after a lull has been taken to the next level this year with the timely rise to prominence of Toro Rosso's Daniil Kvyat. The 20-year-old could go on to become Russia's answer to Sebastian Vettel, who visited the Sochi venue in 2013.

After so much has been done to give Russia a platform for F1 over the last few years—from home heroes to demo runs on city streets—the prospect of canceling the event within three months of the five red lights illuminating above the start line is, rather understandably from Ecclestone's business point of view, unthinkable. 

And why would Ecclestone even consider wiping the Russian race from the F1 schedule when he allowed the Bahrain Grand Prix of 2012 to go ahead?

The 2011 Sakhir event, you'll recall, was penciled in as that season's curtain-raiser, but it was removed from the calendar just three weeks before the campaign was due to get underway after violent anti-government protests.

Hasan Jamali/Associated Press

Although the situation had hardly changed 12 months down the line, F1 returned to Bahrain in one of its most controversial moves ever.

The weekend came and went without any catastrophic consequences, but two Force India mechanics flew home early after, according to Tom Cary of The Telegraph, one of the team's hire cars was "caught up in local rioting."

The British-based team's decision to miss the second practice session on the Friday afternoon in order to return to their hotel before dusk was, more so than Vettel's victory 48 hours later, the abiding memory of the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix.

In 2013 and 2014, however, little heed has been paid to the ongoing conflict, with pre-season testing occurring at the Bahrain International Circuit and this year's race held under the night sky that two years earlier had been unbearable for the Force India outfit.  

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN - APRIL 06:  Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India drives during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 6, 2014 in Sakhir, Bahrain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

That the 2012 event in Bahrain was the fourth race of the campaign and not the season opener could partly explain why little has been said over Russia.

While it is relatively straightforward to effectively delay the beginning of the season, it is much more inconvenient to cancel a race scheduled in the middle and latter stages of the campaign.

The cancellation of the Russian Grand Prix would create a near month-long gap between the Japanese Grand Prix on October 5 and the United States Grand Prix on November 2. That, at a time when the action is supposed to come thick and fast as the season rushes toward its climax, would deflate the excitement of Ecclestone's product.

It has become common practice for major sporting events to be preceded by periods of intense trepidation.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 05:  F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone looks on in the paddock before qualifying ahead of the British Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit on July 5, 2014 in Northampton, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Ima
Christopher Lee/Getty Images

There are always protests to be had, concerns to be made and worries to be aired.

But when the referee's whistle blows, the starting gun goes off and the lights go out, sport takes over.

And more often than not, sport wins.

Both F1 and Russia—having hosted a tremendous Winter Olympics earlier this year, on the very site the grand prix will take place—know that all too well.

The show, as Bernie might say, must go on.