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Why Formula 1 Should Not Be Going to Russia in 2014

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2014

Vladimir Putin and Bernie Ecclestone
Vladimir Putin and Bernie EcclestoneMikhail Metzel/Associated Press

"We are happy, the sponsors appear to be happy, so we carry on," Bernie Ecclestone recently told The Times' Kevin Eason (subscription required) regarding this weekend's Russian Grand Prix. "No one has spoken to me about this race or told me that we cannot go. The sanctions do not affect us and what we are doing is not illegal."

So there you see the standard Formula One is currently working under: It doesn't matter if it's the right thing to do, or how bad the optics are, if there is a buck to be made and it's not illegal, here we go!

People involved in the leadership of the sport, including Ecclestone, per The Independent's Jerome Taylor and David Tremayne, have repeatedly said they do not want to become involved in political debates about the countries that host F1 races—which is fine.

Unfortunately, the decision to go ahead with the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in Sochi is as much a political statement as postponing it would have been. 

Russian president Vladimir Putin has been a vocal and visible supporter of the race. In 2010, for example, according to the BBC, he personally encouraged local businesses in Sochi to support the grand prix. Earlier this year, he met with Ecclestone and assured the F1 CEO that the circuit would be ready in time for the race, according to an AFP report (via Australian paper The Advertiser).

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"I've great admiration for him," said Ecclestone, per CNN's Ben Wyatt, during the controversy earlier this year over gay rights in Russia.

Vladimir Putin @PutinRF_Eng

Meeting with Formula 1 President Bernie Ecclestone http://t.co/XhZpSq7EFX #Sochi2014 #F1 http://t.co/QEDWfVALv4

Meanwhile, a recent Human Rights Watch report by Wenzel Michalski states, "Since Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012, Russia has resorted to the worst repression of human rights since the end of the Soviet era." That is in addition to the Russian annexation of Crimea and other incursions into Ukraine.

By going ahead with the race, is F1 giving its tacit approval to all of it?

Despite Ecclestone's claims that "no one has spoken to me about the race," that is not really true. In July, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called for Russia to be stripped of the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the first Russian Grand Prix.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
Deputy Prime Minister Nick CleggJohn Minchillo/Associated Press

In an interview with The Sunday Times' Tim Shipman and David Leppard (subscription required), Clegg said, "We’ve got to take tougher sanctions, but also we’ve got to make it quite clear that he cannot expect to get the privileges of being at the top table of world affairs if he’s not prepared to play by the basic rules of world affairs."

Ari Vatanen, a colleague of FIA president Jean Todt, also called into question the decision to run the Russian race this year. According to an interview with The Telegraph's Daniel Johnson, Vatanen said:

It would send a message of acceptance if we went to Russia. It would say we condone, effectively, maybe not explicitly, but by our actions we condone what is going on because it is used in propaganda.

It is often said that Formula One should not mix politics and sport, but the Russian regime is already mixing politics and sport in a blatant way, so we have to respond. It is for Bernie and the owners to cancel the race.

But even if F1 cannot be bothered to do the decent thing for the sake of all those suffering under the Russian regime, the sport should be worried about its bottom line.

There may not be an immediate impact, but by repeatedly inserting itself into questionable political situations—Bahrain, now Russia, next Azerbaijan, to name a few—F1 is in danger of tarnishing its brand appeal. Between the sponsors of the whole series and those of the specific teams, F1 has a massive portfolio of companies paying millions of dollars to associate themselves with the perceived glamour of the sport.

Is it a stretch to think that some of those companies might not want their names and logos associated—even implicitly—with what is happening in Moscow, Manama or Baku?

Ironically, though, events surrounding the Bahrain Grand Prix may actually have emboldened Ecclestone. In 2011, amidst anti-government protests, the race was postponed from March to October. The decision to go ahead with the race, even at a later date, received plenty of criticism—including from then-Red Bull driver Mark Webber—and it was eventually cancelled.

Bahraini protesters
Bahraini protestersHasan Jamali/Associated Press

But the next spring, F1 was back, again generating controversy. Ecclestone asserted, per Jerome Taylor and David Tremayne, that the protests were, "Nothing to do with us. We've an agreement to be here, and we're here. Political things go on like in so many countries. These things happen, but we're not here to get involved in the politics."

Although some members of the Force India team were caught in the riots, causing two of them to leave the country and the team to skip the second free practice session, the race went ahead.

In 2013, the protests continued in Bahrain, but criticism of the race dried up. This season, The Associated Press reported that there were again protests in Bahrain against the race, but once again, there was no substantial international controversy over holding the race.

So Ecclestone's tactic of ignoring the controversy until it disappeared seems to have worked. No wonder he is trying it again with Russia.

Whether it will work forever remains to be seen. F1 is in Russia for one reason: Money. According to Reuters' Darya Korsunskaya, the deal for Sochi to host the race through 2020 will put more than $200 million in the sport's coffers—not to mention increased access to the large Russian market for sponsors.

Sochi Autodrom @SochiAutodrom

Stunning view of Sochi Autodrom! #F1Sochi http://t.co/OHFZaapO5g

If the situation in Ukraine is not resolved by the time of the 2015 Russian Grand Prix, though, will any sponsors question their involvement in F1? If that were to happen, you can bet Ecclestone would quickly pull his head out of the sand and start listening to the criticism.

Until that time, though, he—along with the rest of the F1 community—can go along ignoring the political issues in Russia and elsewhere.

But that doesn't make it right.

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