IS RUSSIA READY FOR F1?
The infrastructure is in place, the final adjustments are being made, and FIA race director Charlie Whiting has given the Sochi Autodrom the seal of approval. But while the Russian GP organisers insist the F1 venue is ready, what will Russia itself make o
As the countdown begins to the first Russian GP in 100 years, the track looks ready… but the locals seem unsure
There is a Western perception of Russia that it is icy cold, dangerous and obdurate. And yet in the coastal resort of Sochi the reality is the opposite. This vibrant, modern town will host the rst ever grand prix on Russian soil this October, and it doesn’t conform to any of the stereotyping you associate with the former Soviet state. It’s warm, humid and verdant, and the inhabitants and holidaymakers milling on the Black Sea harbour front are courteous, friendly and peaceful. Living in or visiting Sochi, you don’t get the immediate sense that this is a country currently embroiled in neighbouring Ukraine’s political and military crisis. After doing such a brilliant job of hosting the Winter Olympics, this venue is now ready to put on a spectacular, well-financed grand prix the Russian people can be proud of. The only problem is that so few of them have actually heard of Formula 1…
THE SCALE OF THE construction project in and around Sochi for the Winter Olympic Games has been enormous, running into many billions of rubles. There’s a new airport, and new roads and train lines to take people from the centre of Sochi to the Olympic Park, 18 miles away. It’s here that the newly built grand prix circuit winds around the ve big stadiums that hosted the Winter Games. There is also a new train station at the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort, just half an hour away. From there, you can take a cable car to the 2,300-metre Rosa Khutor summit, the start of the men’s downhill Olympic course, with spectacular views across the Aibga ridge in the Caucasus mountain range. This is a near perfect leisure resort; after skiing in the morning, you can easily return to the warm sunshine of the Black Sea beaches that afternoon. The southern Krasnodar Krai region lies on the same latitude as the south of France, and as the southernmost tip of Russia its climate at sea level is temperate all year round. The mountains protect it from the harsh winter and the Black Sea breeze brings humidity. In the last century, Sochi was famed for its mineral springs and the healing powers of its waters. At one point, there were over 100 sanatoriums here for Russians to convalesce in. Stalin had a holiday home (now a hotel) here, and, today, a city of 400,000 inhabitants is visited by two million tourists each summer. Sochi itself stretches from the Georgian border in the south for 90 miles along the Black Sea coast – a view you can admire after a seven-mile drive to the tower built at the top of the 600-metre Mount Akhun. One problem created by its positioning between mountains and sea is that Sochi is not easily accessible. Currently, the only way to connect from western Europe is via Istanbul or Moscow – and it’s a three-hour ight from each of those hubs. Mindful of this, however, the Russian government is set to approve an ‘open sky’ policy to link Sochi directly to the West. At the Olympic Park, a hotel and roller
coasters have been built between Turn 1 and the shoreline. And the dynamic-looking Olympic venues are still being used to host the likes of musical ice shows and international business conferences, and will host future sporting tournaments including the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It’s a natural t for the complex to include a state-of-the-art Formula 1 circuit for the next six years. As 25-year-old Sergey Vorobyev, the promoter for the Russian GP, explains: “We have a new airport, new roads, tens of thousands of rooms in new hotels, and all of these things need to be used after the Olympics. To keep Sochi at an international level it made sense to have a major event such as Formula 1 here. The place is becoming more popular with tourists, the city is developing and becoming more open and, in time, we will have more international airlines ying to Sochi, too.” Work on the 3.6-mile circuit was suspended last December for the duration of the Winter Games, but the government-backed project began again in the spring. The FIA’s race director Charlie Whiting gave the track the thumbs up during his two visits in July and August (and conrmed the location of the two DRS zones), and with construction virtually complete, the venue should be ready with time to spare. “It’s a high-quality track. It’s clear that everything has been done really well,” said Whiting on his last visit to Sochi. “It will be a fast track, and I think there will be at least two or three places where drivers can overtake properly: Turn 2, Turn 13 and possibly in Turn 17.” Walking around the circuit, two things immediately stand out. The spectacular Turn 4, a seemingly never-ending long-radius lefthander that builds in speed, with just three layers of Tecpro barriers as run-off. And a tricky point-and-squirt end to the lap, with built-in elevation and off-camber apexes to test the drivers. Given the venue’s limited space, Hermann Tilke has done a decent job. The nal layer of Tarmac was applied to the circuit just before F1 Racing’s visit in August, and the work being carried out in the pits, paddock and main grandstands – wiring electrics, sanding and polishing railings and tting escalators – represented the nal touches. The 10,800-capacity main grandstand – with VIP lounges on the third and fth oors – was virtually complete, with temporary grandstands for other corners still to be erected. In total the capacity for the inaugural race in October will be 55,000 and already more than 50 per cent of the tickets have been sold, with the organisers expecting the race to sell out completely. General admission tickets for three days are priced at 5,000 rubles or £85, and grandstand seats will cost 11,000 rubles or £190. But as turned out to be the case in India, South Korea and Turkey, building a grand prix circuit doesn’t necessarily mean locals will come. Of the people F1 Racing spoke to in Sochi, only a few knew anything at all about Formula 1 (see sidebars). Those who did were aware of the name Michael Schumacher – but none of them had heard of up-and-coming home-grown talent Daniil Kvyat. “We need to educate people and this is what we are working on now,” says Vorobyev. “Over the past few years, motorsport has been developing in Russia and we’ve had more international races being held at the Moscow Raceway. So we’re happy it’ll work. We are happy with ticket sales and are 100 per cent sure the event will be a sell-out. We also have Daniil Kvyat – he is performing very well – and I’m sure that each year we’ll have more and more people visiting the Formula 1 race.”
Sochi’s climate at sea level is temperate all year round. The mountains protect it from the harsh winter and the Black Sea breeze brings humidity”
Investment into the project and the region has been huge, £125 million has been quoted for just the F1 track. Sochi locals have seen their home transformed over the past few years and, speaking from his office overlooking the pits and paddock, young Vorobyev is absolutely condent the race will be a success (see ‘F1 Insider’, p18). The continuing turmoil in the east of Ukraine and the Crimea are not, Vorobyev insists, going to destabilise the running of the event, despite the concerns of those in the West. “Sport is one thing, politics another,” he states, when asked if there have been concerns at home over Sochi’s hosting of the event. “We have absolute support for the event from local government, the federal government and the deputy prime minister, and we have a contract with Mr Ecclestone that we have to respect.” President Vladimir Putin was a visible gure during the Winter Games and it’s obviously in his interest to be a prominent gure again when F1 visits his country. “And he’s driven an F1 car,” adds Vorobyev. “He’s quick, he’s a super leader and we 100 per cent respect him. He stood behind us when the deal for the contract was signed, so we expect him at the event.” Once again, the perception in the West is clearly not the same view as that in Russia. But when F1 visits in October, it will open people’s eyes – if they want to look.
Work at the £125m Sochi circuit will be pretty much complete ahead of schedule. As F1 Racing went to press, it was about to host its first race – a Russian Touring Car championship round on 14 September