The debate over the separation of politics and sport is set to rear its head with the FIA in the coming months, particularly with respect to its sanctioned World Touring Car and Formula 1 championship events set to be staged in Russia later this year.
Last weekend, it was quietly announced that Doorna – the head body of the World Superbike Championship – had opted to cancel its scheduled visit to Russia in September. It indicated in a media release that the continually escalating Russia-Ukraine tensions “affects the capabilities of a number of key partner companies essential to run the event”. It is the first major sporting organisation to put its foot down and take a stance on the clear violations that Russia is committing against the Ukraine’s sovereignty.
The WTCC is set to hit Russia on the first weekend of June at Moscow Raceway, while the Formula 1 circus will be much closer to the conflict zone when it hits the city of Sochi for the country’s inaugural Grand Prix in October.
Neither upcoming event is sitting on anyone’s radars at the moment, but both surely will be if Russia continues with its hostile approach against its neighbour.
Like some other host countries – apartheid-era South Africa and today’s Bahrain perhaps being the greatest example – the Grand Prix on its home soil will serve as little more than a propaganda exercise for the current
oligarchy government, with Russian president Vladimir Putin very much at the forefront.
Putin has been front and centre in much of the build-up to the country’s first Formula 1 race, but the sport has to start questioning whether it’s wise to be associated with him, particularly given his unwarranted aggression against its neighbours, not to mention certain ethnic groups within its own borders.
Doorna has already made its position very clear, and one wonders how long the FIA will keep its head in the sand.
The governing body was slow to move with the South African Grand Prix in the 1980s, eventually suspending its motorsport support after the 1985 race as more and more countries started applying boycotts and sanctions due to the then-government’s apartheid position.
It belatedly cancelled the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2011, but only at the eleventh hour after a number of teams expressed concern over the country’s heavy-handed crackdown against anti-government protestors. It was an embarrassing episode for the sport and it called into question the leadership of FIA President Jean Todt, whose soft diplomacy approach clearly failed when a firmer position was most needed.
History could well repeat itself this year, not once, but twice.
Russia is becoming increasingly isolated, politically and economically, as its incursions into the Ukraine continue. The United Nations declared its annexation of the Crimean peninsula illegal, and there are fears of all-out war as more Russian troops gather along the border.
But Formula 1 and Russia are strange bedfellows. The commercial rights arm, headed by Bernie Ecclestone and the ever-greedy shareholders inside CVC Capital Partners, will put the races wherever the biggest cheques can be cut, and one can be certain that there’s a pretty large amount of cash behind the Russian bid.
Meanwhile, the FIA looks like it will continue to dither, quietly hiding behind the clause in its own constitution that says it can’t politically discriminate against any of its sanctioned events – that’s an open reading that means it can’t cancel the events or force the participation of the competitors.
The teams, should any of them boycott the event, risk being thrown out of the championship, so their hands are effectively tied as well – particularly those – like Ferrari and Sauber – which have Russian sponsorship.
The teams can’t agree on anything either, which effectively leaves it up to the other suppliers – Pirelli or the engine makers – to put their foot down and threaten to boycott the race. That could happen, but it doesn’t look likely.
So that leaves Formula 1 and the World Touring Car Championships at the mercy of being used as pawns in Putin’s propaganda war, just as the Winter Olympic Games were while the IOC blindly ignored the LGBTIQ rights violations the country was committing in clear breach of the Olympic charter.
Everyone will pay and collect their money, while both series’ risk the loss of major sponsors and a chunk of reputation while it tacitly allows Putin and his cronies to wage war on itself and its neighbours.
Surely these championships can see the folly of such shortsightedness.
Images via Daily Gazette and FIA WTCC Media