SOCHI, Russia: Just days after Jules Bianchi’s life-threatening accident at the rain-lashed Japanese Grand Prix, Formula One drives into another controversy this weekend with the opening practice sessions for the inaugural Russian Grand Prix.
As the 25-year-old Frenchman battles for his life in Yokkaichi, the Formula One circus has set up camp at a new semi-street circuit created in the sprawling park built to host the 2014 winter Olympic Games last January.
To many observers, in the outside world, F1’s arrival in the Black Sea resort close to the Georgia border is a cynical commercial exercise that, by association, endorses Russia’s, and president Vladimir Putin’s, behaviour in the conflicts in the Crimea and Ukraine this year.
To Bernie Ecclestone, the widespread criticism and many calls to cancel this race, are ill-judged and ignored. “We are happy, the sponsors appear to be happy, so we carry on,” F1’s ringmaster told The Times. “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.”
As the political arguments rage, the sport’s leading figures are almost certain to restrict their comments on the first new circuit introduced in the calendar since Austin, Texas, in 2012, to bland technical assessments while being more engaged by concerns for their stricken colleague and the circumstances of his accident.
But amid the confusion, intensified by the prospect of the Russian-owned Marussia team arriving without Bianchi and Russia’s representative rookie driver Daniil Kvyat reacting to his promotion next season from Toro Rosso to Red Bull, as successor to Ferrari-bound four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel, a new event will unfold.
It will be a 53-laps race and, for Suzuka winner and championship leader Lewis Hamilton, offers an opportunity to extend his 10-points advantage over Mercedes team-mate and rival Nico Rosberg in the title contest. Both the Briton and the German have kept low profiles since departing Japan, where their scrap in the rain was overshadowed by the crash-marred finale.
Vettel, however, who finished third in the final classification of last Sunday’s contest, is one of the few men to have taken a close look at the 5.853-km Sochi circuit in advance testing – and he has warned that it will be fast and demanding. “The best comparison is Singapore,” he said. “But unlike Singapore, the layout is more fluid, so it will be much faster. Some sectors remind me a bit of South Korea or Abu Dhabi.
“Generally, I think it has a very successful mix of corners with different characters, some of them will be very difficult, and that’s ultimately what we want as drivers. It will be quite slippery at the beginning of the weekend and I’m expecting a few driving errors, not only because the track is new for everyone, but also because the surface is still so green. So it will be a while until we feel comfortable.”
That comfort may be restricted to Sochi and ‘Planet F1’ if the world beyond rejects the argument that sport is not political. McLaren racing director Eric Boullier said: “This marks a significant moment in Formula One’s on-going expansion into new global territories. While that’s significant for the sport, it’s equally important that the event proves able to deliver sporting spectacle and excitement for the fans…. I hope it’s a successful weekend – for the sport and for McLaren.”