Russian Grand Prix 2014: Intrigue and Drama on Vladimir Putin’s Big Day out in Sochi at his £30bn Race

7 years, 10 months ago - October 13, 2014
Old friends: Vladimir Putin (left) with Bernie Ecclestone at the Sochi Autodrom

Old friends: Vladimir Putin (left) with Bernie Ecclestone at the Sochi Autodrom

President turns up on lap 39 in Sochi where F1’s claim not to be a political sport is again left open to question

President Vladimir Putin has been collecting territories like trophies in recent months, but he gave away a far less profound gong on Sunday after what will be remembered as Putin’s grand prix.

Lewis Hamilton, the obliging recipient of the winners’ crown in this piece of scarcely disguised political theatre, admitted that he did not know much of the Russian President. In an entertaining moment before he went out on to the podium, it showed.

Although Hamilton was without peripheral vision, his helmet still on, the 29-year-old Briton walked straight past the man who has been deemed a persona non grata in the West.

A couple of minutes passed before they shook hands and shared a smile. A deliberate snub? Highly unlikely. Hamilton is often in his own little reverie in moments such as these, but it was another amusing twist to a day dominated by the movements of one man.

“I don’t know too much about him,” Hamilton said. “It was very cool to be presented the trophy by the president. He’s one of the most powerful men in the world. He didn’t say anything to me. He was talking to those girls behind, then I realised he was there so I came over and shook his hand. It was very surreal to meet him.”

Surreal did not quite describe it. It was a day of intrigue and drama, which ultimately left Formula One’s claim not to be a political sport again open to question. Privately, some of the drivers and teams were uneasy at the whole experience, but all were reticent to admit it.

This was not solely the Russian Grand Prix. If it was, then Putin would have kept himself well away, allowing his great nation to enjoy the thrill of one of the finest spectacles in world sport free from the controversy his presence brings. Having spent £30 billion on the facility, including the Olympic Park, Putin was not able to keep his reputedly tiger-killing mitts off proceedings.

The day began with the ramping up of security around the Sochi Autodrom, including some bizarre tents stationed around the periphery. Two men dressed as Stalin and Lenin, accepting cash for photographs, set the scene.

Feverish speculation before the race had suggested Putin would be on the grid, accompanied by the lichniki – his guards from the Presidential Security Service – and six bespoke camera crews. Team sources suggested that security personnel would be equipped with radio-scrambling devices, preventing communication with their driver on the grid when the guards walked past one of their cars.

In the end, it emerged an hour or so before the race that Putin would not be going for a stroll with his friend Bernie Ecclestone, presumably due to concerns of security, a remarkable admission in itself.

But Putin’s hand was not totally absent before the race began. The teams and drivers had been sent an extraordinary, unprecedented edict before the race commanding “total silence” during the Russian national anthem.

“It has been alleged that Formula One is one of the most ill?mannered sports in relation to the national anthem and complaints from fans, public, and political institutions, are now too heavy to ignore,” the email read.

King Juan Carlos of Spain, Prince Albert of Monaco, or HRH Prince William were not afforded such treatment.

The drivers, thinking primarily of Jules Bianchi, lined up at the front of the grid at 2.48pm local time. They were joined by Ecclestone, Jean Todt, the FIA president, and the Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak, as the anthem rung out. It was a rousing performance by 80 signers from the Kuban Cossack Choir, but it somewhat overshadowed the message of support sent to the stricken Bianchi.

For more than half the race, it seemed as if Putin would not turn up at all. But then on lap 39, at 4.10pm, the official television feed cut to Ecclestone greeting Putin outside the paddock, shaking hands and smiling away, both men dressed in white shirt sleeves. Ten minutes later, they had taken their seats directly above the pit boxes.

For a third and fourth time, the VIP box was shown on television, now with the King of Bahrain to Putin’s left, Ecclestone to his right, and Todt one further along. It is not unusual for television pictures to cut to a politician – George Osborne, the chancellor, was pictured in the McLaren garage at Silverstone – but this had a stage-managed feeling.

Once Hamilton had crossed the line, Putin, Ecclestone and some other dignitaries were waiting in the podium anteroom. Through an interpreter, Putin – likened to Hercules in an exhibition to coincide with his 62nd birthday last week – asked the drivers how much weight they lost in the race. “Three kilos,” Nico Rosberg replied.

Now with a grey jacket on, Putin presented the winners’ trophies before finally leaving the stage. His race was over; a case of money well spent.


Text by The Telegraph

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