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GP Week : Issue 212
22 GPWEEK.com // 22 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: LETTER TO LEONID OPINION While the Russian Grand Prix at sochi has only just had its maiden outing, as a concept this race is older than I am. When looking through his archives in the run-up to the Russian race, Keith Sutton came across a letter written by F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone to Leonid Brezhnev, then the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. As a slice of motorsport history, the letter – far more pleading than one would associate with Ecclestone as we know him today – piqued my interest. But the letter was also intriguing from a personal perspective, as at the grand old age of two I moved to the USSR, where my father was tasked with covering the Cold War and attempts at international rapprochement made first by Brezhnev and then by his successor, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Moscow of my childhood was characterised by KGB surveillance (as journalists my family was assigned a ‘maid’ and a chauffeur, both of whom were tasked with reporting back to the government on our behaviour inside the state-allocated apartment and our movements outside it), of extreme poverty, and of shortages in everything from food to medicine to electricity and heating. My mother developed the habit of joining any queue she saw forming in the street, as there would be food of some sort for sale at the other end of it, assuming supplies hadn’t run out by the time she got to the front. When we flew back to the UK to visit family, return journeys saw us arrive with one suitcase packed with rice, pasta, and lentils, while another contained the condoms, pornography, and toilet paper that were more valuable than cash when it came to bribing the locals to come and fix clogged toilets and faulty fuse boxes. From my experience of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, there was no worse fit for the country than Formula One. Ecclestone attempted to sell the concept of a race to Brezhnev by highlighting the international brands that would travel beyond the Iron Curtain: “Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo, Talbot, Lotus, etc.” This as a pitch to a nation that viewed such luxuries as the weaknesses of the capitalist west, a country that confiscated the Barbie doll my grandmother had brought me as a Christmas gift on the grounds that both Barbie and non-Orthodox Christmas were symbols of capitalist decadence aimed at undermining the socialist values of the CCCP. Another selling point Ecclestone tries in the letter, dated 21 June 1982, is the existence of three grands prix in that well-known Soviet ally, the United States of America. While the Cold War foes were engaged in ongoing arms and space races, it is unlikely that Brezhnev would have been swayed by the prospect of adding a car race to the list. As it happens, Russia has long if distant tradition of motorsport, even if awareness of their link with the sport was hardly high profile in the west. In 1898, the Kubok Obschestva Velosipednoy Ezdy, a grand prix motor race, was held on snowy October roads along a 41-kilometre course. Russian Grands Prix were held in St Petersburg in 1913 and 1914, and attracted both local and foreign racers, although the outbreak of the First World War brought the event to a halt, marking the beginning of a century-long hiatus from grand prix racing in the country. 50 years later, the 1960s saw the Soviet Union develop its own touring car series, which was first known as A-1600 before being relaunched as Tourism-1600 (also known as Supertourism) in 1995. Nearly 20 years after Ecclestone made his initial overtures to Brezhnev, the late 1990s saw the introduction of the Russian Formula Three Championship and the Russian Formula 1600 Championship, while the short-lived Formula RUS was expressly designed to help young Russian racers make the move from karts to single-seaters. And now we have the Russian Grand Prix at Sochi, which has so far seen two local boys – if the word local can be applied to a country as vast as this one – take to the track, while F1’s first Russian racer Vitaly Petrov has been performing expert commentator duties for Russia 2 TV. Bernie Ecclestone’s big mistake in his initial approach to the Russian Grand Prix was one of timing. The then Soviet Union had no need for Formula One, with an image that was firmly fixed in the minds of the majority of the world’s television audiences. These days, however, Russia is a changed and changing nation, and one keen to join forces with the most-watched sport in the world to sell itself as a for ward- looking nation interested in technology, glamour, and sport. OPINION KATE WALKER