Brought to you by TheJude13 contributor Danilo Schöneberg
Editors note: This is the second part of a two part series exploring Russia, its culture and its motorsport heritage.
This is an F1 website, what about the cars then?
Before we start talking about racing in Russia, let’s have a look at driving in Russia. If you think about driving a car in Russia, please go to the tool shed, grab a hammer and beat yourself over the head with it until you forget about it.
You’ve probably seen some of the scary ‘Crazy crashes in Russia’ videos. That just about every Russian has a dash cam isn’t to get You Tube material, it’s been made mandatory by most insurance companies. Russia has several unique dangers to travel by car:
1. In Siberia, most roads have no markings whatsoever, so the number of lanes in each direction is dictated by traffic volume and if no understanding is reached one meets each other frontally in the middle of the road with a loud bang.
2. On the highways waylaying is still common, especially in Siberia. Travelling them in a car with a foreign number plate is akin to ordering a Turkish Döner kebap in a Greek restaurant – a bloody dangerous undertaking.
3. Especially east of the Ural Mountains, at any given time close to 33% of drivers on the road are suspected to be drunk. That includes bus and trolley bus drivers. If you want to be reasonably safe, take a taxi.
For western standards the fares are ridiculously cheap and taxi licenses are so hard to get in Russia that no taxi driver would dare to drive under the influence. They also have enough experience to spot the nutcases on the road from a distance and avoid them.
4. In a country where corruption is still wide-spread, not everyone who has a driving license actually has seen the inside of a driving school.
Now that we have looked at the scary thing that is car travel in Russia, let us have a look at their racing pedigree, which is bigger than you may think, you only need to know where to look.
Even though most things that were remotely suspicious of being fun were forbidden in the Soviet Union, motor racing was not. Although the USSR and/or Russia have no significant pedigree in open-wheel racing, they do have in other forms of motorsport, mainly endurance bike racing, rally raid and touring cars.
In Soviet times, touring car racing mainly used Moskvitch, Volga and Lada cars (which are called Zhiguli domestically). The odd Tatra, Skoda or Polski Fiat was used, but domestically produced cars were the weapon of choice. Since everything in Russia was on short supply, there was no advertising on the cars. Why would one advertise goods that the great unwashed then couldn’t buy anyway?
Another mainstay of Russian racing is motorcycle racing. The USSR was a regular competitor at the International Six Days Enduro with their Izh bikes, but they never managed to get to the front and usually found themselves trounced by the Czechoslovakians, Italians and Germans (both West and East).
Where the Russians are really excelling is the truck competition at the Dakar rally. As of 2013 the truck competition at the Dakar has been won a whooping 11 times by Russian truck maker KAMAZ’s works teams, seven times by Vladimir Gennadiyevich Chagin alone, another three by Tartar truck legend Firdaus Kabirov.
Ural 6×6 trucks and KAMAZ trucks have also been regular participants in truck trial competitions, while ZIL trucks, updated with Caterpillar engines have been used successfully in the European Truck Racing Championship.
Since the season 2009 Lada participates in the World Touring Car championship using a racing variant of the Lada Priora first and later the Lada Granta. The best results for the Priora were a pair of 6th places, improved upon by a 5th place finish for James Thompson in the Granta at the Russia round of the 2013 season at Moscow raceway.
Meanwhile several Russian teams have found their way into major European competitions like GP2, GP3 and Formula Renault 3.5 with Russian drivers emerging as well. The most well known are probably Vitaly Petrov, the only Russian in F1 so far, and the recently come to prominence youngster Sergey Sirotkin.
Another young talent, who could soon emerge on some people’s radar is young Artem Markelov, who currently drives for Team Lotus in the German Formula 3 Cup and has scored several wins and podiums in the last two seasons.
The Soviet and the Russian Car Industry
If one thinks about Soviet or Russian cars, they are best described as ‘sturdy and dumb’. Lada, Moskvitch, Volga and Zaporozhez – mention any of those names to someone, who was born behind the Iron curtain and you’ll likely provoke a hysterical laughing fit.
Just think about it – after the Russians had negotiated a license from FIAT to build their own version of the Fiat 124, to sell it as a Zhiguli in the USSR and to export it under the LADA brand, the first major changes included changing the disc brakes at the rear for drum brakes, making the bodywork from much thicker steel and adding a handle for manually cranking the 1500cc engine, which had all the sophistication of a Victorian steam locomotive. As a result, nought-to-sixty times were measured in geological units and it was easily outpaced by wildlife.
To a westerner this sounds like a horrible machine and in a western country it actually was a horrible machine but that’s because western cars do not need to be built to work in Russia. When I was in Omsk in December, temperatures were about -40° centigrade. When I visited in May, temperatures were +30° centigrade.
Most European cars will wither and die at either end of the scale, while a Communistical Lada will work just fine. It simply doesn’t have any technology that could break.
In recent times the Russian car industry has seen a massive push for modernization, mainly because Gospodin Putin said so. Moskvitch was mostly killed off, Zaporoshez is now in the Ukraine and Lada (or AvtoVaz, as the company is actually called) has taken to collaborate with western manufacturers.
The only remaining car with truly Russian charm is the GAZ Volga, which is mainly used as a taxi. It is very visibly influenced by American design philosophies and rides like one of the big American boats too.
I once told an Omsk taxi driver that I was thinking about buying such a thing, just for the giggles. That resulted in the following exchange:
driver: “Don’t buy such a car. You’ll have to go in for service every 50,000 kilometres.“
me: “Not much different than western cars. Only difference is that they manage 60K between services.“
driver: “I know, but for this car the service is an engine change.“
At the time of writing it is not yet clear if Sochi will actually be on the calendar next year, as a bureaucratic tussle between the track owners and the Russian Motorsports Federation caused them to miss the FIA deadline to sign up for the 2014 season. But unless he’s gone soft with age, Mr. E. will never send away a paying customer and even if he wants to, I doubt that he has the cojones to tell Putin to sod off, so chances are we are going to see a Grand Prix of Russia next year.
Since F1 or other high profile racing events are still new to Russians, they will turn up in masses, so there won’t be disappointment in that department and economical considerations are completely meaningless, since Putin wants a GP as an international showcase, so he won’t let it fail because of something as mundane as money.
Will there be a Russian on the grid? Most likely yes. The recent DTM race has shown that Vitaly Petrov is surprisingly popular in Russia, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he races for Marussia next year and even if not, he most certainly will get a one-race deal for the Sochi round.
With Sirotkin still possible in a Sauber, there could actually be two Russians next year.
Is Russia fit to be the host? That’s a tricky question. Normally you’d say a country in which young women who protest against the president disappear into a Gulag for two years and where educating teenagers about homosexuality is a punishable crime is not really fit to host international events. However, Ecclestone has never been too bothered by marginal things like human rights and secondly, with the Olympics coming up and criticism of Putin and his regime steadily gaining strength, there is only so much time left before the Russians will demand the same freedom that other European countries offer.
For the first time visitor to Russia all this might sound a wee bit scary, but then you have to keep in mind that if you visit the freedom loving US of A, you’ll have your testicles fondled at the airport by a security womble, be water-boarded if you happen to be called Muhammad and there is a good chance you’ll be killed by Johnny Farmer with his pump action shotgun that he bought at the last gun fair – if you believe the stereotypes, that is.