• The Inside Line

Will F1 go to Russia?

Kate Walker September 5, 2014
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The British government has long had the power to prevent Formula One from racing in Russia, should it choose to do so.

But it is far more convenient for attention-seeking politicians desperate to claw their way free of the back benches and into the limelight to put the onus on Formula One as a sport rather than exert pressure on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British government to change the travel advice for Russia and cause a de facto cancellation of the race when the teams' insurance is invalidated en masse.

At 3pm Britsh time this afternoon - coincidentally exactly as the team principals called by the FIA convene in Monza for the Friday press conference - the NATO summit currently taking place in Newport, Wales, will come to an end.

As the F1 media prepares to grill team principals about everything from silly season to political hot potatoes, a NATO press conference will reveal whether or not that body has decided to apply sanctions to sport in Russia in addition to any military measures (such as increased troop presence) taken.

The EU have also been readying its own draft of proposed sanctions against Russia, including those for sporting events: "Beside economic measures, thought could be given to taking coordinated action within the G7 and beyond to recommend suspension of Russian participation in high profile international cultural, economic or sports events (Formula One races, UEFA football competitions, 2018 World Cup etc)."

But the likely introduction of sanctions does not mean that Formula One will obey. We were one of the last sports to sever ties with apartheid-era South Africa, and one of the first back in when it was okay to do so. It was only in 1985 - the same year that the United Nations adopted the International Convention Against Apartheid in Sports - that F1 held its last apartheid-era race in the country. Other sports first began using their absence to indicate disapproval of the regime as early as 1964, when the International Olympic Committee withdrew South Africa's invitation to that year's Games when it emerged that the team would not be racially integrated.

The 1985 South African Grand Prix was not well attended by teams, some of whom had bowed to political pressure at home and elected to stay away. It was the French teams who were most notable by their absence, with both Renault and Ligier going along with the French government's boycott of the country. Yet the Paris-based Federation Internationale de l'Automobile had no qualms about allowing the event to go ahead.

The resulting negative media coverage - which was international in scope - was thought to have a greater role to play in the FIA's then-president Jean-Marie Balestre's announcement that F1 would not return to South Africa until apartheid was finished than any international efforts to convince the sport of the error of its ways.

Some things never change. Formula One has made a point of not bowing to political pressure in recent years. Instead of moral obligation, F1 preaches contractual obligation. This is the domain of the almighty dollar (or pound, euro, yen…) and when money talks F1 listens.

Whatever decisions are taken in Newport today, or in Brussels in the near future, neither NATO nor the EU control the F1 purse strings. Sporting sanctions are not legally binding, as was shown with several rugby tours of South Africa in the early 1980s, when sporting sanctions were in place, and with F1's continued presence in the country long after the world felt it appropriate for us to be there.

There is no reason to believe that the sport would behave any differently today, should sporting sanctions be confirmed this afternoon. If the FCO travel advice remains unchanged, the only influencers likely to affect the Russian Grand Prix are the teams' sponsors, many of whom are unlikely to want to be associated with the race. Ferrari's Shell association and Mercedes' Petronas link are the ones to watch there.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'.
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Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'.