Sochi might not be the most obvious place to host a Grand Prix. In the past, it was a Communist playground: Stalin even had his dacha – a style of country house – on the outskirts of the city, complete with swimming pool.
But there’s a reason behind this slightly odd choice as a venue. Having hosted the Winter Olympics in February 2014, Sochi was left with a massive Olympic Park that turned out to be perfect for grand prix. Nearby were some top hotels, the Black Sea, a 207-metre bungee jump, and even an Irish pub called O’Sullivan’s. Everything a visitor could possibly want, in other words. True, there were some unusual aspects to the facilities too in Sochi that were noted when the Olympics opened: especially the ‘double toilet’ cubicles, which meant that you could go with a friend.
But the other ultra-modern infrastructure and buildings littered around the Olympic Park more than made up for this, meaning that the Russian Grand Prix felt a little bit like spending a weekend in a science-fiction novel, crossed with a funfair (there are rollercoasters everywhere).
Ironically, the circuit itself is completely flat, and that’s often led to some boring races. In fact, no other team than Mercedes has ever won there. That was the case this year as well, with Lewis Hamilton claiming a mind-bending 100th grand prix victory to underscore his place in the history books. Yet there’s rarely been such an odd race that’s ended up with such a conventional result. Everything happened – thanks also to a rain shower that turned the final few laps into a skating rink: ironically, not far from the Olympic building that was once actually a real skating rink. A few years ago, Formula 1’s supremo Bernie Ecclestone jokingly suggested that all new tracks should be fitted with sprinklers in order to spice up the action at random. He probably had a point.
And although he’s now stepped down from the management of Formula 1, it was thanks to Bernie that the sport ended up in Russia in the first place. He first got the idea back in 1980, when Moscow hosted the Olympics. He even travelled to Moscow to chat about it with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, over vodka and buns. But perhaps unsurprisingly, it never happened. After all, the decadent world of Formula 1 was never even televised in Russia until 1992.
Ironically, it took another Olympic Games – and another Russian premier, Vladimir Putin – to make the Russian Grand Prix finally come to fruition, nearly 40 years after it was first thought of. And the result was Sochi, which hosted its first race in 2014. It’s been on the F1 calendar ever since, but not for much longer: as from 2023 the race will be held at a brand new track in St Petersburg.
That’s much more of a renowned destination that caters for western tastes, so it’s bound to be a bit less odd: fewer unspeakable creations involving beetroot, not as many policemen with unfeasibly large peaked hats and uniforms from the 1970s, less of the surreal Mother Russia.
And while in some ways that’s a good thing – nobody’s going to miss the 45-minute wait for a cold burger at O’Sullivan’s, which looked and tasted as though it was made from the exhumed remains of Brezhnev – it’s also a bit of a shame. There’s not quite enough weirdness in the world of F1, and on that front, Russia never fails to disappoint. Where else would you find a giant babushka doll in the middle of the F1 paddock?
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.
Photographs courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari Press Office and by Anthony Peacock