Statements have limited value when they are torn apart by flimsy actions. Or in the case of the FIA’s latest statements, flimsy inaction.
At a time when the top rank in motorsport has taken a repeated beating, the FIA’s weak response has been sad and embarrassing.
When statements come out on a Friday afternoon, expect the news to either be buried or for calls to go unanswered as those who answer them disappear for the weekend, particularly when the matter at hand is a contentious one.
For some weeks now, the subject of the Russian Grand Prix has proved a tricky one and difficult to fully appreciate, but as troops and armaments pressed on to re-engage an eight-year invasion of Ukraine that had started in the Crimea, Russia’s position as a violent and oppressive power came into greater focus.
Their push forward into Ukrainian territory on Thursday (February 24th) instigated a backlash that has resulted in the order of further sanctions and the shunning of commercial, sporting, and cultural propositions.
It did not end there of course. There were then the very public shunning of sponsors, so intertwined with the Putin regime, they may as well have been sowed into his pockets forever. Some applauded the bravery of such decisions; more astute heads questioned how those deals came to be in the first place…
And so, it was last Friday (February 25th), Formula One Group announced that, “We are watching the developments in Ukraine with sadness and shock and hope for a swift and peaceful resolution to the present situation.” They continued, “On Thursday evening, Formula 1, the FIA, and the teams discussed the position of our sport, and the conclusion is, including the view of all relevant stakeholders, that it is impossible to hold the Russian Grand Prix in the current circumstances.”
It was a nothing statement – the words of a sport that was happy to host Vladimir Putin on the podium for several events before he became bored and handed the job of awarding trophies to a well-positioned lackey.
This was the kind of release that contains many words but says ultimately nothing – because when read closely, one may acknowledge that the statement was a view and not an official action. And so, there followed numerous reports that the Russian Grand Prix had been cancelled, when it had not.
If one were to be blunt, it could be said that the statement kicked the can down the road in the hope that the situation improved in the short term. By September, things would have cleared up, the mess set aside, and all would be forgiven and forgotten.
But that clearly has not happened. And it won’t happen. If anything, Europe could be about to witness the worst brutalisation on this continent’s shores since the Srebrenica genocide in the mid-90s.
Motor sport does, on occasion, possess something of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. The sport races in some wonderful destinations that offer much to the world, while simultaneously dipping toes into territories that require relationship building with governments steeped in terror.
And so, Russia – and others – populated the 2022 Formula One calendar, or at least Russia used to. On late Monday night (February 28th), Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the newly elected FIA President, published a tweet stating that an extraordinary meeting of the World Motor Sport Council was to take place the following day to further discuss matters in Ukraine.
Come Tuesday night, several decisions had been made – albeit few of much significance, although it did state that upon the proposal of the F1 Commercial Rights Holder (see Feb 25th release), cancellation of the 2022 Russian F1 Grand Prix for reason of Force Majeure would be implemented with immediate effect.
In the release, Ben Sulayem began by stating, “The FIA is watching the developments in Ukraine with sadness and shock, and I hope for a swift and peaceful resolution to the present situation. We condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and our thoughts are with all those suffering as a result of the events in Ukraine.”
Updated versions of several FIA schedules are set to be presented to the WMSC council for approval in Bahrain this month. Ben Sulayem continued, “I would like to stress that the FIA, together with our promoters, proactively acted on this matter last week and communicated accordingly on the Formula 1, Formula 2, WTCR and the International Drifting Cup.” How one views such that declaration of proactivity is entirely up to them.
There were several other fairly standard declarations in the release. In accordance with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) recommendations, no international or national competition is to take place in Russia and Belarus – this does not discount the status either of these country’s ASN’s but does effectively bar them from sanctioning events.
As an aside, representatives from Russian and Belarusian FIA Members are to step aside from their roles and responsibilities, while no existing or new FIA grant is to be awarded to the Russian/Belarusian FIA Members, although this is still subject to the approval of the World Council for Automobile Mobility and Tourism.
The declaration also says that no Russian or Belarusian national team can participate in competitions. Admittedly, at first, I misread this, thinking it was a reference to Russian or Belarusian team; it is actually a reference to competitions where teams are based on national identity, such as FIA Motorsport Games. The likes of G-Drive, Artline Engineering, Kamaz, Lada Sport, Full in Race Academy and Lukoil Racing (etc.) will still be able to participate in their various categories, as long as the money continues to roll in – but that is another matter.
Where the FIA did deviate from the IOC is with regards to competitor participation. According to the FIA statement, drivers from Belarus and Russia will be allowed to race under a neutral FIA flag, as long as they adhere to the FIA’s principles of peace and political neutrality.
This does differ slightly from the IOC recommendations, as released on Monday, which states that International Sports Federations and sports event organisers must not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions, which – had the FIA implemented this – would have banned Russian and Belarusian drivers and teams from motorsport competition that is sanctioned by the FIA or national bodies that operate under the FIA.
In contrast to the FIA, Britain’s motorsport authority – MotorsportUK – has decided to side with the IOC recommendations, by suspending competitors or officials who operate under Russian and Belarusian licences, effectively ruling the likes of Nikita Mazepin out of the British Grand Prix.
According to Dave Richards, the Chair of MotorsportUK, “It is our duty to use whatever influence and leverage we might have to bring this wholly unjustified invasion of Ukraine to a halt.”
Richards continued, “We would encourage the motorsport community and our colleagues around the world to fully embrace the recommendations of the International Olympic Committee and do whatever we can to end this war.” That one of motorsport’s national bodies has felt the desire to step out in such a way further embarrasses the FIA.
The IOC ruling does possess caveat whereby competitors from banned territories can compete wherever such an action is “not possible on short notice for organisational or legal reasons,” at which point, “the IOC EB strongly urges International Sports Federations and organisers of sports events worldwide to do everything in their power to ensure that no athlete or sports official from Russia or Belarus be allowed to take part under the name of Russia or Belarus.”
Finally, no Russian or Belarusian national symbols, colours, flags, or anthems should be displayed or performed at motorsport events.
The FIA President added: “I want to thank the Council members for their prompt action in deciding these measures in the interests of sport and peace. We stand in solidarity with Leonid Kostyuchenko, the President of the Federation Automobile d’Ukraine (FAU) and the wider FIA family in the country.
“The measures taken today recognise the authority of the FAU in Ukraine and are also aligned with the recommendations recently made by the International Olympic Committee. We are in active discussions with our members as we continue to extend our compassion and support in their time of need. We sincerely hope for a peaceful resolution to their intolerable hardship.”
Words are nice, but in the end, they are just words.
Grand Prix racing as a whole does not have the best of histories when it comes to competitions in deplorable regimes. This was a sport that continued to race in South Africa for twenty-two years after the IOC barred the nation from Olympic representation, and even then, Formula One’s hand was forced not by the FIA or FISA, but rather the teams, as Renault and Ligier withdrew from the 1985 event, while several sponsors demanded to be removed from cars for the race, effectively ending the Grand Prix in its tracks.
This year, Formula One will continue to race on in countries led by autocratic regimes or with deeply questionable human rights. It races in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Abu Dhabi and, from next year, Qatar’s new contract begins, while it is thought the Chinese Grand Prix will return to the fold and in time, Russia will return to the table too.
Formula One takes the money and hides and when the time is right, it adopts the right words and the right pleasantries, but struggles to match those words with action or authority.
As I write this, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is delivering his best lamentable efforts in Prime Minister Questions and it reminds me that at a time of great horror, the world continues to play politics, as if it is a board game. Yet actions have consequences and the deals we do or are done in our name have consequences too.
Our world spins upon the colour and scent of money, but in the end, money dripped in blood is still money. The value, however, is tainted forever.