MOSCOW, (RIA Novosti sports commentator Mikhail Smirnov) -- Formula 1 is coming to Moscow again, or rather, one of its teams is.
This season's leader MILD SEVEN RENAULT and its drivers Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella are to do a demonstration drive along the road running beside the Moscow River, just a stone's throw away from the Kremlin.
In recent years, Russia has been getting used to F1 stars dropping in on the capital. For example, in 2003, Alonso visited Moscow with his then co-driver Jarni Trulli. David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher have also visited the city. Their trips have always been as team representatives, generally to promote the goods or services of the team's sponsors. Alonso and Fisichella's visit is also a promotional one. It is tied in to the launch of new packaging for Mild Seven cigarettes.
Each visit by the F1 stars is accompanied by promises and assurances from officials that the issue of constructing a race track for this most prestigious series will soon be resolved. Yet nothing has ever changed. Below is a brief chronology of Russia's attempts to bring a Grand Prix race to the country.
They started back in 1980 after the Olympics when it was suggested to the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that the Soviet Union host the world's most prestigious motor races. Although officials were initially keen on the idea, their enthusiasm soon waned and the plan was shelved.
The authorities returned to the idea during the stormy years of Gorbachev's perestroika. In 1987, a company with connections to F1 owner Bernie Ecclestone said it would construct a $80 million race track at the Tushino airfield. However, in the end the company was put off by the political instability of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, with good reason, as it turned out.
In the 1990s, a number of "formulaic" proposals were put forward, but the projects never materialized. There were plans to construct a giant autodrome in Kaliningrad that would hold 300,000 spectators, and also a modest track near Yaroslavl. At the same time the authorities could not get the $80 million they wanted for a racing track in Chekhov near Moscow or the $130 million to build a track in Tula Region.
In the late 1990s, the Moscow city and Moscow Region authorities stepped up their efforts. For example, in 1999, the Moscow government planned to construct a 5-km race track, a golf course and a car park for 40,000 cars in Novopodrezkovo near Moscow. But they could not raise the necessary $200 million.
In 2000, a new $100 million project was proposed. The plan was to construct a large leisure complex in the southeast of Moscow on the Nagatino Moskva-River valley. The complex was to include a 5-km race track with a 350,000 spectator capacity, hotels, golf courses, several casinos and a yacht club. The project was endlessly revised, but when Ecclestone finally came to Moscow in 2002, he said he would not sign a contract with Moscow until the track had been built.
The project was revised once again and given the ambitious name "Monaco of the North." The race track was to be laid out between buildings as it is in Monte Carlo, and the buildings were to be designed to reflect different epochs so it would almost seem as though the drivers were traveling back in time. The total cost of the project shot up to $600 million. Yet, given the level of interest among potential investors, it still seemed feasible. But talks with Ecclestone reached deadlock again. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov did not mince his words when explaining the reason for the impasse, saying "Ecclestone wanted to keep all the rights on it - the rights to ticket sales, to television broadcasts, to advertising. If we had agreed to his terms, we would have got nothing but the exhaust fumes."
Then St. Petersburg seemed to show an interest in Formula 1.
But in 2003, the capital took the initiative again. First of all the governor of Moscow Region, Boris Gromov, promised to build a track to the south of Moscow. Then in December 2003, Luzhkov signed a resolution on allocating a 227.6 hectare land plot in the north of the capital between the Klyazma floodplain and the St. Petersburg-Moscow highway. So far there have been no signs of either of these two latest projects coming to fruition.
It seems that in addition to purely economic reasons there is another equally important reason why this process keeps going round in circles. Evidently, despite the frequent visits by F1 stars and the television coverage of the races, motor racing has failed to gain a mass audience in Russia, in contrast to soccer, for example. At most, televised F1 races attract just 1.5% of the available television audience.
This means that for the time being Russian fans of motor racing will have to settle for watching late-night television coverage of F1 races held abroad. Of course, they can also see its stars on their latest PR campaigns in Russia.