There is nothing like coming in to a home grand prix on the back of a podium from an adrenaline-fuelled race, while carrying the edge from a spat with a four-times world champion.
Russia’s local hero Daniil Kvyat is riding just such a wave here.
His third place and second career podium, at the last round in China, began with a scythe up the inside of Sebastian Vettel at turn one. It was legitimate but Vettel was still fuming at the end of the race. Local fans would doubtless be delighted to see the same again on Sunday but they can expect more in the future, indeed some dare to dream of a new nation of Michael Schumachers.
Red Bull’s Kvyat, who was born in Ufa, is the main draw for the Russian audience who have no great racing history in which to indulge. Kvyat and Vitaly Petrov are the only two competitive F1 drivers the country has produced. Which is not to say that will be the case for ever, as motor racing here is changing.
The first Russian Grand Prix in Sochi in 2014 has been both the centre point of and, to an extent, the catalyst for this progress but there is more to it than the attention brought by Formula One. The championship visits many countries that have little or no motor racing heritage, chasing the money in return for the prestige and publicity gained by hosting a race. Sometimes, as with Korea, the latter is all that is required. The circuit at Mokpo would lie unused for 51 weeks a year.
But in Russia, much as it attracts opprobrium for being a state-sponsored publicity device, F1 is also the poster boy for nationwide development of the sport. In 2008, there were no permanent circuits. Including Sochi there are now eight, from Moscow to Chechnya, via Smolensk, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan, with another in Kabardino-Balkaria under construction.
These are the building blocks to make a thriving sport and part of a process that is already paying off. Kvyat was not the only Russian on track on Friday; Sergey Sirotkin drove the first free practice in the Renault. The 20-year-old from Moscow, in his second run in an F1 car in practice, put in an impressive display, seven-tenths quicker than his team-mate Jolyon Palmer.
But Renault were not taking a wild chance, Sirotkin had a race win and podiums in GP2 last year and this year will race for the current champions ART Grand Prix. But crucially for Russian motor sport he is there as part of the homegrown young driver programme SMP Racing, established in 2013 by the founder of the SMP bank Boris Rotenberg, who fell for the sport after a run on track in a Ferrari GT car. While Kvyat came through the prolific Red Bull junior team, SMP may boast the biggest development programme in the world. It has 30 drivers from the age of 13 in karting, through various formulas to GP2, and has two full teams in the LMP2 class in the World Endurance Championship.
SMP is a non-profit organisation whose purpose, says its executive director, Dmitry Belousov, is “to bring Russian drivers to the top”, but it is about more than just exercising muscle with money.
“It’s not only finance,” explains Belousov. “It’s finding teams, coaching drivers, we have Mika Salo working with them. Our task is to find the best drivers, find the best team for them, find the right path from the low level to the top.”
It is also very much a collective approach, with more experienced drivers spending time with their younger colleagues. F1 and Sochi have been important but the real future lies in driver development. “The SMP programme is really important,” Sirotkin says. “Anything is possible but with SMP there is a great advantage, giving young Russian drivers chances. I clearly see that the sport’s popularity is not making huge steps but it is constantly growing and growing.”
Finally, overseeing these steps is the Russian Automobile Federation, a body whose legacy runs back to the Russian Automobile Association, which was originally formed in 1903. It has helped ensure rapid expansion in circuits, a process that the executive director Sergey Ivanov says is “developing constantly”. Formed in 1991, the organisation has offices in 68 of Russia’s 85 regions and although these are run almost completely by volunteers they have overseen the number of racing drivers in Russia increasing by 10% a year.
“We still only have very few circuits but the fact that the construction and development is going on is a reason for joy for us and it develops and promotes motor sport in Russia,” says Ivanov. “There is growth in the number of meetings here on a yearly basis.”
Not that this is necessarily trouble-free. Building a sport almost from nothing and up to FIA standard was never going to be an easy task. “It would be easy to hold meetings without ambulances, for example,” says Ivanov. “But when something besides nuts and bolts appears on the list of to-dos, it brings complaints. It is impossible to go from scratch to maximum and so we are trying to be responsible in order not to choke the sport in Russia.”
Kvyat, then, will be looking to better his fifth here last year but only as the vanguard of a new Russian racing revolution. “We are raising our own Schumachers,” says Ivanov, jovially. “He is very popular here, almost an idol, an icon. But we are happy to see the new generation approaching.”
It was honours even across the two practice sessions for Mercedes, with Nico Rosberg quickest in the morning and Lewis Hamilton topping the time sheets with a 1.37.583, ahead of Vettel, in the afternoon.
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