1914 was a year that saw the world change forever. Following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, a series of events led to one of the bloodiest conflicts man has even known: World War One.
However, in the months leading up to the outbreak of war, a very different battle was being waged. The early days of grand prix racing saw manufacturers and drivers producing automobile behemoths (for their time, of course) in an attempt to be the best in the world – much like today.
Back then, there was no formal world championship, but instead a series of events that took place across Europe. It was a far simpler time.
One of the final events in the 1914 racing season was the second Russian Grand Prix. This weekend’s race in Sochi is not, contrary to popular belief, the first. It is indeed the first Russian GP to be part of the world championship, but back in 1913 and 1914, there were races held around the streets of St. Petersburg, the old capital.
These were the days before DRS, KERS, active suspension – or even seatbelts. They were the formative years of grand prix racing. Although it is a world away from the modern sport we now know, it is important to remember your roots.
The race in 1914 took place in May, and was not as well attended as many had hoped due to the upcoming French Grand Prix, which was the blue-riband event of the grand prix calendar. Nevertheless, 15 runners took to the streets of St. Petersburg for the race that was run over 210 ‘versts’ – a Russian measurement of around 1.1km – and was won in a little under two hours by German driver Willy Scholl, who went lights-to-flag and won by ten minutes in his Mercedes-Benz. Nico Rosberg will be hoping to follow in his footsteps this weekend.
By the middle of August in 1914, all-out war had broken in Europe. Men and boys were sent out onto the frontline to fight for their nation – 16 million never came home.
In Russia, the war was one that would change the history of the nation forever. As Emperor Nicholas II saw his nation crumbling around him, the Bolsheviks seized power. Led by Vladimir Lenin, the new communist order that had been established in the Soviet Union – and defended in the civil war – would remain for over three-quarters of a century.
Unsurprisingly, grand prix racing didn’t even think about going back to the Soviet Union for a good while. In 1950, the Formula 1 world championship was formed, and grand prix racing was finally ‘official’ in the sense that it all added up to something.
In the 1980s, Bernie Ecclestone came to wield a great deal of power in the sport, and began to set his sights on a field further away than Europe. We speak today of the sport’s ambition for exponential global expansion, but the early roots are easy to see.
Holding a race in eastern Europe may not seem very wild in the modern context, but back in the ‘80s, the idea of a grand prix taking place on the other side of the iron curtain of communism was unfathomable – but Bernie wanted it. He wanted a grand prix to be held in the Soviet Union.
He fell short in the end, with the Hungarian Grand Prix being the alternative and coming into force in 1986. Although it was a different state to the Soviet Union with its goulash communism, and given how close we were to the end of the Cold War period, it was still a venture into the unknown.
At this year’s race in Hungary, I got speaking to an older journalist. “I remember when we first came here,” he said. “We walked around Budapest. You could still see the bulletholes from the revolution.” It was a very different time.
So what about the here and now? Why is 2014 the right year for Russia to host grand prix racing once again?
Maybe saying that 2014 is precisely the right time isn’t quite right, as the modern nation has developed rapidly over the past two decades. It is the R that makes up the BRIC nations, noted for their rapid economic growth and lucrative markets. Right there is one reason why now is good for F1 to head to Russia.
Secondly, Russian drivers are out and about. Daniil Kvyat may not have been the first, but he appears to be the best so far, and will be driving for Red Bull next season. A Russian world champion in the next five to ten years is entirely possible. Just as Michael Schumacher got Germany going gaga for F1 in the ‘90s, Daniil could do the same for Russia.
In sporting terms, Russia’s stock has grown considerably of late. The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi were a success, and by taking F1 there, a succession plan for the complex is in place. It won’t become empty like the sites in Athens and Sydney have. The 2018 FIFA World Cup is heading to Russia, and its presence as a huge power on the global sporting stage has been recognised. A grand prix will only further these credentials.
Of course, there have been a number of concerns about taking the sport to Russia, with many coming in the wake of the crisis in the Crimea and the MH17 disaster. Ultimately, the FIA’s stance has been that sports and politics needn’t mix. Taking the grand prix there has nothing to do with Russian politics at all.
Now is good for F1, and now is good for Russia. Some 100 years after Willy Scholl crossed the line to claim victory around the streets of St. Petersburg, another man will do the same this weekend, following in the footsteps of a mark left when the world was a very different place indeed.