'UK ban on Russian racers is right call after FIA passed the buck'


Punishing Russian drivers for a war that they aren't involved in might seem unfair, but it's about standing up for what's right, says Chris Medland

Nikita Mazepin at the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Nikita Mazepin is set to be barred from British GP after ban on Russian-licensed drivers

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

When the International Olympic Committee came out and told sporting federations it recommended athletes and teams from Russia and Belarus are banned from international competition, it was a big statement. For governing bodies such as the FIA, it was almost a mandate.

FIFA and UEFA moved quickly to ban Russia from competitions, throwing the likes of Spartak Moscow out of one of its tournaments and the international team from World Cup qualifiers. It did not say Russian players could not play, however.

And that seems to be the argument that the FIA has picked up on and used to defend its own position, which is a particularly weak one. No international events to be held in Russia or Belarus for the foreseeable future is a pretty obvious statement, but the only real sanction on the two countries when it comes to their drivers was stopping them racing under their flags, with an “FIA Flag” deemed acceptable instead.

That’s really going to get to Vladimir Putin, isn’t it? When he sees one of the drivers that are a product of his state-backed systems competing, but the little symbol next to their name is a different flag to the Russian one.

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The IOC’s stance caused quite a lot of noise in defence of the drivers, calling them innocent and saying it is unfair that they are punished for a war they play no part in. I agree with those statements to an extent, it would be unfair on them, but if we’re talking about what’s fair and unfair, developments in Ukraine don’t really leave much up for discussion in my view.

Truly unfair is children being killed by missile attacks as Russia’s invasion continues, and people saying goodbye to their families as many flee to try and seek refuge in other countries, while certain members stay behind to fight for their country’s independence. An independence that was meant to have been protected.

Some racing drivers and teams not being allowed to compete until peace is restored pales into insignificance against that backdrop.

Too much focus from a Formula 1 perspective has been place on Nikita Mazepin and his situation at Haas. Given his questionable background in terms of off-track behaviour, it’s clear that overwhelming sentiment is for him to lose his seat, but not strictly because of the actual situation at present.

His father’s links to Putin play a big part, of course, but it’s clearly not the only thing because of the way other Russian drivers are being defended by some quarters. Daniil Kvyat split opinion with his statement yesterday saying it is “an unfair solution” to ban Russian drivers, with many stating he shouldn’t be punished as he has nothing to do with the war. But his rise through the motor sport ranks saw him backed for a spell by Lukoil – sanctioned in 2014 amid the earlier Ukraine conflict, and also accused of helping finance Kremlin-backed separatists waging war against the eastern Donbas region at the time.

Robert Shwartzman? Backed by Russian motor sport development program SMP Racing that was created by Boris Rotenberg – a close Putin ally who was sanctioned last month. Kvyat also carried SMP Racing logos on his Formula 3 car for a spell.

Robert Schwartzman in Prema F2 car

Robert Schwartzman is backed by SMP

Joe Portlock/F1 via Getty Images

Of course these drivers have nothing personally to do with the invasion, and they just want to be allowed to race, but their ascent to the world stage in motor sport has been funded by a country that the world is trying to stop through means other than military warfare.

The FIA had a chance to really stand up for what is right. Innocent people dying and existing freedoms being threatened overshadow the financial impact on motor sport. Do the wrong thing now and the financial impact will be much greater in the long run, as well as the human impact being significant too.

Instead, the FIA showed a not unsurprising lack of backbone, pointing to other sports as an example and saying the “FIA is acting like FIFA, ITF, UCI – we ban national teams not athletes in foreign teams”.

Ah yes, all of those Russian national teams that compete in Formula 1, WEC, WRC and Formula E. That’s going to hit hard. Essentially, the FIA passed the buck to the individual teams and national federations.

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Many other Ukrainian sportspeople – including champion boxer Wladimir Klitschko – have given up on their sports to go and fight for their country. Had that been a racing driver, they’d be watching their Russian counterparts able to continue competing based on the FIA stance, despite the IOC using that exact example as justification for its recommendation.

Fortunately, there are people with more strength and more values who will do the work the FIA should have done instead. Motorsport UK came out this morning and stated no Russian/Belarusian licensed teams are approved to enter, and no Russian/Belarusian licensed competitors and officials are approved to participate in events that it governs.

As the organiser of the British Grand Prix that affects Mazepin, but it will also impact drivers in junior categories such as British F4. Not an easy decision to make, but one that is intended to show complete unity with Ukraine and alienate Russia further.

If big-name Russian drivers are hurt by the invasion and come out denouncing it, that is going to have far more impact than allowing them to race under a neutral flag and state that they hope for a peaceful end to “this situation in Ukraine” as Kvyat called it.

It doesn’t mean it’s fair on the drivers, but motor sport has been put in this position by Russia’s invasion and nobody else. If you want to get angry about the drivers being punished, it should be pretty clear where that anger needs directing.

It’s a shame some also goes towards the FIA for bottling such an important decision.