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What future for F1 and Moscow?

THE recent attempt on the life of Iosif Ordzhonikidze, Moscow's deputy mayor, was immediately traced back by the authorities investigating the attack to December 19 when he signed a deal with TWR approving its construction of a Grand Prix-standard circuit.

Motor racing and politics are uneasy bedfellows at best, with the FIA's unceasing disharmony with the European Union and Bernie Ecclestone's controversial donation to the British government among the most prominent altercations in recent times.

Russia, however, offers waters into which few would choose to venture, and it seems that the meeting of Formula 1 with the political intrigues of the former Soviet Union is widely believed to be the cause of Ordzhonikidze's downfall.

"The reason for the attempt on his life should be sought in the Nagatino floodlands", stated a city government official in the aftermath of the shooting on December 23.

While driving through central Moscow, Ordzhonikidze's Nissan Maxima was raked with 30 bullets by a pair of gunmen, killing his chauffeur Ivan Petrin. The deputy mayor required a four-hour operation to save his life, during which an investigation was launched and immediately focused on his most recent deal: the F1 circuit.

Such swift and certain assumptions by the investigation team are somewhat confusing as Ordzhonikidze is undoubtedly a leading figure in the capitalist renaissance of Moscow under his boss, city mayor Yury Luzhkov. This success story has seen the average Muscovite's income swell hugely compared with the rest of Russia, given that six percent of the population lives there and yet the city enjoys 80 percent of the nation's financial resources.

The problem is that organized crime is a major shareholder in the success and for all the opulence and go-ahead commercialism of the city, financial disputes and corporate rivalries are often concluded with Kalashnikovs and car bombs. This aspect of Moscow life has not, however, discouraged gigantic foreign investment or, it seems, dissuaded any mooted plans to stage a Formula 1 race as a showcase for the Russian capital.

TWR's proposed venue for the Moscow racing circuit is an 80-hectare piece of land to the south of the city, the development of which has been under dispute for some time. Gambling is a leading leisure activity in the Russian capital and, as such, a major source of revenue for the city's criminal element. The proposal signed-off by Ordzhonikidze incorporated four hotels, a heliport and a certain amount of space for casinos alongside the racetrack but far less emphasis on gambling than was being lobbied for.

Any proposal to run a Grand Prix in Moscow would have to have been put before the Moscow Group , the cartel of politicians, industrialists, entrepreneurs and media owners who oversee the banking, trade, transport and construction issues within the city. All are answerable to Mayor Luzhkov.

Given that there are reckoned to be almost 2,000 criminal organizations operating in Moscow today and that they are reputed to be in control of half of the private businesses in the city, a still greater percentage of the banks and even some of the state-owned companies it is remarkable that a key member of Luzhkov s government would risk upsetting the criminal cartels.

Ordzhonikidze has himself been accused of an involvement in criminal activities by US businessman Paul Tatum who claimed that the deputy-mayor had asked for a $1m bribe to help arrange a hotel venture in which Tatum was involved. Tatum allegedly made the claim in a letter to the General Prosecutor of the Russian Federation Yuri Skuratov in April 1996. In November that year Tatum was gunned down at the Kievskaya metro station. Since then Tatum's brother-in-law Rick Furmanek has filed a suit against Luzhkov in an Arizona court claiming that the mayor was involved in Tatum's murder.

Such activities have dissuaded Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone from any involvement in Russia but it seems that they did not dissuade Tom Walkinshaw.

Back in the early 1980s Ecclestone was keen to run a Grand Prix in Moscow. He had meetings with a number of top level Soviet officials, including it is said, the President Leonid Brezhnev. But the talks never amounted to anything and in 1983 Ecclestone gave up on the Russians and started looking at other Eastern European cities. His aim was to take F1 behind the Iron Curtain and he did not mind where that was. The result was a deal for the Hungarian GP.

Bernie returned to Moscow in 1990 and 1995 to discuss proposals for a Russian race but dealing with the post-Perestroika governments was no easier. In recent years the increase in serious criminal activity in Russia has convinced Ecclestone to stay away as he believes that the sport will gain nothing from its association with a country tainted by a reputation for lawlessness.

The Russians have been floating one project after another in an attempt to get F1 to the country. They are keen to use the race to try to attract foreign investment and foreign tourists but none of these projects has convinced Ecclestone.

In the circumstances, Tom Walkinshaw's decision to do a deal to build an F1 standard race track on Nagatino Island was odd. Walkinshaw did not seem to be worried about the possible knock-on effects of such a deal and was, presumably, under the impression that he might be able to convince Ecclestone to change his mind.

The attempted assassination of Ordzhonikidze is likely to change that. The association with the attack is an embarrassment which F1 does not want and does not need. Ecclestone will almost certainly be suggesting to Walkinshaw that he is not going to have anything to do with a track if it is built.

Whether it will be built is another issue. A very clear message has been sent by whoever ordered the attack and it is going to be difficult to convince local contractors to embark on any building work for the program. At the same time, sending in foreign management will be a risky business as the criminals have shown in the past that they are not above killing a foreign businessman.

For the moment, at least, TWR says that the project will go ahead but it is hard to imagine that F1 cars will be seen in Moscow unless there are major changes in Russia - and in then country's image.

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