Abramovich on starting grid for a Moscow Grand Prix
THE Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich is in talks to build a £300m Formula One circuit in Moscow after being criticised for investing too much in English football and doing too little for his own country.
The Chelsea owner recently met Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, to discuss plans for the track, according to Moscow city government sources.
The circuit, to be built on waste ground in Molzhaninovo in the city’s northern suburbs, will take at least three years to complete. The project is to be put to tender this autumn. “It looks like we won’t be searching for a foreign sponsor,” said the source. “We have our own millionaires now.”
News of Abramovich’s involvement comes after several attempts by Bernie Ecclestone, the head of the sport, to bring Formula One to Russia. He was unable to reach an agreement with Luzhkov.
Abramovich, who is staying on his £68m yacht in the Baltic port of Lübeck during the World Cup and flying to matches by helicopter, is said to be a keen fan of Formula One. He has been Ecclestone’s guest at several races and was at one point rumoured to be considering buying the struggling Jordan team, which has since gone to Alex Shnaider, another wealthy Russian-born businessman.
Football and ice hockey are by far the most popular sports in Russia but interest in motor-racing is growing fast, especially among the rich. There are a number of tracks but none up to grand prix standards.
By building a circuit in Moscow, Abramovich, 39, would go some way towards silencing critics who have accused him of not doing enough to help develop sport in Russia.
The most prominent critic is Luzhkov. Three years ago when the tycoon bought Chelsea for £140m, the mayor said it was tantamount “to spitting at Russia”.
Abramovich’s investment in Russian sport is growing fast. The businessman, who grew up as an orphan in Siberia and is now estimated to be worth more than £10 billion, is building a £60m football stadium in Moscow. Dubbed Russia’s Wembley, the complex, which is to be completed by 2008, will hold 50,000 spectators and have an automated glass roof.
Its primary role will be to host Russia’s beleaguered national side which, to the dismay of the country’s football fans, failed even to qualify for the World Cup finals.
Last year Abramovich set up a national academy to train promising footballers and finance school coaches. Since then he has paid for 50 football pitches across Russia at a cost of £10m and is paying £200 a month to each of the country’s 100 top school football coaches.
“Russia hasn’t had any great success in football for a long time,” said Alexander Edelstein of Millhouse Capital, Abramovich’s holding company. “This programme is aimed at developing a new generation of players capable of changing that.”
The investment in Russian sport is bound to please President Vladimir Putin, a judo black belt who swims every day before work and has often called for sport to play a greater role in the life of ordinary Russians.
Last week, with Kremlin backing, the tycoon agreed to buy 41% of Evraz, Russia’s largest steel producer, for an estimated £1.6 billion, part of a government strategy to create national champions in key industries.
“I’m glad to hear that Abramovich has finally understood that it’s time to invest in Russian sport,” said Sergey Shishkarev, an MP for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, “but it can’t be compared to what he is doing abroad.
“Unfortunately, behind his latest moves to invest in sport and business, the motive isn’t just patriotism but a fair amount of politics.”
Mark Franchetti, The Sunday Times, June 25, 2006