Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Sochi's formula for the future: 'Fantasy' becomes reality

By Ben Wyatt, CNN
updated 7:26 AM EST, Sat February 22, 2014
Sochi hopes to be a town synonymous with global sport in the coming years. Not only is it playing host to the 2014 Winter Games and for matches in the 2018 World Cup, it will also stage Russia's first F1 grand prix in October of this year. Sochi hopes to be a town synonymous with global sport in the coming years. Not only is it playing host to the 2014 Winter Games and for matches in the 2018 World Cup, it will also stage Russia's first F1 grand prix in October of this year.
Russia's first F1 grand prix
Russia's first F1 grand prix
Russia's first F1 grand prix
Russia's first F1 grand prix
Russia's first F1 grand prix
Russia's first F1 grand prix
Russia's first F1 grand prix
Russia's first F1 grand prix
Russia's first F1 grand prix
Russia's first F1 grand prix
Russia's first F1 grand prix
Russia's first F1 grand prix
  • F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone backs Russian president Vladimir Putin's way of working
  • Sochi hosts Russia's inaugural grand prix in October 2014
  • Sochi GP promoter Oleg Zabara says $330 million spent on circuit
  • Track site in 2010 "was a big hole," says German track designer Hermann Tilke

Follow us at @WorldSportCNN and like us on Facebook

Sochi, Russia (CNN) -- Who do you ask for help if you need to turn a muddy hole in the ground into a futuristic grand prix track?

"He's my sort of man," Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone says of Russian president Vladimir Putin's influence in the project to stage the nation's first grand prix this October in Sochi.

"He knows what he wants to do and he gets on and does it. I've never had any fear that what he agreed to do wouldn't happen. I think (Russia has) done a first-class job for F1 and a super job for the Olympics," Ecclestone told CNN.

It's the kind of ringing endorsement that stands out like an oasis in a desert for a politician much derided for many of his policies by a large swathe of the international community.

Experience Alonso's world up close
Driving your own F1 car
Inside Stalin's holiday villa
Will Ferrari's drivers deliver success?

But then, the 83-year-old Ecclestone has a reputation for favoring those who he believes can deliver on their promises and thereby aid F1's further expansion.

The growth of motorsport's elite division into one of the world's most valuable sport franchises has been built on such relationships and Ecclestone's shrewd 40-year management of them.

Read: Ecclestone backs Putin's stance on gay 'propaganda'

The Sochi circuit is the culmination of talks that first started in the 1980s, when a plan to run a race through Red Square in Moscow was abandoned -- "they didn't want to replace the cobblestones with paving," says Ecclestone -- and is a major statement of intent from Putin's government to secure the city's post-Games future.

Talks became serious six years ago, when the Olympic project gained momentum.

"He's been following the plans all of the way through," Ecclestone says of Putin's involvement.

New locations are always a risk for F1's management. The promise of lucrative hosting deals and iconic locations often turn to dust before coming to reality, as plans for a race in New Jersey recently demonstrated.

But the Sochi pitch filled Ecclestone with confidence, so much so that a six-year deal reportedly worth in excess of $250 million -- though Ecclestone would not confirm that figure -- was signed to secure the event until 2020.

"I think Russia is an important nation full stop. F1 is a world championship, so it's difficult to think of leaving Russia out of a world event like this," Ecclestone said.

"We looked at what they were building ... and tailored ourselves around what they had constructed for the events already."

But the task of fitting an F1 circuit within the confines of an Olympic Park proved no easy task.

"Originally we had an idea to build the track through the main Fisht Stadium," Oleg Zabara, promoter of the Sochi Grand Prix, told CNN from his office in the paddock area of the newly-built pit lane compound.

"He's my sort of man, I think [Russia has] done a first-class job for [F1] and a super job for the Olympics."
F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So organizers turned to track designer Hermann Tilke -- "nothing is impossible for him," says Zabara -- with the German engineer offering another plan more suitable for the Olympic Park facilities.

"It was a big hole!" says Tilke, recalling his initial impressions of when he visited the Sochi site in 2010.

"It looked like a desert of mud ... but I had a fantasy in my mind of how it would look later so I wasn't too worried."

The complexity of the new circuit design -- it needed to be cut through the middle of the Olympic Park and weaved in between the stadium and arenas -- provided Tilke with plenty of challenges.

"I've had more meetings about Sochi than any other track," the architect says. "We were a construction site within a construction site ... (but) in many ways it's like a city track -- you cannot move a house in a city, you have to work with the situation.

"The stadiums, arenas and pipes and cables under the earth had to be factored in."

Turn four -- a long, sweeping circular corner which the cars will enter at 80 miles per hour and exit at 190 mph -- fills Tilke with particular pride, and he believes it will be "the hardest in F1," especially when the surface is slippery or when attempted on degraded tires.

Despite his pride at a job well done, Tilke admits he'll feel "very nervous" on the day of the race because the track until then remains a prototype.

As with the Olympic constructions, it seems costs were not foremost in organizers' minds in their ambition to construct a world-class facility.

"We've spent about $330 million (so far). But I'm not worried about the cost only about the quality," Zabara says.

"I can say for sure that the cost of the track will be three to four times cheaper than the circuit in Abu-Dhabi."

The promoter is hoping a race on Russian soil will attract many of the country's F1 fans who already travel the world to watch the championship, as well as creating a new domestic supporter base willing to pay $200 a ticket to attend.

"About 60,000 fans are expected to come here and that will mean an extension of the resort season (in the town) too," says Zabara.

"It's also suitable to use the track throughout the season -- we've signed contracts with GP2, GP3, the Porsche Cup and hope to attract MotoGP," adds Zabara, a fan of motorcycling star Valentino Rossi.

The plans for the Sochi GP certainly don't lack for ambition and chime well with the wider Putin-driven plan of trying to rebrand Russia through the city.

It's maybe the reason Ecclestone expects the Russian president to attend the inaugural race in October and why he remains so enthusiastic about this month's Winter Games.

"People love to criticize anything new don't they? But we'll look back at Vancouver and say it didn't come close to what we've just seen in Sochi," Ecclestone argues.

Maybe the same will soon be said of the Sochi Grand Prix.

Read: Ecclestone backs Putin on gay rights issue

Read: 'We believe' say Schumacher's family

Read: Alonso hungry for success in 2014

Read: F1 stars auction personal photos for charity

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:05 PM EST, Mon February 24, 2014
With the Olympic cauldron now extinguished, CNN takes a look at whether Russia's $50 billion Sochi budget was money well spent.
updated 9:40 AM EST, Mon February 24, 2014
The athletes on show in Sochi provided moments of drama and destiny that captured the imagination and settled in the collective memory.
updated 11:15 AM EST, Mon February 24, 2014
Russia may have topped the medals table at the first Winter Olympics it staged, but which country was most successful per capita?
updated 11:48 AM EST, Mon February 24, 2014
From eye-popping helmet designs to F1-influenced bobsleigh, the Sochi offered a bewildering array of technological innovation.
updated 6:46 AM EST, Mon February 24, 2014
Sochi's closing ceremony took an artistic look at Russian culture before the Olympic flag was handed over to South Korea for the 2018 Games.
updated 1:57 PM EST, Sun February 23, 2014
Critics say it would have been cheaper to coat this Russian road with caviar but will the route made for Sochi reap long-term rewards?
updated 7:06 AM EST, Tue February 18, 2014
Navigate your way around this spectacular 360-degree picture from Sochi's ski-jumping venue at the Winter Olympics -- and find out how it was created.
updated 5:45 AM EST, Tue February 18, 2014
Sochi's transformation has left even the local cab drivers a bit lost and confused -- but don't let that put you off visiting this rejuvenated Black Sea resort.
updated 12:59 PM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
Australia's silver medalist Torah Bright celebrates during the Women's Snowboard Halfpipe Medal Ceremony at the Sochi medals plaza during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 13, 2014.
What do you get if you mix Valentine's Day, thousands of good-looking young Olympians and a popular online dating app?
updated 7:11 AM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
For a Winter Olympics, there are some very colorful characters from some very tropical climates taking part -- including this "Mariachi" skier.
updated 6:03 AM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
If snowboarders were an introduction to a younger, hipper, "slacker" generation of Olympians, the next wave has taken it to another level.
updated 6:52 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
He didn't like carpets, he banned portraits and he walked in water rather than swim. Welcome to Joseph Stalin's dacha.
updated 6:19 PM EST, Thu February 13, 2014
ebanon's Jackie Chamoun skis during the Women's Giant slalom first run at the 2013 Ski World Championships in Schladming, Austria on February 14, 2013.
Like most skiers in Sochi, Jacky Chamoun had hoped to cause a stir on the slopes rather than off them.
updated 5:14 AM EST, Wed February 12, 2014
A prop from the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.
It has been dubbed Russia's Las Vegas. But has Sochi's massive renovation come at a cost to the region's stunning natural environment?
updated 12:33 PM EST, Sun February 23, 2014
Take a different look at Sochi 2014 as CNN showcases the most compelling images from the world's best photographers.