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VLADIMIR PUTIN has been courting Bernie Ecclestone. The reason: The Russian president hopes to “encourage” the boss of Formula 1 to bring a Grand Prix to Sochi, Krasnodar Krai, next year.
Sochi is the Black Sea resort city hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. Curiously, its average temperature during colder months is a balmy 50 degrees Fahrenheit, though there are mountains a train-ride away where one might find natural snow.
This, however, is another story. The prospect of a Grand Prix is seen as Putin leveraging the infrastructure necessary for an Olympics and enhancing Sochi’s status in world tourism. At this point, it’s where rich Moscovites go if they can’t afford Monaco.
Speaking of “rich,” I’m reminded that Bernie is currently fighting a $650 million lawsuit against him in the U.S. and another $392 million lawsuit in Germany. Both arise from his acknowledged $44 million bribe to a German banker in a deal involving Formula 1 ownership and $5.5 billion. Before long here, we’re talking real money.
All this points to an earlier time when motorsports and international politics mixed. In 1958, despite Fidel Castro’s guerilla forces camping in the mountains, Cuba’s president Fulgencio Batista was intent on holding the second annual Cuban Grand Prix.
Five-time World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio had won the 1957 Cuban Grand Prix and was favored to pilot his Maserati 300S to first in 1958 as well. Also in contention were Ferrari drivers Stirling Moss and American Maston Gregory.
Drivers and high-rollers were all staying at Havana’s luxurious Hotel Lincoln. On the eve before the race, Fangio was walking through the lobby on the way to dinner when he was approached by a leather-jacketed man pointing a pistol.
“Fangio,” said the abductor in Spanish, “you must come with me. I am a member of the 26th of July revolutionary movement.” Fangio accompanied him and an accomplice into a car that then sped away.
Batista ordered that the race be held regardless.
Stirling Moss remembers he was kept under protective watch through the night, with someone knocking every three hours to make sure everything was ok. Moss is quoted as saying, “Fangio told the rebels, ‘You mustn’t take Stirling because he’s on his honeymoon’—which was a lie, of course, but nevertheless was very decent of him.”
Fangio was taken to three different locations, treated with extreme respect, offered an apology and given a steak dinner. He’s quoted as “sleeping like a blessed one.”
The race was a disaster. The Ferraris of Moss and Gregory left the others behind. On the sixth lap, local driver Armando Garcia Cifuentes lost control of his Ferrari and slid into a crowd of spectators; seven perished, another 40 were injured.
The race was red-flagged shortly afterward, but with a bizarre result. Approaching the start/finish—and the official red flag—Gregory was slightly ahead, but Moss accelerated and crossed the line first.
Maston complained to Stirling about this, but they decided to split the prize money and keep quiet, rather than wait interminably for any local decision.
What of Fangio? He was delivered to his Argentine embassy shortly after the race.
By New Year’s Day 1959, Castro’s revolutionary government ousted Batista.
Do you suppose anything nearly as bizarre could occur at the Sochi Grand Prix 2014? ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013