By Mick Palmer
There is a significance to the date – August 14th. Almost six months on from the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, the lives of an entire country remain concentrated on reclaiming the parts of their nation that have been seized by the military arm of their Northern neighbours. The frivolous pastime of Motor Racing is not at the forefront of current activities for those who would have been involved in the sport in the nation this season – for obvious reasons. The date, almost half-a-year on from the February 24th assault, should have seen the competitors of Ukrainian Touring Cars gathering at the Autodrome Chaika, on the fringes of Kyiv, for round three of the championship.
“At first sight, Kyiv looks like a normal city: illuminated streets, beautiful whole houses, people in cafes. Almost everything is the same as before, but not all. The monuments are packed to protect them from bomb damage. Architectural objects are without lighting. There are much fewer people on the streets, which is striking – a lot of men, few women, practically no children. At 23:00 life stops: no cars, no people – curfew. Many shops and restaurants are closed. In the favourite and most popular restaurants, where you had to book a table a week in advance, only half the tables are occupied. I meet many military people with disabilities – no arms, no legs. Kyiv looks like a military city. An air raid siren sounds every day to warn of the danger of bombing.”
Those are the words of Ukrainian racer Igor Skuz. The five-time Ukrainian Touring champion is better known in the West for his victories in European Touring Cars. Motor Racing UK reached out to Skuz at the beginning of the offensive as Russian forces headed for his home town in February and March. That interview featured with us both online and in print when we published an issue of our magazine that concentrated on Ukrainian motor racing. At that time he was – along with many of his countrymen – arming and preparing to defend his home and city. The Russian attack was repelled before they could reach the city itself, but as described above, today Kyiv is still on a war footing.
The retreat of Russian forces out of the Central Northern part of the country after the first months of the war does not mean that there was a moment to ‘take the foot off the throttle’ for the people of Kyiv and its surrounding areas. In fact it revealed horrors that would only exacerbate the determination of the population to forge a victory. Irpin and Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, revealed the barbarity and extremes that Russian forces were resorting to as a litany of war crimes against civilian targets was exposed to the world. To think of motor racing at a time like that is inconceivable. We have remained in regular contact with Igor in the months since, and in our recent communications he has told us much of what has happened in the area, and how his background in motor racing has been able to deliver positive support.
“We did not stop working for a single day,” he revealed. “The entire Speed Caste team went to work on February 25th. I, as a leader, set a number of tasks in order to be as useful and effective as possible for my country in this time. We have repaired and prepared for military operations on the front line 78 vehicles for military units of the army. After the retreat of the Russian troops from Kyiv, we were engaged in the restoration of shot and stolen civilian cars and we restored two ambulances. Besides, we took patronage over two divisions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, raised funds and purchased the necessary soldier equipment and technical equipment for the military.”
Speed Caste is the team that Igor formed, and has raced with for most of his career. Originally named Master Kart, it had recently been re-branded as Speed Caste, and in the months prior to the invasion the workshop facilities appeared in a number of social media posts. Not only was it a race shop, it was becoming known as a leading light in the arena of high end modifications and detailing for performance vehicles, so it was perfectly suited to the tasks that had been taken up to support the needs of the military.
As stated at the beginning of this article August 14th should have seen the UA Touring series at its mid-point, with a pair of races being run at the Autodrome Chaika. Instead, the majority of the participants, support staff and spectators are engaged in tasks geared towards fighting a war. In the territory of the enemy however some of their former colleagues are preparing for another ‘normal’ race meeting a week from now. From August 19 – 21 at Moscow Raceway seven Russian championships will continue to race. TCR, GT, Production and Historic classes will compete as if all was okay, but there will be a few additions to the grid who were not originally slated to be there. Drivers who have been restricted in international racing will join the fold. The FIA declaration that Russian and Belarusian drivers would have to sign a Driver Commitment form to continue internationally without any national references, and with the condition that they “will not express any support (direct or indirect) for the Russian and/or Belarusian activities in respect of Ukraine,” did not go down well with some Russian drivers. Some made the decision themselves not to sign. That they have even been given a choice at all has been a point of contention across the globe with opposite sides of the discussion disagreeing on the issue. Some claim that punishing individuals is not the way to go, often without understanding that Ukrainian racing is halted, and that racers and athletes in the country also have a perspective that has to be listened to. After all, they are the victims here and it’s their voices that should be heard above all. Igor Skuz has a valid and lucid take on it all.
“It is very hard and painful for me to realise that not all Russian sportsmen have been excluded from participating in world championships and they continue to live on, as if nothing happens, as if the war in Ukraine does not concern them,” he points out. “By their participation they show to the world that one country can invade another independent country without any consequences, nothing will change for the citizens of the attacking state. Many Ukrainian athletes died on the battlefield, many children engaged in sports were injured or died from missiles by which Russia attacks our land, the infrastructure was destroyed, there is no place and opportunity to train and prepare for competitions. This is genocide and terror of Ukrainians. Sports have never been out of politics. It has always been a demonstration of the strength, dexterity and tactical thinking of the state in peacetime in the sports arena. Russia and its athletes should be isolated within their own country and the door to the civilized world should be closed for them for many years until they understand, realise, and beg forgiveness for what they have done to my beloved Ukraine. This war is not about territories and borders, it is the war between tyranny and democracy.”
Earlier this year, before February 24th, there were cases of Russian and Ukrainian racers training and testing together as they prepared for the 2022 motor racing season. It took a week for the FIA to release their edict, and even by that point there had been hardly any reference in the initial days of the invasion by Russian drivers in public. The odd vague reference to ‘the situation,’ was the strongest mention the war would receive, and it wasn’t just in public where the invasion and Ukraine would be ignored.
“I have been karting since the age of eight and was a member of the USSR national team,” Igor states. “Of course I had a lot of friends from Russia. In 2013-2015 I took part in ETCC and TCR, where my team mate was a driver from Russia. In the first days of the war, I made a post on Social Media urging my Russian colleagues and fellow drivers to express their position, to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine and stop the war. I did not receive a single message in response, not a single word of support or a statement that they are against the war and I, with regret, realised that they all support not only the policy of their government, but also the war, murders and robberies.”
Prominent figures in Russian motor racing remain silent. Alexander Smolyar abides by the FIA rules, thus allowing himself to race in FIA Formula Three. Daniil Kvyat, who clearly rejected the agreement, has stepped outside of the FIA zone and has made his NASCAR debut in the USA. In the UK we have seen drivers who previously run under a Russian or Belarusian license – such as in British F4 – find a loophole and switch national licenses to circumnavigate the Motorsport UK total ban on Russian and Belarusian drivers and teams from competing here. So there are Russians racing still around the world, but there are also Ukrainian racers – who will not stay silent.
“Every Ukrainian, wherever he is, does what he does best,” Igor says. “Everyone has his own front and together we bring the victory closer. The people of Ukraine now need victories in sports, in song contests, mathematical olympiads, they motivate, strengthen the spirit and faith in victory. The whole world is starting to get tired of the war and is paying less and less attention to Ukraine. Every athlete, activist, artist who speaks about Ukraine in the world helps the army and the Ukrainian people to endure and win this unjust and cruel war.”
The media coverage of the conflict is almost becoming normalised. The grim headlines that dominated the early days of the war have been superseded by those relating Instagram arguments between the wives of footballing heroes, and people not being able to fly away on a holiday. ‘First world problems’ are currently catching the eye over and above the continuing barbarity of war, and a fallout that could still destabilise Europe much further than the current cost of living, poverty and fuel crises in the UK. For those who still take notice, and those who still focus efforts towards Ukraine, it does not go unnoticed.
Igor relates this by stating: “Firstly, I want to thank all the people of Great Britain for supporting Ukraine, for their systematic assistance to our Ukrainian women and children, for their support in the information field, for the very important support with weapons, equipment and finances, for imposing sanctions against Russia. Russia is large, it has 146 million people and is the second largest army in the world, and if we did not get the support of the allies, Ukraine alone would not have been able to successfully resist it for 164 days now.”
In the motor racing world in the UK support has continued. That issue that we produced in support of Ukraine earlier this year, we were able to send a copy to Ukraine signed by many drivers from the BTCC grid in support of their colleagues who should have been racing in their equivalent series in the country this season. It was described as “inspiring.” The BTC team, this year racing with the most successful driver in BTCC history Jason Plato, have seen their truck crew taking aid to support relief in the country. Motorsport News recently reported on Paul Fullick, a disabled former British Army Officer who races with Team Brit, who has more than once driven to Ukraine in Team Brit vans to deliver aid. Motorsport UK are attempting to fund an Armoured Ambulance to be sent to the country. At all levels of racing in the UK there has been support in many different ways, but it needs to continue. Igor has good reasoning for the community to heed that with this statement.
“A message to people who race in the UK: Don’t ignore the war in Ukraine! Forgetting about the war is what Russia dreams of. The consequences of our defeat will be catastrophic for all nations. If you can do something for Ukraine now, do it! It is our duty to future generations of free people to do everything to stop Russia, ensure that it loses this war and ensure that no other state can repeat this terror.”