Russia’s Zhiltsov, Kariakin hold differing views on Dakar 2023 entry conditions

In the wake of Russia invading Ukraine, the FIA stipulated Russian and Belarusian drivers and teams could not compete under their respective countries’ flags and required them to sign a formal commitment condemning the war and affirming solidarity with Ukraine.

While some agreed to the terms like Formula One test driver Robert Shwartzman and Formula 3 competitor Alexander Smolyar, who respectively switched to Israeli and neutral FIA licences, others elected to pull out of their championships entirely (ironically including Smolyar’s team SMP Racing).

With the 2023 Dakar Rally looming and the war’s conclusion nowhere in sight, Russian and Belarusian teams have offered varying comments on whether they can get in. Vladimir Chagin, head of top Truck team KAMAZ-master, was recently in discussions with race organisers about permitting them to take part, though such is complicated by their parent company KAMAZ providing vehicles for the Russian military. Sergey Vyazovich of Belarusian Truck outfit MAZ-SPORTauto commented Wednesday there is a “99.9% chance” his team would not be able to enter due to ongoing sanctions on MAZ that preceded the invasion; said sanctions prevented the team from travelling to the 2022 Rally.

Meanwhile, Konstantin Zhiltsov secured his spot on the Dakar grid by acquiring an Israeli licence. His team-mate and driver Denis Krotov also intends to follow suit, though he has not specified his second licensor. Krotov and Zhiltsov finished twenty-eighth in the 2022 Cars category for X-raid Team, which marked the former’s fourth career Dakar, before winning the Silk Way Rally T1 class in July.

Taking part in Dakar since 2006, Zhiltsov scored a Cars podium in the 2013 edition with Leonid Novitskiy. While he mainly works with fellow Russian drivers, he attempted the 2020 race with FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Bajas points leader Yazeed Al-Rajhi of Saudi Arabia.

“I made myself a set of documents, and at the the Russian (Rally-Raid) Championship stage in Ulyanovsk, I will already be racing as a foreign athlete,” Zhiltsov told Match TV. “It is necessary to chase, otherwise you lose your skills, and then you need to stop all this altogether. A career in professional sports is rather fleeting, so some cardinal decisions must be made.”

“Everything rests on a certain legal casuistry. The paper itself is not very scary, but there are several points—if they are removed from this document, then everything will be completely fine. All the federations, including the automobile one, look at each other and wait to see who will be the first to break this system and begin to observe the principle of ‘keeping sports out of politics’, and then this story will become major.”

Despite the switch, Zhiltsov stressed he still has a Russian passport.

“It’s just that Dakar is a world championship, and it requires not only a different licence, but also a different passport,” he continued. “Here is such a swing: either wait for something to change, or if you want to continue to compete, think about what documents you can issue for this.”

Credit: SNAG Racing

SNAG Racing owner Sergei Kariakin, on the other hand, is seemingly willing to drop his Dakar plans. The SSV racer and 2017 Quad champion is a staunch supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, having run for the Sverdlovsk legislative assembly in 2021 as a member of the pro-Putin United Russia party and recently attending an army rally.

He had been optimistic about being permitted to race under the Russian flag in June, reasoning that Dakar host country Saudi Arabia’s growing friendliness with Russia as a fellow oil power might lead to lenience. A lack of subsequent updates led to him taking a more cynical stance before publicly calling out the FIA’s document in an interview with state-owned RIA Novosti.

“They are asking not only me to sign it, but also all Russian athletes. Everyone who participates within the FIA. This is the requirement of the FIA, who screamed loudest about the lack of politics in sports, but in reality there is a policy of double standards,” Kariakin stated. “This piece of paper says that we should not support the president, the special operation, that we consider the actions of our country to be destructive. That is, in this format.

“Now, the question is being decided whether it is possible to participate without signing this paper. We are trying to push through so that the paper is cancelled. It is anti-competitive. We are trying to cancel this paper so that it does not need to be signed. Help from lawyers, other teams. There is a personal communication with the organisers, so they did not resort to the help of the Ministry of Sport and the Russian Motorsport Federation.”

Kariakin remarked in his team’s Telegram on Thursday, “I personally have long been taking this situation for granted!”

SNAG Racing driver Nikita Mazepin echoed his employer’s sentiments, explaining that “people cannot be condemned. We are athletes. Everyone has their own choice, it must be respected. Zhiltsov is not the only one, Robert Schwartzman did the same. There is a question of personal considerations. Country or not, everyone chooses for himself, but I will not do this.”

Mazepin switched to off-road racing after losing his F1 seat following the invasion, winning the Silk Way Rally T3 category in his début. His father Dmitry is an oligarch close to Putin and both Mazepins were subsequently sanctioned by the European Union.

“[Kariakin’s comment] was not a surprise for me,” Mazepin offered. “I was one of the first to receive this document and studied it very clearly, at the beginning of March. Everyone’s business. I would very much like the athletes to have the opportunity to be neutral, I am fighting for it. I know Sergei very well, I know his position and respect it.”

It has been over 200 days since Russia’s globally condemned invasion began.