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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


You Say You Want A Revolution?
How the car ridiculed by the world got fast.
By Daniel McLaughlin
Photos by Luke Tchalenko

The jokes are myriad. What do you call a Lada with a sunroof? A skip. With a sunroof and twin exhausts? A wheelbarrow. And why does a Lada have a heated rear window? To warm your hands on when youíre pushing it. And so on.

But detractors of the cut-price Russian runabout did not have the latest Lada in mind when they dreamt up their jibes. Ladaís maker, Avtovaz, hopes its new Revolution sports car will transform the company image - from that of a purveyor of cheap and nasty transport into the marque of choice for Russiaís growing class of millionaires. The 1.6-liter, 165-bhp car accelerates to 100 kilometers per hour in 6.5 seconds and can reach 240 kilometers per hour, claim Avtovaz officials. They have drawn together a team of crack engineers to work solely on the Revolution at their base in Togliatti, a city on the southern reaches of the river Volga dominated by the car factory.

An even faster, 210-bhp racing Revolution is expected next year, as is a road-going, two-seater model. It is not clear how many will be made, but Lada hopes it will become an exclusive sports car for Russiaís young and rich to buy, drive and feel patriotic about. Only a handful of Revolutions have been built so far, and four of them took their racing bow last month at the Myachkovo airfield circuit outside Moscow.

Kirill Ladygin, a 25-year-old from the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, won the 15-lap event. The former karting ace, who is seen as one of Russiaís brightest racing prospects, said afterwards that the Revolution was a still-raw but riveting prospect for fans, drivers and potential buyers alike. "Itís important for Russia that this is our car, built by our own engineers. Itís great to show that we can do this too, not just foreigners."

Work began on the Revolution in Autumn 2001: a scale model was put through rigorous aerodynamic testing, and the design refined as far as possible within the confines of the wind tunnel. The car made its public debut in summer 2003, and drew plaudits at international motor shows in Geneva and Frankfurt.

The first Revolution, painted Ferrari-red, tested at the historic Nurburgring circuit in Germany last year, and Lada gave potential customers a chance to sample its performance at Myachkovo. After getting feedback from the drivers, Ladaís engineers and designers made final tweaks to the car before giving the green light for production.

"This is one of the most promising classes of motorsport around," said Ruben Shumeyev, boss of the Active-ProRacing team that runs Ladyginís car. "It has a Russian chassis and a Russian engine, and very few parts come from elsewhere," he said after tasting victory at Myachkovo, despite only receiving his Revolution from Avtovaz a couple of days before the race. "Generally the Revolution handles well, and weíll work on it from here, of course. This is where it starts."

Shumeyev, who runs a motorsport equipment business in Moscow, said healthy crowds at the first round of the event showed the growing popularity of racing among Russians. "I havenít seen this many people at a Russian race before," he said. "But we need to invest in tracks, cars and drivers, and put in lots of work. We need to develop the sport here - itís a good thing but it should be better."
Most people in motor racing here agree that only one thing could give the sport the boost it needs - a Russian Grand Prix. But Formula One has proved stubbornly elusive to the officials and enthusiasts who have worked for years to bring the millionairesí circus to Moscow, despite apparently coming within touching distance of a deal in 2002.

Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, a billionaire former used-car salesman who has run motor racingís premier series for 20 years, flew into town to sign a $100-million agreement to build a Moscow racetrack and hold the first Russian Grand Prix in 2003. But another diminutive powerbroker stood in his way: Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. An hour before the signing, Mr Luzhkovís deputy talked him through the fine print of the deal. The pugnacious mayor didnít like it.

As journalists and television crews gathered to record the event, Luzhkov refused to sign the contract. "He wanted to keep all the rights to the event - ticketing, television, advertising - which would leave us with only engine smoke. Thatís why the negotiations failed," the mayor said of Ecclestone.

Officials periodically talk up plans to build a track outside Moscow or St Petersburg, and Ecclestone - despite his notorious impatience and embarrassment at Luzhkovís hands - says he will still consider Russiaís Grand Prix proposals. For the nationís fans, it cannot come soon enough.

But for now, in the absence of Ferrari, McLaren and the rest, they will have to rely on Lada for their racing thrills. The Revolution will run in a series of demonstration rounds before the full-blooded Russian championship begins at Myachkovo on July 31. By then, Avtovaz hopes, there will be 15-20 cars on the grid. Prospective racers need euros 30,000 in their pocket to pay for the car, and euros 3,000 to enter each of this yearís seven events. The winner of the four-round competition will take home 1 million rubles.

The Revolutionís chief designer, Andrei Ruzanov, said he has big plans for his brainchild. "We have two new versions under development and the road car should hopefully be ready next year. We are always pushing ahead - if you stand still, you die."

Avtovaz assembled its best engineers to spearhead a project that aims to transform the unenviable reputation of Russiaís most famous - or infamous - carmaker, Ruzanov said. Now the firm wants to emulate the success of some of the worldís finest manufacturers, he insisted, with its own cutting-edge sports car and racing department.

"Mercedes has AMG, Fiat has Ferrari. Now Lada has the Revolution."

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