Meet the Ukrainian drivers racing on the world stage against the backdrop of war

Meet the Ukrainian drivers racing on the world stage against the backdrop of war

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Ordinarily, the passion Maria Kravchenko has for go-karting would be nothing more than a hobby with a dream. At just 15 years of age, guided and trained by her father Mykhailo, the goal for 2022 was to form an all-girls team ready to compete in Ukraine’s National Karting Championships. But for millions of Ukrainian school children whose lives are jeopardised every day, as explosions and smoke fill the air, this is no ordinary time.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February, Maria’s ambitions have been put on ice. She resides less than 20 miles from the Amstor shopping mall in Kremenchuk, situated in the centre of Ukraine, which was destroyed by a missile attack in June, killing 20 people. Training behind the wheel is impossible. Tracks across the country have been sealed and destroyed, and dad Mykhailo is now absent, fighting on the frontline for the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ZSU), alongside Maria’s uncle, godfather and mechanic.

Yet in such a precarious time comes a search for hope. And eight months into a war which shows no signs of abating, hope comes in many forms. One such source has been Ukrainian sporting figures proudly donning the national flag in competitions worldwide, fuelling patriotism of the highest order.

As such, the participation of 12 Ukrainian athletes at last week’s second-ever FIA Motorsport Games in Marseille – based predominantly at Circuit Paul Ricard, home of Formula 1’s French Grand Prix – was significant. And to nobody did it matter more than the dozen competing in blue and yellow.

“While the Ukrainian warriors fight for children’s dreams, I took part in this world-class sports event and in doing so supported the spirit of all Ukrainians,” Maria tells The Independent. “I was able to inform people about what is actually happening in my country. Everyone has to know about the evil and horrible things which have taken place in Ukraine in the 21st century – about the awful aggression from Russian soldiers.

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“It was such an honour to represent my country on an international level when we are defending our independence. All my events have been cancelled this year and we are not able to train because of constant bombing. The explosions are really loud – I heard them!”

The biennial Games involving 16 different disciplines of motorsport first took place in Rome in 2019. Then, Dmitriy Illyuk won Ukraine’s solitary gold medal in “drifting” – a discipline where the driver intentionally oversteers a car to as close to perfection as possible, judged on speed, angle and synchronisation to a car in front.

At just 15, Maria Kravchenko competed for Ukraine at the FIA Motorsport Games for Ukraine

Yet much has changed in three years. Prior to his trip to the Games, Illyuk had not left Ukraine since February, when the Russians invaded his homeland. Located in the city of Odesa on the Black Sea, his motorsport workshop – refocused to help the ZSU – was destroyed earlier this year.

“My career has stopped because I focus on helping the nation,” the 41-year-old says. “Everything has been killed because of the war. My workshop is next to the landing lane for Odesa airport and, mid-attack, bombs were just falling on our workshop. In March, I saw with my own eyes Russian ships attacking our ships.”

Illyuk has been unrelenting in his call for arms and aid on his Instagram page. With over 37,000 followers, he feels a responsibility to spread the message to his own people and beyond. But in branding Russia a “terror state” came a shock response from the social media company, owned by Meta – formerly known as Facebook.

“Meta suspended by Instagram for more than a month just because of these messages during the war,” he states. “I lost 10 per cent of my audience. I did then manage to get my connection back which was important. This is the reality we live in and I want to show everyone that my life is not about race cars. It used to be, but not anymore.”

Dmitriy Illyuk told The Independent how Ukraine’s war with Russia has paused his career

After the outbreak of war earlier this year, F1 cancelled its Russian Grand Prix contract and the FIA banned Russian and Belarusian drivers from competing in anything other than a neutral capacity. An eventual consequence of that was Russia’s Nikita Mazepin having his F1 deal terminated by Haas.

“The FIA have made a big effort to ban the appearance of the Russian flag, the flag of the aggressor, at world-class competitions,” says Kravchenko, whose brothers initially residing in Kharkiv have relocated to the USA.

“Some people like to believe that war is outside of sport but you cannot believe that,” Illyuk pleads. “This is where we draw the line – sport is politics. Banning Russians is important not just in sport, but I think that should be the view of any civilised country.

UKRAINE AT THE FIA MOTORSPORT GAMES

Yevgen Sokolovsky & Ivan Peklin – GT Relay

Dmitriy Ilyuk – Drifting

Maria Kravchenko & Ivan Kondratenko – Karting Slalom

Pavlo Chabanov – Touring Car

Oleksandr Partyshev – Formula 4

Devid Pastukhov – Esports

Mark Brovko – Karting Sprint Jr

Dmitriy Muravshchyk – Karting Sprint Snr

Tatyana Kaduchenko & Andriy Yaromenko – Auto Slalom

“Russia is fighting not just against Ukraine but the whole civilised world. Some people call it ‘the West’ but it’s not. It goes against the morals and traditions of civilisation.”

In contrast to any anti-Russian message though, the predominant aura surrounding Ukraine’s involvement in world sport over the past eight months has been supportive, in the midst of a conflict which will define the country’s future.

Amid three days of motorsport in Le Castellet, Ukraine could not grab any spots on the podium this time round. The lack of preparation and conditioning did have an effect. Illyuk, for example, came effectively third-last. Kravchenko was placed eighth out of 20 teams in the karting slalom. Ukraine’s best finish was seventh, courtesy of Oleksandr Partyshev in the Formula 4 Cup.

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Yet the results are largely inconsequential compared to the parading of Ukrainian athletes, competing under one flag, on the world stage. Simply participating was a victory itself – for those involved and for the millions of civilians back home.

Yevgen Sokolovsky, one of Ukraine’s most famous endurance drivers, summed it up: “I live in Germany and yet people ask me why I drive under a Ukraine flag. This year is the time to show I am Ukrainian more than ever. Because this year, people look for our flag.”

While Illyuk insists Ukraine’s participation will have “brought joy to the nation”, all three drivers spoke for a whole country in their overriding message, beyond all notions of sport and competition.

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“I don’t think Ukraine will win the war, I know we will,” affirms Illyuk. “There is no other way. We will win only when Russia collapses.” Kravchenko, in her tender years, echoes those clear-cut thoughts: “I’m sure that our country will win. There is no way to step back, only forward.”

And with an eye already on the third edition of the FIA Motorsport Games in Valencia in 2024, she concludes her interview by preaching Team Ukraine’s slogan throughout a momentous weekend: “Be brave like Ukraine.”

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