So just what is Marussia? Virgin Racing announced in Abu Dhabi that Marussia Motors has bought “a significant shareholding” in the team. From the start of 2011 the official team name will change to Marussia Virgin Racing. But what is a Marussia – and why do some Russian businessmen want to be involved the Formula 1 World Championship?
The Marussia story begins with Nikolai Fomenko, a showman who started his career in the pop world back in the days of Soviet Russia. He was one of a group that modeled themselves on the Beatles and called themselves Secret. They enjoyed much success in the early 1980s. Fomenko moved on to become a television presenter and personality, appearing in a number of TV series, mainly comedies before becoming the host of the Russian version of The Weakest Link and, more recently, the host of Top Gear Russia, a spin-off of the hugely successful British car program.
Along the way Fomenko married the glamorous Russian movie star Mariya Golubkina. Fomenko’s dream of running a car company was supported by a well known philosopher and brand strategist called Efim Ostrovsky, who was famous for his writings about the social trends of post-Soviet Russian society. They decided on the name Marussia, which is a play on words as the affectionate version of the name Mariya is Marusya, which ties in nicely with the name of the country. A showman and a philosopher are perhaps not the obvious people to be running a car company named after a film star. They needed some more business experience (and money) and so turned to Andrei Cheglakov, a celebrated entrepreneur, who had made his name by building a electronics empire.
Cheglakov was trained as a mathematician at Moscow State University. He was employed by the USSR’s Academy of Science, based in the city of Tyumen in western Siberia but when Soviet Russia began to fall apart in 1991 he set up a company called Stipler, which rapidly became very famous for its Dendy computer game console. Japan’s Nintendo had launched its Family Computer (usually known as Famicom) video game console back in 1983. It had then been launched into the American and British markets in 1985 as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).The company would sell 62 million devices, but it did not patent the device in Russia and Cheglakov saw an opportunity and, sourcing units from manufacturers in China, he launched a clone of the NES for the Russian market at the end of 1991. Dendy was an amazing success, its sales powered by a huge advertising campaign, particularly on television. These were so popular that they eventually generated a Dendy TV show, Dendy-branded stores and the word Dendy ended up being used by many Russians as the generic name for all game consoles, in much the same way as Hoover has long been used in the west as the word for a vacuum cleaner. In the space of just three years Dendy sold six million units, creating a spectacular profit as each retailed at around $90. Dendy did ultimately reach an agreement with Nintendo, although legally-speaking the Japanese firm had only itself to blame for not patenting the devices in Russia. Cheglakov did not stand still and was soon investing his fortune in software development, other new technologies and in businesses importing foreign computers into the Russian market. Cheglakov is very low profile and rarely talks to the media but as the man funding the whole Marussia project, he is obviously a key figure.
“The most important thing about Marussia is that the name represents my country,” he says. “That is of great significance for me. It is supposed to be helpful for the country and for the Russian people, so that they can see what is possible and that they can provide something for the world – and that Russia can supply something to the world.
“A few years ago I read an interview with Vijay Mallya and I was strongly impressed by the way he understands his role as a businessman in terms of Indian development and this is what we need to do. I am a son of my country.
“Dendy was a good education as I learned how to market products. I was hungry for new products all the time. When I saw the possibility of getting something new and marketing it in my country, I would do it.”
Cheglakov sees the launch of Marussia as a major event for the nation.
“The launch of our car is very much like the launch of the first Russian Sputnik or like the launch of Diaghilev’s “Russian Seasons” in Europe”. More at Joe Saward