From the pulpit

So, Formula 1's latest worst-kept secret has at last been 'revealed'. Yes, Midland Group has bought Jordan Grand Prix, which means that Alex Shnaider, the 36-year-old Russian-born multi-billionaire who founded Midland and still owns a 50 per cent shareholding in it, has become F1's latest, and wealthiest, team owner.

From the pulpit

I first met Shnaider on the evening of Thursday September 23 2004, in the enormous and sumptuous drawing room the US$5,000-a-night presidential suite of the five-star Jing Jiang Hotel in Shanghai's ritzy Mao Ming Nan Road (which, if anyone from Autosport's accounts department should happen to be reading, I should stress was Shnaider's accommodation for the Chinese Grand Prix, not mine).

Sorely tempted though I was, I couldn't mention my encounter to other journalists, for Shnaider had insisted that I sign a non-disclosure agreement under whose terms 'mum' would have to be the word until October 7 2004, which was the date on which my interview with him would be published in Autosport's sister magazine, F1 Racing. But when, early on that Thursday morning, my mobile phone began ringing fit to bust, I was surprised to find that many of the callers thought I'd been duped.

"Who is he, this Shnaider chappie?" they asked? "Are you sure he's for real?"; "Where did he get his money from?" Etcetera.

Yes, he is for real, I assured them; for I had met him, and they had not, and the one thing you learn about Shnaider as soon as you lay eyes on him is that, although his monosyllables are quietly enunciated, and although he is only 5'6", and although he is only 36, he is a formidably serious businessman who means formidably serious business.

He was born in St Petersburg (which was then known as Leningrad), but his father (an engineer) and his mother (a dentist) moved to Tel Aviv (Israel) in 1972 (when Alex was four). Ten years later, the family moved on to Toronto, shortly after which Alex became a naturalised Canadian citizen, which status he retains to this day.

After graduating from York University (Toronto) in 1992, with a BA in economics, Shnaider returned to (near) his roots, to Ukraine, where he began working for a trading company. Since the Soviet Union had broken up (in 1991), Ukrainian steel mills had lost the comfort blanket of guaranteed orders from Moscow and were struggling to survive; though he was only 24, the bilingual (English-Russian), ambitious and resourceful Shnaider was uniquely well placed to take advantage.

He and a friend, Eduard Shifrin, decided to try to find buyers for the newly surplus Ukrainian steel themselves - and the grateful Ukrainian steel men readily agreed to play ball. "They basically gave us the steel and said, 'Please sell it for us'," Shnaider remembers, "and we'd only have to pay for it when we sold it. We didn't have to pay any money up front."

So successful were Shnaider and Shifrin that they soon bought most of Ukraine's steel mills outright, after which they diversified into a hugely lucrative programme of buying and developing real estate in Moscow, launching shipping operations on the Black Sea, and buying up newly privatised utility companies in Armenia, first, and then, year after year, in the many other CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) territories that had once made up the Soviet Union. They were as opportunistic as they were aggressive. After the prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, was assassinated in 2003, for example, they wasted no time in establishing a series of very lucrative businesses in that troubled state.

Today, Midland Group employs more than 50,000 people worldwide, and turns over nearly $3 billion per year. Now involved in industries as diverse as commodities trading, construction and agriculture, as well as its core activities of steel manufacturing, shipping and utilities, it operates in almost all of the emerging CIS states, in many eastern European countries, in Turkey, in China and in India; meanwhile, its marketing and admin operations are based in Canada, Switzerland and the UK. And Shifrin, Shnaider's old friend, owns the other half of Midland to this day.

Okay, enough background - but you get my drift. Suffice it to say that anyone who still regards the team formerly known as Jordan Grand Prix as an F1 minnow... had better think again.

So what will become of EJ himself? Personally, I think he still has a lot to offer. He remains a persuasive and charismatic salesman - and his gag-a-minute conversational manner, which pays dividends when he finds himself behind a microphone after formal dinners, conceals a still-savvy business brain. Nonetheless, it has become fashionable for F1 journalists to diss him, and even to cast doubt on his willingness to tell the truth. To which I say, "Big deal." Yes, there is sometimes a discrepancy between what he says and what he means, but so there is with all F1's big cheeses - from Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley down. And do you seriously think things are so very different in the smoke-filled rooms in which other globally successful sports are governed and run? Do you really suppose that the modus operandi is so much more transparent in football, in athletics, in boxing, for goodness' sake?

No, of course not. And so it is that Eddie Jordan should be remembered, and cherished, as a man who, against all odds, founded a brand-new F1 team 14 years ago. And - where such as Tom Walkinshaw (Arrows) and Alain Prost (Prost) and, yes, even Max Mosley (March) and Bernie Ecclestone (Brabham) allowed their equipes to wither and die - he kept that team afloat, through thick and thin.

That team has already won four grands prix and, under the ownership of Shnaider and the stewardship of the crew of hugely experienced racing men he has already assembled (Gianpaolo Dallara, Gary Anderson, Trevor Carlin, Colin Kolles and Christian Geistdoerfer, with more to come), it may well be troubling the scorers once again, perhaps even in a big way, for years to come.

So, three cheers for Alex Shnaider! And, yes, three more for Eddie Jordan!

Or, in his own inimitable words, "F*** the begrudgers!"

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