Russian star launches supercar (+multimedia)

In late 2008, Nikolai Fomenko – pop star, actor, TV presenter and racecar driver – crashed his Aston Martin during a GT World Championship qualifying race in China. The team’s Chinese partners managed to produce a new headlight, wing, and bumper overnight. The replacements cost $250.

Photos by Ruslan Sukhushin

Sitting in a small office among a smattering of workshops in a modest northern Moscow district, Formenko’s eyes bulge as he mentions the price. “It would have cost $7,000 in the UK,” he said.

The speed and cost of production was an epiphany that launched Formenko – who hosts Russia’s version of the BBC’s Top Gear, a popular show that critiques high-end automobiles - into his third career. He set up Russia’s first high performance carmaker Marussia Motors almost immediately and 18 months later the first supercars – the Marussia B1 and B2 – were sitting in a showroom a couple of hundred yards from the Kremlin.

Marussia is a small scale, high-end operation turning out just 300 cars per year, although Fomenko says he only plans to sell 150 at home. With 2,200 to be assembled each year from shipped kits by a new subsidiary in Belgium starting in April, Europe is the main target market for the sleek B1 and B2. Fomenko hopes to have showrooms in London, Monaco, Berlin and Frankfurt open next year.

He’s somewhat coy when asked which other showrooms Marussia customers will peruse, claiming: “We don’t care about the competition – we will be ourselves,” before admitting that it’s the supercars - Lamborghini, Ferrari and McLaren – Marussia hopes to usurp.

Formenko even allows himself a slip, accompanied by a wide grin, when he suggests later, “Lamborghini drivers will be driving Marussias in the future.” Lamborghini can rest easy a while longer, though. Marussia won’t be marketing in Lamborghini’s home market until its Formula 1 tie-up with Virgin is better established.

“The F1 project is a leading edge for the marketing of a supercar, and the Italians especially take it very seriously. They’re not going to buy a car that comes last as Ferrari wins,” Fomenko said with a good-tempered grimace.

That said, a decent performance at the peak of motor is important for all markets for a new supercar, especially one powered by an engine that some regard as a little lightweight (a 3.5 litre, V6 from British engine manufacturer Cosworth). Add the prevailing image of Russian auto brands as unreliable clunkers, and Marussia is likely to find the going slow at first.

However, the 48-year-old Fomenko insists Marussia will turn potential weakness into strength, leveraging the novelty value of a Russian supercar against established names. “We want to be Mac compared to Microsoft’s Windows,” he said with a smile.

Aside from the price – the cars retail at just under $120,000, at least half the cost of competitors he claims - Fomenko says the almost frightening speed with which Marussia develops its cars is another key advantage. The two models launched in September motored from drawing board to showroom in just one year.

“It used to be that big companies would swallow the weak – but these days it is the fast that will eat the slow,” he asserts. “We have to multitask in development – if we went step by step then the final product would be out of date by the time it went on sale. We can move quicker than the established companies, and we use much more modern technology – both in production and materials.”

Producing in Russia offers similar advantages he claims. “Our engineers are just as good as anywhere, but they’re younger and not weighed down by an established industry – it injects fresh blood into the process.” In addition, production costs and European health and safety standards would have made the development of Marussia’s first cars impossible, he said.

While this may help Marussia avoid turning down a DeLorean-like cul-de-sac, it’s hard to tell, as Fomenko declines discussing his partners or the levels of investment into the company. However, if the company’s plans for the next 12 months are anything to go by, there are few cash issues. Fomenko claims Marussia will have six models on its stand at next year’s Frankfurt motor show in September, including two SUVs.

“It’s a very, very ambitious target [to develop another four models in that time], but I want Marussia to be a mountain river rather than a swamp. That said, like many companies that grow, we may start to look more like the swamp; but I hope not in the next 30 years or so.”

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