MOSCOW — In a helmet emblazoned with the emblem of Russia and reaching a speed of 150 miles an hour, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Sunday burned rubber on a racing circuit in a Formula One car.
The high-speed session — unthinkable for almost any other world leader — was the latest in a series of widely publicized hard-man outings for Putin as he seeks to cement his image as the Russian strongman ahead of 2012 elections.
It was also aimed at raising the profile of the sport in Russia as the country prepares to host its first Formula One Grand Prix from 2014 in the southern city of Sochi, under a plan championed by Putin.
State television showed Putin squeezing into the cockpit of the yellow Renault, wearing full racing overalls and a helmet emblazoned with the colors of Russia and the national emblem of the double-headed-eagle.
“My old Zaporozhets had more space,” Putin quipped through his visor as he squeezed into the tiny cockpit, referring to a Soviet car not known for its creature comforts, the government website said.
But undeterred by the cramped conditions, Putin roared away from the pits onto the racing track outside Saint Petersburg, reaching what trackside experts said was a speed of 150 miles an hour.
“For a first time, it was good,” the prime minister, unusually using English, told a senior Renault mechanic, television showed. The government statement said he spent several hours performing laps.
Putin pushed the car so hard that at one point he overcooked a corner and ending up coming to a halt in a spin, television pictures showed. Over the summer, Putin had spoken of the exhilaration of “living dangerously”.
The test drive also coincided with the Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo.
Putin’s blast around the track was in a different speed category to his last public motoring excursion, when he drove across Siberia this summer in a bright yellow Lada Kalina.
After meeting a polar bear in the Far North and chasing a whale in the rough seas of the Pacific this year alone, observers could have been forgiven for thinking Putin had by now exhausted most options for tough-guy exploits.
But while images of Putin posturing half-naked in the Siberian wilderness or diving to the bottom of Lake Baikal in a mini-submarine are a source of amusement, analysts have long pointed out the aims are serious.
Russia faces presidential elections in 2012 and speculation has long swirled that Putin is plotting a return to the Kremlin after handing over the post of head of state to Dmitry Medvedev in 2008.
The new images were also a marked contrast to Putin’s last major public appearance Friday when he appeared on the verge of tears at the funeral of 1990s-era prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
The escapade in the Renault also carried rich economic symbolism as the French auto giant has a 25 percent stake on Russia’s largest carmaker Avtovaz, which makes the Lada, and Putin the week earlier offered the firm a 50 percent share.
Avtovaz was pushed into major financial trouble in the economic crisis but has been boosted by Putin’s support, not least when sales of its Lada Kalina went through the roof after his drive through Siberia.