MOSCOW - IN A helmet emblazoned with the emblem of Russia and reaching a speed of 240 kilometres 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 publicised hardman outings for Mr 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 Mr Putin.

State television showed Mr Putin squeezing into the cockpit of the yellow Renault, wearing full racing overalls and a helmet emblazoned with the colours of Russia and the national emblem of the double-headed-eagle.

'My old Zaporozhets had more space,' Mr 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, Mr Putin roared away from the pits onto the racing track outside Saint Petersburg, reaching what trackside experts said was a speed of 240 kilometres an hour. 'Not bad for a first time,' said the prime minister. The government statement said he spent several hours doing laps.

Putin races F1 car in new stunt