Autosport 70: How F1’s Turkish GP adventure began
Formula 1's latest retro revival takes it to Istanbul for the Turkish Grand Prix. Here's how the original race was put together and a hint at why it's taken nine years and a pandemic to return, in an article published by Autosport magazine on 18 August 2005
Welcome to Istanbul Park, Silverstone's latest nightmare. The newest in an ever-expanding roster of cutting-edge facilities (the term circuit is no longer encompassing enough) paid for with the aid of government investment, it stands as an £80 million testament to just how far some countries are willing to go to secure a spot on the Formula 1 calendar.
Like all new tracks in F1, it has been designed by Hermann Tilke, and boasts vast pits and paddock facilities - this time built to the theme of 'a caravan shelter for camels' in order to reflect the country's culture - as well as ticking all the right boxes when it comes to meeting the latest standards laid down by the FIA and Formula One Management (FOM).
But, unlike some of its counterparts, it also boasts 3.3 miles of twisting asphalt that any country, anywhere in the world, would be proud of. Forget your prejudices and cast aside cynical suggestions that the inclusion of Turkey in the calendar merely highlights that anyone, anywhere, can host a race if they stump up the cash. Instead, rejoice at the fact that the bulk of the 14-turn track, the highlight of which is a left-right-left switchback between turns three and five that includes an attention grabbing one-in-twelve-drop, is mighty.
"It's not very often you come to a new circuit and think 'yeah, this is mega'. You do here," beams Jenson Button, one of only two of the current crop of drivers to walk the track before this weekend's race (he gives his opinion on the track below). "It's a real driver's circuit, like Suzuka. The race will be special."
If the last-minute dash to tart up the surrounding area and finish off the access roads is a success (and more than 1000 engineers are currently working 21 hours a day in order to ensure they are - even if some of the plans such as painting over the dusty earth do sound slightly on the mad side) this weekend could usher in a new era of super circuits that deliver on and off track. Yep, maybe everyone will be happy - except the likes of Silverstone and Imola, of course, because the bar will have been raised once again.
"I can understand why people will look at us with envy, because we have spent a lot of money here," admits Mumtaz Tahincioglu, head of Tomsfed, Turkey's equivalent of Britain's Motor Sports Association. "But we have very high standards because they are demanded by FOM and the FIA. We are lucky because we could start from scratch, but unlucky because it has cost us a lot.
"Not all promoters reach the standards set by FOM. I understand it's difficult for circuits working around old facilities, but it was difficult for us to earn the right to host a grand prix too. We have had to meet every standard, and the government has only agreed to guarantee the licensing fee for the race, not the cost of building the circuit."
Istanbul is known as the city of seven hills and, happily, Tilke saw fit to retain many of the natural contours of the site. "The nature of the land makes the track unique," says Tilke. "We've designed the track according to the land, rather than trying to make the land fit a plan of the track. When we built China we had to do a lot of earth moving, but not here."
"Bernie came over to Turkey to have a boat built. It wasn't just any boat, and he visited quite a lot to see how it was progressing. But the builder was a member of the foundation, so we seized the chance for some serious talks" Mumtaz Tahincioglu
Comparisons between Turn 1 and the Senna Esses at Interlagos or Turn 11 and Eau Rouge at Spa are slightly over-optimistic, but the fact that the associations are made give a fair indication of the sort of quality on offer. The place oozes character, with its anti-clockwise configuration, elevations and drops, slight cambers and healthy mix of long straights leading to sharp turns.
For those wondering how Turkey, a poor nation of almost 70 million people (GDP per capita £1,400, compared to £16,500 in the UK) landed one of just 19 race spots for the world's most expensive sport, Tahincioglu provides an engagingly barmy answer. Instead of seizing upon the nation's booming tourist industry, Istanbul's unique position as the bridge between Europe and Asia, or even pointing to cultural highlights such as the Hagia Sophia church/mosque or Topkapi Palace, he is brutally honest about the slightly more mundane key moment that landed the race deal. The Turks, it seems, sized their moment in a boat yard.
"Back in 1998 I was chatting with my karting friends and we just said, 'wouldn't it be nice'," says Tahincioglu (below, right). "For two years we chatted with our various contacts - I talked unofficially with Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone through my role on the World Motor Sport Council - and then we created Formula Foundation, a legal statute that laid out our plans. We went back to Bernie and he was very open with us, outlining what we had to do to have any chance at all of hosting a grand prix. Things were hotting up.
"Then Bernie came over to Turkey to have a boat built. It wasn't just any boat, and he visited quite a lot to see how it was progressing. But the builder was a member of the foundation, so we seized the chance for some serious talks. After that we could go to the government and present our plans, and that was when we really started to progress."
The site just outside Istanbul was chosen after more consultation with Ecclestone, and tied in perfectly with the Turkish government's wish to show itself off to the world and F1's push to reach out to new regions in Europe and Asia. On September 10, 2003 an official ceremony was held - now, less than two years later, the country will host its first F1 race. Proud? You'd better believe it. Deserved? Well, yes, that too.
"Maybe some people had their doubts about Turkey's motorsport heritage, but I always believed in what we were capable of," says Tahincioglu. "In 1997 I was elected president of the motorsport association here.
"My first aim was to host a co-efficient 20th round of the European Rally Championship, then hold a Word Rally Championship round afterwards followed by a round of the World Cross Country Rally Championship. We achieved all those goals, learning and proving what we could do along the way.
"Now we have F1, and we will use all the expertise we have gathered to show what we can do with that. We are ready for this opportunity and, later this year, we will have the DTM, WTCC, Le Mans Endurance Series and MotoGP too. That is a world-class list of events and we will provide them with a world-class facility.
"Our funding is dependent on showing the world the best of what Turkey can offer - hosting the GP is like a huge advert for our nation - and we want to do that in a way that makes everyone in the nation proud."
Jenson Button's guide to Istanbul Park
Approaching at an estimated 180mph, the opening left-right sweep has been described as being reminiscent of the Senna Esses at Interlagos in Brazil, although the plunge downhill is not as extreme. "They say Herman Tilke themed some of the turns at Istanbul on famous corners from other tracks," Button says," and you can see that here. As we don't have many hilly circuits on the calendar any longer, it's a good thing."
A great spectating spot on the circuit, this tight left-right-left switchback is approached uphill at 180mph, but the road then drops away. Similar to Laguna Seca's Corkscrew, Button relishes the challenge. "The undulations make very specific demands on car set-up," he says. "The downhill run to Turn 3 is very technical."
"It's one of the most flowing circuits I've seen - very different from other Hermann Tilke circuits, which tend to be a bit stop-start" Jenson Button
Spirit of Imola
Continuing the theme of recalling other tracks, this uphill run into a right-hander reminds Button of Imola. "You head up over the hill and it's completely blind," he says, "It will look like the circuit disappears into the sky and you just wonder what's over the brow of the hill. That's going to be really exciting for us."
Rated by Button as the best turn on the circuit. "This triple apex corner really impressed me," he says. "It's a bit like Spoon Curve at Suzuka. The great thing about this circuit is that it's more flowing than usual, which is great, and it is slightly banked as well. It's a real driver's circuit, like Suzuka. It's one of the most flowing circuits I've seen - very different from other Hermann Tilke circuits, which tend to be a bit stop-start."
Look to overtake
The 190mph approach to the hairpin, where the asphalt has been widened to try and introduce a variety of lines through the corner, is one of the most likely overtaking points on the track. "There should be some overtaking, although it's hard to say without driving the circuit in an F1 car," says Button. "One thing is for sure, though, you are going to have to be very brave, because you can't always see the apex of the corners."
Fast, but no Eau Rouge
This is the turn that prompted ITV's James Allen to liken the circuit to Spa during his Hungarian GP commentary and, although he's not alone in wishing that this flat-out bend resembled Eau Rouge, he is wrong. Yes, it is a flat-out kind that leads onto a massive straight and yes, it will test the driver's mettle, but the elevation and turn are nothing like Belgium's finest. "It's an exciting high-speed bend," says Button. "They say it resembles Eau Rouge, and it will be exciting, but it doesn't look as tricky as the real thing!"
On the anchors
After the fastest point on the circuit, the slowest: the 90mph bend after the main straight should provide some overtaking chances, especially as the low-speed turns that follow are wide and switchback, offering drivers the chance for plucky moves around the outside that can give them the inside line for the next turn. As an actual driving test in isolation, though, they fail to excite Button.
Feel the force
As one of only three tracks running anti-clockwise in the Formula 1 calendar, with expected 30C-plus temperatures, Button is expecting the Turkish GP to be hard work. "It will be very physical - especially on the neck - because of the direction, and it will be massively hot, too," he says. "When you combine these elements, it could begin to rival Malaysia as the hardest GP of the year."
Reflecting on the organisers' ambitions, certain parallels can be found between the first-ever Turkish GP and the unexpected 2020 edition.
F1 drivers and fans alike are full of excitement for a circuit which provides a genuine challenge and unpredictability, while taking inspiration from the highlights of other tracks around the globe - albeit with varying levels of emulation.
The track has kept its high approval rating, but the race's revival will remain short-lived given it has not reappeared on the provisional 2021 F1 calendar - nor was it expected to
During the Turkish GP's seven-year stint on the F1 calendar it could consider itself to be a moderate success with entertaining and dramatic races, most notably in 2010 when Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber came to blows as Red Bull team-mates, while the race itself allowed the championship to delve into new regions.
The track has kept its high approval rating, as it did throughout its first F1 stint, but the race's revival will remain short-lived given it has not reappeared on the provisional 2021 F1 calendar - nor was it expected to.
Under the assumption that fans will be allowed to return to F1 races next year, COVID-19 issues notwithstanding, race hosting fees have bounced back to previous prices which became the key reason why the Turkish GP disappeared in the first place.
No doubt F1 and Turkish GP officials will restart dialogue over this weekend about making this unforeseen edition in this unpredictable year more than a one-off, but in an industry where cash remains king the money stacked up by rival events will continue to push this race into obscurity.
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