x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

One last drive to stay on the track for Turkey

Fans want it, drivers love it and the organisers are fighting for it, but the Turkish Grand Prix may not be on the Formula One schedule for 2012.

Sebastian Vettel leads the field past a packed grandstand. Attendance for the 2011 Turkish Grand Prix was better, thanks to improved access, but may not be enough to save the event for 2012. Frank Augstein / AP Photo
Sebastian Vettel leads the field past a packed grandstand. Attendance for the 2011 Turkish Grand Prix was better, thanks to improved access, but may not be enough to save the event for 2012. Frank Augstein / AP Photo

When the heavens opened on Friday, ahead of the first practice session of the Turkish Grand Prix, one articulate resident lamented that "the skies are crying because this weekend's the last time Formula One comes to Istanbul".

Yesterday's race at Istanbul Park, which was won by Sebastian Vettel, is expected to be Turkey's final farewell after Murat Yalcintas, the head of the capital's chamber of commerce, revealed last month the government were unwilling to pay the increased staging fee of £26 million (Dh156m).

The annual event - an ever-present on the calendar since 2005 - has been widely criticised for its scarcity of self-promotion and poor accessibility, both of which have led to declining ticket sales.

In 2009, a mere 36,000 witnessed Jenson Button's triumph here in the Brawn GP car. To put that in perspective, last year's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix sold 150,000 tickets - the venue's maximum capacity - over the course of the three days.

Accessibility has improved, however, with new gates and roads being completed in recent years, and Franz Tost, the team principal at Toro Rosso, said the timing could not be worse for the track to disappear in a puff of exhaust fumes.

"It would be a shame if it's the last race," he said, "but it is totally easy: give Bernie more money and we come."

Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's commercial rights owner, said yesterday he would only be happy for the race to remain on the calendar "for exactly the same fees that we get from other European races, like Hungary ... If Turkey believes it doesn't need any good public relations, that's fine. It's up to them to make up their mind. I cannot do it for them. But as I said before, I hope that we can clear everything up over the weekend. We don't want to leave here."

Ecclestone had earlier predicted more spectators would make their way over the Bosphorus from Eastern Europe and the 80-year-old was predictably proved correct yesterday.

Benefiting from this year's lower ticket prices, a throng of men clad in canary-yellow outfits emblazoned with the motif of the "Estonian F1 Fan Club" danced and sang songs celebrating Mika Hakkinen, the Finnish double world champion in 1998 and 1999, while Ferrari's ever-loyal tifosi basked in the sunshine and Russian, Bulgarian and Hungarian tricolours swung proudly.

Dmitry Gamper, a young Russian attending his first grand prix and hoping to catch a glimpse of compatriot Vitaly Petrov, said through a translator that the Turkish event was geographically his closest race and he would be disappointed to see it leave before Sochi's Russian Grand Prix joins the calendar in 2014.

It is not only the fans from far-flung corners of the globe who would sorely miss the Turkish showcase were its six-year contract not renewed. The teams, too, many of whom regard Istanbul Park as one of the most challenging circuits in the sport, would be reluctant to say "elveda" [goodbye].

"It's got some great high-speed corners and quite a nice mixture of turns," Lewis Hamilton, last year's winner, said. "Of course it would be a shame to not have the grand prix on the calendar as we love to race at circuits that are challenging and exciting for us, so fingers crossed it will be here."

Ferrari's Felipe Massa also said the track was, perhaps not surprisingly, one of his favourites: the Brazilian has won here three times in seven years.

"It is a track you always like to come to," he said. "I would definitely miss it as it is a place that you have some better results than expected."

Mumtaz Tahincioglu, the head of the Turkish Motorsport Federation, took the Turkish minister for sport to meet Ecclestone yesterday and told The National he was "hopeful" the race would be back next year.

"We are in the process of talking to Mr Ecclestone," said Tahincioglu, whose son, Jason, was the first Turkish driver to get behind the wheel of an F1 car.

"Both sides are keen to come to some sort of agreement; neither side wants to let it go. Somehow we are going to come to an agreement, but as always, it will come at the last minute.

"I am still very hopeful because at the end of the day this track is made for Formula One, so it has to live on."