The inaugural Turkish Grand Prix has rightly been hailed a success. After the inevitable last-minute organisational panic the facility was, more or less, ready, and certainly in a better shape than Bahrain was for its first race last year.
Turkey is typical of a recent trend for emerging, progressive countries to advertise their success and cultural vibrancy through sport and Formula One in particular. But buying your way into the 19-slot Formula One global showcase does not come cheap – the Turkish government spent at least USD $80m on the Istanbul Speed Park.
This once again raises questions about the appropriateness of public funds being used to support one of the world’s wealthiest sports.
Once it emerged that Turkey was in the running it seemed a very likely prospect that it would ensure a coveted place on the calendar. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer is eager to make Turkey the first Muslim member state of the European Union, and the last six years have seen the abolition of the death penalty, a growth in secularism, reduction of the influence of radical Islam, and even some developments in women’s rights.
But nonetheless it remains only three years since Turkey had to agree a draconian recovery programme with the International Monetary Fund to spare it from economic collapse. The national average wage is one-eleventh that of Great Britain’s. Faced with this, how can a government justify spending $80m on something as frivolous as a Grand Prix?
Wisely, the Grand Prix hosts steer clear of the fatuous economic justification that such races directly benefit the tourist industry – they do, of course, but nowhere near enough to offset the cost of building a circuit. No, they are already speaking in terms of trickle-down benefits to the locality around the circuit, and the immeasurable esteem that comes with being one of only 17* countries to hold a race.
Whether this argument stands up is a matter for some soul-searching on the part of the Turkish authorities and Formula One. Now, I don’t imagine that it keeps Bernie Ecclestone awake at night. But if Formula One keeps chasing the government dollar, where will it take us to in the long term? What if promoters in Zimbabwe wanted a race?
Formula One has had similar encounters with world politics in its recent past. 20 years ago the majority of the F1 circus attended the round at Kyalami in South Africa, despite massive international pressure for the race to be boycotted over the apartheid outrages.
A repeat of the Kyalami scandal would be another serious blow to Formula One’s reputation and the loss of more popular traditional circuits to uninspiring remote venues like Bahrain is a major bone of contention for F1 fans. Turkey is a welcome addition to Formula One – but we must always tread carefully on new ground.
*Imola, home of the ‘San Marino’ Grand Prix, is in Italy, and the European Grand Prix is contracted to the Nurburgring in Germany.