There are a quite a few airports in Istanbul. I flew into and out of the smallest one, which is called Sabiha Gökçen. The big new one is at a place called called Arnavutköy. I thought it was called Havalimanı, but such is my knowledge of Turkish that I’m told (by my helpful colleague from Reuters Alan Baldwin) that this just means “airport”. There’s the dot left off the top of the final i for reasons that I don’t understand and haven’t yet investigated. There is too much to do at the moment, trying to get everything organised for the final three races of the year.
This new airport opened a couple of years ago and I have never been there, but I am told by those who have been that it is bigger the Ben Hur and can handle 200 million passengers a year, a number which is so large that I struggle to comprehend how it is possible. There is another airport called Ataturk, which is now for freight and private jets only.
The reason I chose Sabiha Gökçen is that it is about 10 minutes from the Istanbul Park racing circuit and you don’t have to deal with the city traffic to get between them. If you fly into Ben Hur International Airport it is a 50-mile drive through the middle of the city, or a longer haul around the outside. And memories of the traffic jams of old suggested that the little airport was by far the best choice. And then, of course, there is the driving. This is the kind of place where Jean Todt goes instantly pale, where indicators exist only as pretty additions to the crash structures and where roaming dogs appear to breed like rabbits. Overtaking and undertaking are both required on these roads…
When the race first started back in 2005 we used to stay in the city centre and travel out each day, but this meant hours were wasted in traffic jams and we never managed to get back in time to eat dinner outside the hotel.
So we decided to try something different and hit on the idea of hiring a “taksi” driver called Senol, who drove fast but very well and chattered away in Turkish pointing out mosques, bars, tobacco factories and kept us informed of the property prices of the different neighbourhoods we were passing through. He took us on back roads when the main roads were blocked and he was always making frantic no-handed phone calls to friends to see where the traffic jams were forming. One night he stopped and bought us all what amounted to dinner from a roadside stall which he had ordered in advance by phone and happily paid for. He also showed us the sneaky way into town when traffic was REALLY bad and we took the “feribot” from the town of Harem, which despite its promising name, appeared to be Turkey’s biggest bus station, to arrive in Istanbul in rather regal fashion – by boat…
Later still, we gave up with the centre of the city and moved over the Asian side, close to the track and stayed in more modest hotels where the minibars did NOT feature chilled condoms – as had been the case on the European side – but had nice views of the Sea of Marmara, although there were loads of loud Russians there, who drank a lot of vodka and made lots of noise. One time I seem to remember there was a wedding reception that went on for several days… The roads were still bonkers and I recall one morning arriving at moderately high speed into a herd of goats that someone was driving across a dual carriage way…
Anyway, the race died in 2011 and we didn’t look back. The track had been great, but the novelty of the experience had worn off and we never went back until the pandemic meant that the folk at Liberty Media needed a place to hold races late in the year, where it might not be too cold. Istanbul Revisited.
We had learned the Sabiha Gökçen trick in the latter days of the original Grands Prix, but I didn’t know that the airport was named after a woman who became the world’s first female fighter pilot when she flew combat missions with the Turkish Air Force during the Dersim rebellion of 1937 and 1938. I am not sure that the rebels had any planes but she seems to have bombed and strafed while flying fighter planes and so has now been given that great honour of becoming an airport rather than merely being a human being, in exalted company alongside folk like Charles de Gaulle, John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Marco Polo, Louis Armstrong, Mozart, John Lennon, John Wayne, Edward O’Hare and Frank Andrews… and many more besides.
I chose a hotel this year between the airport and the circuit. It was quite dreadful but it was located in a guarded business park area so I was – if nothing else – safe in the knowledge that there was a bloke with a machine gun standing at the gate (if he wasn’t asleep). Apart from the evening I arrived, I never saw a single member of the hotel staff for the entire visit. There was never anyone on reception and the place failed to live up to the claims that had been made on booking.com. These things happen sometimes in this line of work, and one must live through them and not make the same mistake next time – if there is one. Things were not helped on Friday 13thwhen the transformer of my computer died (a peaceful death by all accounts, without any fireworks) and I had to spend Friday afternoon after practice trying to buy a suitable replacement in a land where Apple stores are rather less common than goats…
The Turkish GP weekend was all about on-track action (which was good). The only talking point was the 2021 calendar and, oddly enough, there was no great scramble of journalists booking hotels, as would normally be the case. This is because no-one believes the calendar enough to start investing money and while a move to 23 races might sound promising for real world investors, there seemed to be little room in the announcement for any uncomfortable cold draughts of reality. There will be some places, no question, where the government will pay the fees whether there are people or not in 2021, but there are going to be a lot of others which will not be held without spectators. Where government money is involved in building up the infrastructure for races there is going to be a risk that there will be a COVID spike and the money spent will be wasted, as happened in Australia this year. No politician ever wants to be caught wasting public money and so there is a big risk with these events.
With such a big calendar there is at least some leeway to lose a few races but it is worth cramming them in as F1 tries to spike its revenues, which has been badly hit this year.
But so many of the races rely on “bums on seats” to pay their bills and so any restriction will hit their bottom line and make it harder for them to pay the fees. If there are no fans then there are real problems. F1 often justifies races by saying that they boost tourism revenues. This is usually true, but the sport should perhaps take heed of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which has recently published a far-reaching report about international tourism, which it reckons will fall by around 80 percent this year. Tourism is not only one of the worst hit industries in the pandemic, it is also one that will take longest to recover.
“Destinations that rely heavily on international visitors, and business and events tourism are particularly affected,” the OEDC says.
The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates that the loss of revenues for tourism this year will end up being five times worse than in 2009, when the world was hit by a pretty major financial crisis. Five times. It also says that recovery to pre-crisis levels is expected to take “up to four years.”
Formula 1 can hope that things will get better and that it can be at the forefront of the recovery – and perhaps it can. But it also needs to be aware that success is not something you can announce before it happens. The calendar is also brutal for the F1 circus with two triple-headers and five double-headers, but one gets the impression that the people running the sport are a bit like the General Staff in World War I and don’t get too close to the trenches.
It was interesting to note that in Turkey 30 percent of the F1 team principals were not on site. Simon Roberts was out with the virus, but Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul and Ferrari’s Mattia Binotto both reckoned that their time would be better spent not attending the races. That is quite a reflection on the sport today.
The international F1 written media dropped to just 16 “permanents” in Turkey, the second lowest figure of the season and the lowest since Russia. And this was always likely to be the World Championship decider…
It is a strange state of affairs that what is supposed to be a media sport has so few media present these days. The pay-TV folk currently get all the access, along with F1’s own media platforms, but to be fair the pay-TV numbers are still pretty unimpressive and it is also hard to imagine that F1’s own coverage is going to ever be accepted as gospel by the fans. Let’s face it, people rarely criticise the people who pay their salaries… It ain’t smart to do that.
Some think that Liberty Media will use the pandemic to reduce the access that the written media will have in the long-term. I must say it has crossed my mind, but if that is the case there will still be plenty of negative comment out there, but it will be coming more and more from people who don’t know what is going on. And will more fans sign up for pay-TV as a result? I doubt it.
The job of the F1 media is to fascinate people who are vaguely interested in the sport and to bring them closer to it. But why would the media do that if it feels it is being pushed away? There are disconnects in the logic here, but the truth is that the trust that the media had in Liberty Media has been eroded by its behaviour in recent months – and a lot of folk are hoping that the arrival of Stefano Domenicali in January will gets things back to a more normal situation. Given what the OECD is saying, F1 might need more support from the media in the years ahead…
There were no spectators in Turkey (beyond a few who may have snuck in) and it was noticeable that the country’s President was not there. And this provided rather an ironic moment because Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed to appear because he was paying a visit to the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a de facto state that has existed on the island since the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974. It is not recognised by any country other than Turkey. Erdogan was having a picnic on the beach in Cyprus, which Cypriots and Greeks took as a provocation.
Those with long memories will remember that one of the biggest problems with the Turkish GP in the old days was friction with the F1 authorities after the Turks made the mistake of sneaking Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat onto the podium of the F1 race, and billing him as the President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This stunt resulted in the event being given a substantial fine by the FIA because its President Max Mosley did not appreciate having spat tea all over his sitting room when the trophies were handed out and the captions appeared on global television. Politics and sport should never be mixed.