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Back to the Future, Part 3: Formula 1 returns to Istanbul!

After unexpected visits to the Nürburgring and Imola, another classic circuit returns to the Formula 1 calendar in 2020. Károly Méhes shares his memories from the Turkish Grand Prix.

 

Much like the Nürburgring and Imola, Istanbul Park didn’t have the slightest chance of returning to the Formula 1 calendar. But COVID-19 changed everything. And here we are, returning to Turkey for the first time in 9 years. A rare modern circuit designed by Hermann Tilke that was actually very popular among the drivers, but lost its place on the Formula 1 calendar due to money issues (as nearly always is the case).

I really enjoy my three visits to Istanbul as a journalist in 2006, 2007 and 2008, which coincided with Felipe Massa’s winning streak in Turkey. As well as the fantastic new circuit on the Asian side of the city, I was also keen to explore the fascinating and historic city of Istanbul. The mosques, muezzins, Grand Bazaar and the Turkish food made the city a real tourist magnet in every sense.

My first challenge upon arrival in Turkey was adapting to the traffic chaos. Leaving the airport in my hire car, I was immediately thrust into a sea of traffic that didn’t seem to have any regard for the rules of the road! My nerves were on edge for the first kilometres, but thankfully the feared accident didn’t happen. I slowly adjusted to the Turkish driving style and managed to get from A to B successfully. I was staying in the Sultanahmet district, right in the heart of Istanbul – so I was an expert after my 90-minute commutes to and from the circuit every day.

Given that the new race was being held in an important and growing market for many F1 sponsors, there was always a lot of special events in Turkey. I was working with Shell at the time, so I was invited along to their press event in 2006 at the Pera Palace Hotel – the hotel built in 1892 to house guests of the Orient Express train before or after their journey to Paris. It was the last year of Michael Schumacher’s career at Ferrari, and it was good to see the 7-time World Champion looking relaxed and professional, even cracking jokes at the kind of event that had probably always been the least favourite part of his job. And Felipe Massa was right beside him, of course, happy to be part of it all – little did we know that the Brazilian would win the next three races in Istanbul!

Two years later, the contrast couldn’t have been greater. The Pera Palace hotel had been closed for renovations and the Shell event was held at a new petrol station near the track, surrounded by dusty, barren fields. Let’s just say the event had a different vibe, heightened by the fact that Kimi Raikkönen was now driving for Ferrari. I think we all know how Kimi feels about such events!

Bridgestone held their press event on a square next to the Dolmabahçe Palace. It was open to the public, who could observe the Formula 1 stars chatting on the big stage, mini Bridestone tyres hanging like medals around their necks.

The biggest event was organized by BMW, which was the part owner of the Sauber team at the time. Turkey was evidently an important market for the German carmaker, who erected a mini Formula 1 circuit near the seaside – complete with paddock, garages, shop and even a restaurant! The Turkish VIPs seemed to be more than satisfied with their special treatment.

Soon enough, it was time for the serious business of the weekend. The circuit was built in the middle of nowhere, but I image that today it is surrounded by new housing estates. One year after its inauguration, Istanbul Park was an impressive, modern facility. Fresh, colourful and generously proportioned. So much space in the pit lane and the paddock that the drivers had to jog from the garage to their motorhomes.

The only element that was missing was the fans. The main grandstand opposite the pits was half full, but the others dotted around the track were almost empty. Going full circle and the stands will once again be empty in 2020 after a resurgence of COVID-19 scuppered plans for a big crowd at the event. Still, I’m happy that the Turks will once again have their race.

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