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Turkish Grand Prix: Why did it fail?

As we get closer to the 2021 Turkish Grand Prix, some questions have been raised about its future in Formula 1. After its first appearance in the calendar back in 2005, Turkish GP was viewed as a race that will have its permanent place on the calendar like the Italian, Belgian, British or Brazilian Grand Prix. The track, Intercity Istanbul Park, was praised by pundits, racers, team principals and even the owner of Formula 1 back then, Bernie Ecclestone. But after it hosted F1 between 2005-2011 GP2 between 2006-2009, MotoGP in 2005-2007, several touring & endurance races and 2 rallycross events in 2014-15, the track itself disappeared from the world of international motorsports until 2020, in which the Turkish GP returned to the calendar and it is set to happen this season too. But why did it fail in the first place? To understand this, first we must look at the Formula 1 attendance rates.

Written by Ozan Posluk, edited by Janvi Unni

*Spectators were not allowed in 2020 because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic at that time.

As it is seen, attendance rates dropped dramatically after the inaugural race in 2005. Lack of attendance may be seen as the major issue, but there is more to that as mishandled situations and poor planning caused more troubles for the organizers. Let’s have a look at some of them.

Reason 1: Low Interest in Motorsports

Motorsports in Turkey wasn’t a thing until the 2005 Turkish Grand Prix. Turkey never produced successful drivers at that time, not just in F1, but in other series too. Local rally championships were held in different regions in Turkey, but it only gained the interest of a small and elite group of people. After the inaugural Turkish GP, it looked like motorsport culture was gaining a foothold in Turkey. MotoGP, DTM, WEC and GP2 races were held in Istanbul Park for a short time. Turkish football team Galatasaray joined the SuperLeague Formula championship in 2008. But poor marketing from both the FOM and the local promoters failed to raise any interest in the sport and this caused the attention it had to drift away.

Reason 2: Economics

In terms of economics, Turkey was experiencing an era of economic growth and prosperity. But the ticket prices were still high relative to the GDP per-capita at that time. To better understand this, here is a comparison of ticket prices, GDP per-capita and their rates in 2011 for Turkey and 3 other countries that hosted F1 GP’s. (The lower the better)

As seen in the table, Turkey has a higher rate in terms of ticket price/GDP per capita in 2011 and this caused most of the fans (maybe except for some hardcore ones) to watch the races from their homes and not attend the event itself. This caused an instant drop in attendance rates, low attendance rates caused the current sponsors to pull off, made it more difficult to find new sponsors and in the end, because of underfunding, the Turkish GP was removed from the calendar from 2012 and onwards.

Reason 3: Location and Transportation

Istanbul Park’s location was another thing that added fuel to the fire. It was far from all of the major population centers and tourist hotspots in Istanbul. To have a better understanding, we must have a look at the map of Istanbul.

Red Dots: Tourist Attractions

Orange Dots: Major Population Centers

Blue Dot: Istanbul Park

As it is seen, Istanbul Park is far away from most of the population centers and tourist attractions. Even though some other circuits like Le Castellet and Imola are far from them too, Istanbul Park has a much bigger problem, and it is the road infrastructure & public transportation system. As it is located literally in the middle of nowhere, there aren’t many bus lines that go through Istanbul Park and there is no underground or rail system that passes through Istanbul Park. Another major problem is not just only about the circuit, but the city itself. Because of constant traffic jams and maintenance, it is impossible to travel in certain times. And because most of the hotspots are located far away from the circuit, trips can take up to 3hrs to the circuit. Even though this problem was voiced by many local and international fans, there was no solution for it at that time.

Is there any future for the Turkish GP?

As the years went by, the chance of another Turkish GP remained low. But 2020 had different plans. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many races were cancelled and we had a new 17 race calendar, to the surprise and delight of the Turkish fans, including the Turkish GP. After its announcement, interest in motorsports rekindled in Turkey and many young talents that were racing in different classes of motorsports started to get noticed by the general public. Salih Yoluc in WEC, Cem Bolukbasi in Asian F3 and European LeMans, Ayhancan Guven in Porsche Supercup are some of the racers that had considerable success in their respective classes.

But on the other hand the economic situation in Turkey hardly improved. Ticket prices for the 2021 Turkish GP are still really high for the local fans, and there is no realistic solution to that because of the costs. To have a better understanding, let’s have a look at the table like the one in reason 2, but with 2021 prices. (The lower the better)

*Statistics for the GDP Per Capita are from the year 2020, actual statistics may differ for the 2021 data. All of the stats are provided by the World Bank.

As it is seen, Turkey has the worst rate among the 5 countries. Considering the fact that the economic situation in Turkey is getting worse every day, in terms of economics, organizers of the Turkish GP may have a hard time maintaining the high spectator numbers.

In terms of location and transportation, the location will remain the same for a long time as Istanbul Park is the only FIA Grade 1 circuit in Turkey. But in terms of transportation, things have gotten much better since 2011. A new underground system is built to the nearby Sabiha Gokcen Airport, the roads that go to Istanbul Park are renewed and widened. But there is still no public bus line that passes through Istanbul Park. But shuttle services will probably be provided.

All in all. The future of Turkish GP is not decided yet as there is no multi-year deal in sight between the FOM and Intercity, the operator of Istanbul Park. This year’s Turkish GP may be a one-off appearance, or maybe it may not, the future will tell us.

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