Last week we had the long-awaited press conference concerning the scheduled USGP to be held in Austin, Texas from 2012 onwards. It will be F1’s third attempt at trying to succeed in the USA, and so far it has been a story of success and failure.
America first appeared on the Formula 1 calendar back during the inaugural championship in 1950, but this wasn’t the first world championship grand prix in the country. The race that appeared was the world-famous Indianapolis 500, and as this was a race in it’s own right it did not receive the title of ‘Grand Prix’. But it did count towards the final points total in the championship until 1960, and several American drivers became part of a handful of drivers to win a Formula 1 race but not a ‘Grand Prix'. Occasionally some full-time Formula 1 drivers would take part, including double world champion Alberto Ascari, but the race was mainly participated in by the American racers.
The first official United States Grand Prix took place in 1959 at the Sebring circuit in Florida, which is now best-known for the 12 Hours of Sebring sportscar race. It is often remembered for two reasons. Firstly, Bruce McLaren became, at that time, the youngest winner of a Formula 1 Grand Prix at the age of 22 years 80 days (his record would not be broken until Fernando Alonso won the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2003). The second memorable incident was championship leader Jack Brabham braking down on the final lap, and as a result he had to push his car over the line to finish. In doing so, he finished 4th and took the points needed for his first world title.
However, the promoters of the race just about broke even with the costs of the event, and decided not to continue with the event.
This weekend the Formula 1 circus moves to the Istanbul Park circuit for the Turkish Grand Prix in its only ‘float-away’ grand prix of the season (where the teams ship their cargo via boats). The circuit made its debut in Formula 1 back in 2005, and was yet another production of the Herman Tilke generation. But since then, it has failed to establish itself among the F1 elite circuits, and now its future in F1 hangs in the balance. But does it deserve its spot on the F1 calendar?
First of all, let’s look at the positives. Turkey is only one of three circuits currently on the F1 calendar (the others being the final two rounds in Brazil and Abu Dhabi) which runs anti-clockwise, giving the drivers an almost unique challenge physically. We have often seen drivers in the past resting their heads due to the strain put on their neck muscles with the different configuration, and many fans feel that this different approach is needed in F1.
Then there is the layout itself, in particular two of the most challenging circuits on the calendar. The first being the first corner, which drops downhill before turning sharp left. It can catch the drivers out and often you will see them run wide onto the tarmac run off area on the outside of the corner. We also often see collisions here during the first lap of the race, most notably at the 2008 race when Giancarlo Fisichella literally flew over the top of Kazuki Nakajima. The second challenge on the lap is what has become known as the legendary Turn 8, which is extremely fast, and uniquely has four apexes. Get this right and the drivers will be on for a good lap.
But unfortunately this writer can see more negatives than positives from the circuit. The biggest negative that can be spotted since it’s debut back in 2005 is the race attendance at the circuit. Back in 2005, nearly all the grandstands were filled to the rafters. But since then, like many of the Tilke circuits that have appeared in F1, the attendances have dropped spectacularly, to the point where last year it looked like they were racing at an empty circuit. What made it more tragic is that Canada, one of F1’s best-attended races, was not included on the calendar. If Turkey is to have a future in F1, then the fans need to come out in force and begin attending the race.
Another factor that makes me think Turkey has no future is in fact the circuit itself. In 5 previous races we have yet to see a thriller, although it has given us some memorable moments (Montoya going off on the penultimate lap in 2005 being one). But overall, despite having some challenging areas for the drivers, the circuit does tend to be bland and too similar to other Tilke circuits, with the exception being the kink in the long back straight. F1 has been highly criticised in recent years for producing duller and duller races, and it needs more circuits that can produce good racing despite the regulations. Unfortunately, I believe that Turkey does not fall into this category.
So does Turkey have a future in F1? In my opinion, no. F1 needs more circuits with both character and substance, and Turkey does not give either. It was a welcome addition to F1 when it first appeared back in 2005, but perhaps now it is time for it to stand down and make room for a circuit that will give us what we want. It will be interesting to see whether Bernie holds the same opinion when the circuit’s contract is renegotiated for next season.