The fact that Chase Carey has been to see Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an interesting development for Formula 1. That is not to say it is a good idea, but there is an F1-standard racing facility sitting unused near Istanbul, and both F1 and the Turks see the logic in trying to use it.
Sport should always strive to be above politics, although that is very difficult to achieve because the fact that a sport visits a country implies that it accepts the government of a place. However, it is impossible to pass judgement on individual countries because when one considers all the countries visited and all the human rights issues alleged (and that includes Western countries) F1 could go almost nowhere without some pressure group making a fuss. Thus, we either go everywhere, or we go nowhere. However, when the race itself becomes a political issue then F1 should always politely withdraw, as the sport has nothing to gain from being a political football.
What makes a race a political issue? That’s another thorny question because the very fact that a race takes place is inherently a political statement. And if there is opposition to the race which puts the event in the spotlight, it can be judged to have become a political issue. Should F1 have stopped going to Australia because a few people in Albert Park thought it was a bad idea and tried to make an issue out of it?
It is a complex question.
Turkey, however, has a bad track record in this respect and so the Formula One leadership needs to be a little careful when dealing with Mr Erdogan and his people, notwithstanding any views about the politics of Turkey itself. Let us not forget that the Turks orchestrated a very obvious political statement at the first Turkish Grand Prix in 2006 by putting Mehmet Ali Talat on the podium, billed as the President of TRNC, the “Northern Turkish Republic of Cyprus”. This entoty is a break-away state in the northern part of the island of Cyprus, which was (and still is) recognised only by Turkey. This was a breach of the very first Article of the FIA Statutes, which states that FIA members shall “refrain from manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination”. The result of this action was that the FIA World Motor Sport Council fined the Turks $5 million for what was deemed to be a provocative nationalist gesture which used the event as a propaganda tool. At the time Murat Yalcintas, the head of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, admitted what the Turks had done: “You cannot put a price on such promotion. The Formula One race was a great opportunity. Cyprus is our national cause. We had Mr. Talat in mind and we delayed giving the notification as much as we could. We gave the information around noon on the day of the race”.
The result of this subterfuge was that the promotion of the race was handed over to a company run by the Formula One group and in the end the authorities in Turkey no longer wanted to pay for the race in which they had no hand in the promotion. It disappeared from the calendar as a result. The F1 authorities will therefore need to make sure (contractually) that the Turks do not try to repeat such political stunts in the future.
Whether F1 wants to be in Turkey from a strategic point of view is an entirely different question. It is a big market but the government is often criticised for its record on human rights, democracy and freedom of the press, which is the primary reason why its campaign to be part of the European Union has always failed. There has been further unpleasantness in recent years over refugees and fear in the West following a coup attempt last July that the country is veering away from democracy towards a dictatorship. In recent days Erdogan has ranted about how Europe is collapsing and that it will pay for humiliating and oppressing Turks who have moved there. He’s certainly not making friends with such statements.
There may be lots of money involved for the Liberty folk, but they do need to ask the question whether such a race will help F1, or whether it will ultimately be less helpful for the image of the sport.