April 1, 2007

A fresh breeze in the F1 world

Thomas Kieller

Felipe Massa negotiates a turn with his Ferrari during the Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul.

No doubt that the world of Formula One is always changing. We are not only talking about the engineering of the cars. Presently, the drivers must not test their abilities only on the classic circuits such as Monza, Magny-Cours and Spa-Francorchamps. Within the last two years, the deal has changed. The world of F1 has opened itself again onto new markets. It brings to mind the Grand Prix of China, Bahrain and Turkey. A fresh breeze blows onto the F1, and this time, it has a cultural flavour.

When the ultrasophisticated racing cars arrived in Istanbul, it was not only the promotion of car racing which was done, but also the one of a country. From August 25th to the 27th, 2006, Turkey welcomed for a second time a Grand Prix. Nearly 100,000 spectators arrived to the capital city to see, first of all, all the drivers taking the wheel of their Formula One car and secondly to visit the interesting sites of Byzantine and Ottoman civilizations. A city which can amaze anyone. Americans, Russians, Spaniards and many others came to live a summer happening in Turkey. All those travelers left with Formula One thrills and with beautiful cultural discoveries.

Little over 40 km from the old city, the Istanbul Park circuit is in an arid scenic area where the yellowish and reddish earth is omnipresent. In the surrounding area, some mountains also form the landscape. Such a landscape differs from all other circuits. With its 14 curves, its ascending and descending slopes, and with one having an eight percent inclination, as well as its numerous areas to overtake an adversary, the circuit has a modern aspect. The 5.333 km of asphalt under a blazing hot sun gives the circuit a particular aspect.

As far as the crowd goes, the frenzy increased with the approaching start. Near the main grandstand, one finds the café area where one could have a bite to eat. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find Turkish meals. What a pity! One had to go for simple sandwiches, typical hot-dogs and Australian beer, Foster. Besides these foods, there are also some merchandising stands where Formula One related products are sold. After a visit to the kiosks dedicated to Michael Schumacher, Mercedes-Benz or Renault, it was possible to come out with a souvenir or a piece of clothing with the signature of your favourite team. Why not!

We must not forget that the spectators came also to see their favourite drivers. Before the race, a red and white truck made a tour of the circuit where on it the drivers in sport outfits waved to the crowd. However, when the athletes left the racing stables, they actually say thanks to the fans by turning with a roar their V8 engines. The sound released by the Formula One cars grasp the spectators by the guts.

On the starting grid everything starts to move ten minutes before the race. The mechanics were animated around the racing cars in order to make the last preparations. The attractive ladies in red miniskirts give an aesthetic side to the event by parading with the flag and the number of each driver.

The day before, the drivers of Ferrari monopolized the first line after the qualification sessions. Felipe Massa took the pole position for the first time while his teammate, Michael Schumacher, followed him in 2nd place. The leader of the drivers’ championship, Fernando Alonso, took the 3rd position. He sent a clear message to Michael, his principal rival, that he will fight to the end.

The start is without a doubt the most exciting moment of the race. The sound of the motors in combination with the proximity of the 22 drivers create a unique sensation. The question on everyone’s lips was "Who will come out first from the number 1 curve?" As soon as the red lights turned to the green ones, Massa got off on a good start. Nobody could equal him. Alonso rather tried to attack Schumacher, but the latter shut the door in his face by taking the inside of the curve.

In the middle of the pack there was much more movement. At the first turn, the racing cars arrived packed together and many of them even touched at times. Fisichella, Räikkönen, Kubica, Speed and Sato were all implicated, somehow, in an incident. All of them had to do a pit stop to repair the damages. As soon as he left the racing stables, Räikkönen went straight at the first curve. Incapable to control his F1 because of a puncture in the right front tire, the Finnish driver hit the wall violently. The nose of his formula was pulverized! The 2005 Turkish Grand Prix winner had no other choice but to abandon the race.

On the 3rd lap, Alonso could not follow the rhythm of the Ferraris. When Massa was driving alone up front, Schumacher was leaving behind the Spaniard and a seven second gap was established between the principal protagonists. At the fastest section of the track, the Ferraris reached 330 km/h. Rockets!

For the team Ferrari, everything was going well until the unpredictable happened. At the 12th lap, the F1 of Vitantonio Liuzzi slipped and immobilized itself on the curve number 1 curb. Stalled, the Italian could not start his Red Bull again. In the middle of the racing course, one official waved the yellow flag. The danger was quite real. The security car made its apparition on the track and all the drivers had to slow down to the great pleasure of certain racers.

The two Ferraris and the Renault of Alonso profited from this situation to refuel. The Scuderia mechanics worked first on Felipe Massa’s formula, while Schumacher was waiting behind! During that time, team Renault was working on the Spaniard’s F1. At the moment where Schumacher was accelerating, Alonso passed him. A turning point! Jean Todt, general director of team Ferrari, noticed only that the situation took a turn for the worse.

In the press gallery, hundreds of journalists were excited. The strategy of Ferrari crumbled. Michael had to switch to the attack mode.

As soon as the security car left the track for the racing stables, Massa drove to the front and not far behind followed Alonso. Schumacher was unable to follow the beat. Actually, Jenson Button came back from behind and chased him. The German knew well what was at stake in this race and that every lost point will move him away from the driver championship. While getting rid off Button, Schumacher came back to attack Fernando Alonso.

At the 46th lap, Schumacher was constantly in the side mirrors of Alonso’s Renault. The German was closing the gap in the curves, but Alonso outclassed him immediately in the straight lines. After Massa crossed the finish line, Schumacher tried right at the end a last attack on Alonso. The Spaniard, determined as usual, held his position to the end.

At the weigh in, Alonso was visibly relieved of the final result knowing that the situation turned in his favour when the security car made its entry onto the track. The two points won from Schumacher gave him at last a decisive advantage to Alonso who won, in 2006, for the second time the drivers' championship.

At the end of the race, hundreds of joyful fans swarmed the circuit. They walked and ran in the direction of the podium to see Felipe Massa celebrate his first Grand Prix victory. For the Brazilian, it was a dream come true. During the national anthem of his country, Felipe was at the same time ecstatic and touched. A little bit disconnected with reality because of the joy which was overcoming him, he tried to appreciate the moment as much as he could…

The fans also appreciated the event which gave to an atypical turn of events. Under 40o Celsius and in the middle of this yellowish land, they will recall this Grand Prix and this unbridled race which had a Turkish flavour. In spite of the traffic jam at the exit of the circuit, the great majority of the spectators returned to town satisfied. Without a doubt all will profit from this passage in the capital city to visit what Istanbul has best to offer: by promenading near the Blue Mosque, by contemplating the poetic gestures of the whirling dervishes in their white outfit or by eating a delicious meal at a table near the Bosphorus. Formula One offers not only a sport happening but presents at every destination a unique place of the world with all the cultural differences that it implies. Good!