Sonja Caymaz
Last updated: 19 October, 2011

Turkey loses pole position in motorsports

The Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit generates more income per event than any other sport, and has over 600 million viewers worldwide. However, costs are rising for host countries as ticket sales decline and fees for the event and commercial rights to it are on the rise.

Turkey’s Istanbul Park Circuit was dropped recently from the tentative 2012 Formula 1 World Championship Race Calendar, which featured a packed schedule for a maximum of 21 races. The original contract expired this year and Istanbul has struggled to attract crowds, filling only about 30,000 seats out of a facility equipped for more than 130,000 people.

Bernie Ecclestone, the president of Formula 1 Management, told Turkish daily Hürriyet in an interview this week that all the teams and drivers have had good experiences in Istanbul in the past and that there were no problems with the race track. He would be happy to return the event to Istanbul if the government agreed to the commercial conditions put forward by Formula 1. So far Turkey has paid $13 million per year over last seven years to host the Grand Prix, but negotiations hit a dead end when Formula 1 doubled that figure.

The commercial rights to Formula 1 motor racing will double within the next five years, amounting to more than $3 billion a year, according to research published in 2011 by industry monitor Formula Money. The highest part of the turnover stems from the high hosting fee, which currently averages $50 million.

Over the last decade the circuit has taken its course east and now a third of the races are held in Asia – a continent that did not even host its first race until 1976. Competition is though and drastic measures are needed if Turkey wants to recapture a spot on the calendar.

After building the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia, German engineer and designer Hermann Tilke, went on to build high-profile race tracks all over the world, but most of them on the Asian continent.  New circuits popped up like mushrooms: Bahrain 2004, Shanghai 2004, Istanbul 2005, Abu Dhabi 2009, South Korea 2010 and finally India’s Buddh International Circuit, which will hold its inaugural race in late October. The name was inspired by Buddha, and is to mean peace and calm – quite the opposite of the direction the sport is taking in the neighbourhood.

Many of the host countries, most notably China and Abu Dhabi, do not necessarily seek to make a profit in the venture but are aiming to build prestige and broadcast a positive image.

While the Formula 1 UBS Chinese Grand Prix in April was attended by 163,000 people, a little more than half of the actual capacity of 250,000, it appears for China the Gran Prix was more of a prestige project to show off technical know-how and economic fortitude.

South Korea’s Yeongam International Circuit, which just completed its second Grand Prix, can accommodate up to 130,000 spectators, but the more obvious goal is to market a whole new resort city being built around the circuit in the picturesque setting of the province to millions of motorsport fans worldwide.

Hong Kong is also a new runner-up for the event after Automobile Association President Wesley Wan said earlier this year that Hong Kong was eager to host a street race in anticipation of large visitor numbers, according to the South China Morning Post.

Singapore is undoubtedly innovating and capitalizing on the event and its convenient location, also known as the Marina Bay Street Circuit. Singapore effectively steals the show with shopping festivals, street parties, fashion shows and live acts such as Mariah Carey and Missy Elliot, attracting many visitors who are not interested in following the sport. Singapore also caused excitement with the circuits first night races.

Shift up a gear

Istanbul Park may yet have a chance and stand in for Bahrain in April 2012, if security concerns prevent the event from taking place in the Gulf country.

However, circuits do not solely exist for the Formula 1 races, said Ibrahim Kocyigit, head of Eurosport’s news department in Turkey.

“We should not orient ourselves around whether or not Bahrain is going to fall through. The circuit should be able to remain profitable regardless,” Kocyigit said.

 “It is one of the best events of professional sports along with MotoGP, WTCC and the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Turkey used to host all of these but we lost them for financial reasons and a lack of interest by the Turkish audience,” Kocyigit said.

Turkey has not done enough to enhance the sports visibility, he said, explaining that “Turkey does not care for much else than soccer or sports Turkey is competitive in.”

“The government should see it as an opportunity to promote the country’s image, and efforts should be combined to make it happen again. It is difficult for a circuit to be loved by the drivers but in Turkey’s case they love it, so it is a real advantage.”