A HACK LOOKS BACK

The Turkish GP

This weekend's Turkish GP will be the country's fourth, which seems surprising when you recall what happened after the race two years ago. That was when the podium ceremony was hijacked by political thugs who had deliberately tricked the F1 world in order to ensure that the man presenting the prizes was the leader of the regime which has ruled illegally over northern Cyprus since Turkish forces invaded the island in 1974 and which is recognised by just one nation - yes, Turkey. Only half of the resulting $5 million fine actually reached the FIA's bankers, which under normal circumstances would have meant the end both of the race and the excellent (if inconveniently situated) Istanbul Otodrom on which those same unscrupulous politicians had lavished so many millions of the unsuspecting Turkish taxpayers' money.

Well, Turkey's still on the schedule thanks, of course, to Bernie Ecclestone, who took over the lease on the circuit. Benevolent as always, Mr E said last year that he was doing business with all these Byzantine schemers out of the goodness of his heart.

"F1 needs to be in this part of the world," he declared, without actually saying why. "Our contract here for F1 is one of the worst that we have and my board of directors have often wondered why we did this deal," he added, again without explaining why the Bosphorous is such an attractive venue for a sport in which the locals had never taken an interest until someone told them that it would be good for tourism. Still, he has announced that the future of the race is guaranteed all the way to 2021, although one suspects that there are several important 'ifs' and 'buts' in the fine print.

No doubt we can expect the same generosity of spirit from Bernie and the board when the awkward question of the British GP and Silverstone comes up. Oh, and I think we can trust the Motorsport Association not to wangle the podium ceremony in order to put some dubious political personality up there to present the trophies.

Two weeks ago in Barcelona, Bernie and I met very briefly. Sadly, he was unable to find time to hear the proposals I wanted to put to him about my personable 21 year old daughter and what a splendid F1 presenter she would make if he could kindly find room for her to look pretty on one of those TV channels that nobody ever actually watches. Perhaps this was because, while walking on the grid before the race on Sunday, I discovered that this same presenter's job has already been taken. In fact, my attention was drawn to a hugely talented young woman called Tamara Ecclestone being pursued by a camera crew, doing exactly the job that my young 'un might have been interested in. Well, it's good to know that the passion remains strong in the Ecclestone family's blood.

Back to this weekend in Turkey, which has been selected by the Honda team as a suitable occasion to celebrate Rubens Barrichello's 257th Grand Prix start, thus beating Riccardo Patrese's record of 256 starts. The statistics happen to be rather wobbly, depending as they do on your interpretation of what exactly constitutes a 'start.' My late colleague Jabby Crombac tended towards the theory that a driver should be credited with a 'start' if he came under starter's orders, but I have since learned that nowhere in the rules is there any official definition of starter's orders, not even the one I like, which is being present on the grid (complete with car, of course) when that bloke walks across the track at the back, waving a green flag.

The difficulties for the statistician arise when a race is stopped, often because of a serious pile-up, and then restarted. The record books tend not to include drivers who fail to make the re-start, which seems blatantly unjust when the competitor involved has been injured and may even be fighting for his life. Niki Lauda is particularly trenchant on this point when it comes to the 1976 German GP, for which he qualified his Ferrari and in which he was playing a leading role when he crashed in flames and sustained serious burns to his head. "Didn't start the race?" I've heard him say: "then what happened to my effing ear?"

Still, my colleague Jacques Deschenaux, who has painstakingly assembled the statistics of every world championship race since 1950 into the must-have journalistic guide (founded 1973) which is published annually by Philip Morris/Marlboro, should probably have the last word, Niki's ear or no. And Jacques says that although the Turkish GP will be the 257th in which Rubinho has been officially entered, a combination of one crash and two mechanical failures meant that at three of those GPs he failed to make the start, or (as Jacques says) "was not on the grid when the lights went out to trigger the timing mechanism."

If you take all this into consideration, Jacques says the earliest race at which Rubens will be entitled to claim his 257th start is the Canadian GP. Honda's PR officer, whose briskly efficient attitude reminds me of a much-loved matron at my prep school, has confided that Turkey was chosen because Canada and the time difference with Europe make it an "inconvenient" race at which to celebrate the landmark. So we'll have no arguments about this one, please. I suppose that it all goes to prove how true was the declaration by the American President who said that "history is bunk." I only hope that Honda's manipulation of the facts does not tempt fate to conspire wickedly against Rubens and deprive him of a start in Istanbul on Sunday ...

I noticed at Barcelona that Riccardo Patrese was making a rare paddock appearance, which was only right and proper considering that someone is about to break his hard-won record. Although he later established a niche for himself as a reliable number 2 driver who was capable of winning races when the occasion offered itself, Riccardo broke on to the F1 scene more than 30 years ago as a potential star player with the heavy burden of leading the breakaway Arrows team. An excessively aggressive attitude quickly made him unpopular among his colleagues, and I have reason to attribute much of the blame to him for the events at Monza in 1978 which led to the loss of Ronnie Peterson. My friend James Hunt, at whose side I sat in the BBCtv commentary box for almost 14 years, was even more vociferous on that subject.

By now, I can hear you saying, this should all be water under the bridge. True, but I have to admit that Monza 1978 still festers with me. Both Hunt and I should probably have come to terms with the fact that motor racing is not always fair, and that it can be a brutally cruel mistress. I therefore welcome the fact that Riccardo Patrese, now affability incarnate, has become an elder statesman of the sport who is welcome at a Grand Prix whenever he chooses to make an appearance.

Nevertheless, I still deeply regret that Ronnie Peterson, a prince among men and surely one of the best-loved drivers ever to grace the paddock, doesn't have the same choice.

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