Let the games begin

Years ago I studied a course in Diplomatic History at the London School of Economics. It was taught by a marvellously eccentric tutor who surprised us all on the very first day in class by asking us if we knew a board game called Diplomacy.

None of us had ever heard of it.

"Right," he said. "Go out and buy it, play it and come back and see me when you have." He divided us two groups of seven and we did as we were told and learned in one evening why it was that the modern world is at it is. By playing a board game we learned why things happened in history, rather than the facts of what happened. To achieve that the game designer must have had an extraordinary brain, but Allan B Calhamer, a Harvard history graduate in the 1950s, did not end up as a multimillionaire. He ended up as a postman, clear proof that being brilliant does not necessarily make you rich.

Among the lessons we learned playing the game was why Britain ruled the waves and did not like it when the Germans started building battleships. We learned why it was that Germany developed the habit of invading France on a regular basis and it was a good idea for the Italians to expand into Africa. We learned also that the Balkans are always best avoided. And, above all else, we learned the strategic value of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal and the Bosphorus.

I mention all of this because it relates directly to the Turkish Grand Prix. If Turkey was a less complicated country there would probably not have been a Grand Prix. This did not really strike me until I was leaving and asked the taxi driver to go by way of the old coast road, at the foot of the Topkapi Palace. And there, looking out into the Bosphorus, I saw more ships than I can ever remember seeing in one place at one time and it reminded me that this small stretch of water - it is so narrow that in the early 17th century, so they say, a daredevil called Ahmet Celebi launched a hang-glider from the top of an Istanbul tower and flew across to the other side - has to deal with all the shipping of the warm water ports of Russia and all the offspring nations that popped up when the old Soviet empire fell apart.

Soaring over the straits today is a great suspension bridge, a reminder if one is needed, that this city was also where the eastern trade routes arrived in Europe. It was and still is, one of the great crossroads of the world. Twice this city has been the seat of a great empire but almost 100 years ago the Ottoman Empire fell flakily to pieces amid genocidal carnage as the different racial groups fought for land. The British moved in to stop the disaster and for a short time managed to keep the lid on a revolution led by a group called The Young Turks.

In the end Turkey gained its independence and internal control was restored. In the 1950s democracy emerged briefly but there were then periods of intermittent military intervention that went on until 1997. And while all of this was going on Turkey became a buffer zone to Russian expansionism and a US ally. That was fine until Russia collapsed but since then the American bases in Turkey have been used for operations in the Middle East. And that had created other issues because Turkey is a Muslim country, even if its leaders recognise that its best hope for the future is as part of the European Union.

Turkey is a great balancing act.

The problem is that most Europeans do not want Turkey to be part of Europe and so in order to win friends, Turkey must become more European and that, to some extent, explains what the Turkish Grand Prix is all about. It is part of a much bigger national strategy. No expense was spared in building the new racing facility and with national pride resting on the result, nothing was allowed to go wrong. It was a triumph. Things worked and we went away beginning to believe that despite the run-down appearance of great swathes of the city, Istanbul is on its way to modernity. The race is designed to educate people about Turkey. Turkey's current Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said that the Grand Prix will play a major role in bringing new tourists to the country and that one cannot put a cash value on that. He is right. Visitors will go home and attitudes towards Turkey will soften.

I must say that before I arrived in Istanbul, I was not very interested in going. I decided to arrive late but soon realised that that had been a mistake. Maybe next year I will go a little earlier. Istanbul was fascinating. It has some of the feeling of European cities. There are hundreds of beautiful buildings but many of them are quietly falling down. There are wide avenues running along the shoreline and miles of ancient fortifications but you can see the huge potential. It feels a little like Budapest when first we visited in the 1980s, before the city got some Western dollars and a good deal of much-needed care and attention. The one thing that the two places have in common is the desire to improve themselves. Call it a civic ambition or whatever you wish, the Turks want to move forward.

In this respect the Grand Prix was a great success. The track is a brilliant design, much better than previous Tilke-rings. Turn Eight was an instant classic.

There were a lot of traffic problems getting to and from the circuit and I was not really sure why until I went to the airport on Monday and realised that with or without a car a large number of Turks do not understand the concept of queueing. The airport was sleek and new but the pushing and shoving was seriously irritating.

But, as I discovered with Diplomacy, the lessons can be learned with games, so let the racing continue!

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