Honda website
Honda website

OCTOBER 13, 2006

The politics of Turkey and the F1 world

Mehmet Ali Talat, the man who caused the ongoing F1 Podium Crisis in Turkey, has told the Associated Press that the FIA's fine was "very unfair, really very unfair and not acceptable". Talat said that he was watching the race and was asked if he could hand over the winner's trophy. He was introduced as "the President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus", an entity which the United Nations says is "legally invalid".

"It was just a very innocent act," Talat said.

Others do not agree.

A spokesman for the government of Cyprus called the gesture an "unacceptable and provocative theatrical performance organised by Ankara" and said that the Turks had "deceived the FIA and tried to exploit for political purposes a purely sporting event, through provocative manoeuvres and absurd propaganda methods."

The FIA reacted by saying that "political neutrality is fundamental to the FIA's role as the governing body of international motor sport. No compromise or violation of this neutrality is acceptable" but then the FIA World Council decided to fine the Turks $5m rather than take stronger action.

Talat's remarks are unlikely to have much effect on the FIA International Court of Appeal which must now decide whether the fine is fair or not. If the Turks are allowed to get away with such a provocative gesture, it is entirely possible that other nations will decide to use Grands Prix as propaganda tools. If the fine is confirmed the race may end up being threatened and that will have an economic impact on the Formula One group. That is not a long-term problem as there are plenty of other races that could step in, although the Turkish track is a real challenge and it will be a shame if it is lost.

The question is of key importance to the FIA as it will give a clear sign as to whether the federation will allow its premier championship to be used as a propaganda tool or whether it stands by its founding principles and demands political neutrality at races.

While the FIA needs to consider the implications of its decisions very carefully, Turkey itself needs to decide whether or not it really wants to have a Grand Prix. The idea of the race was to attract more tourists to the country. In addition to the immediate financial gain, there is no question that the event was also about giving Turkey a better international image which would, perhaps, soften attitudes in Europe about Turkey's desire to be a member of the European Union.

Turkey has been trying to join Europe since 1959 but actual negotiations did not begin until the end of last year. Europeans in favour of the idea argue that Turkey's vibrant economy and its move to modernise is a big opportunity for Europe, that Turkey has been a strong ally in NATO and that turning it into a stable secular democracy would be a good example for Middle Eastern countries.

Those opposed to the idea argue that a big Muslim country - located largely in Asia - has no place in Europe. The Turks have not helped matters with their attitude to Cyprus, not to mention questions over religious and ethnic discrimination and human rights. Public opinion in Europe is largely against the idea with less than 40% of EU citizens in favour. In order for the Turks to become part of Europe all member states must agree. Several countries have already made it clear that they would have referendums. France - up to now one of Turkey's biggest supporters - yesterday approved a bill which makes it a crime to deny that Armenians were the victims of genocide between 1915-1918 when it is claimed 1.5m Armenians were killed. Even pro-Turkish French President Jacques Chirac says that Turkey must recognise the Armenian genocide as a pre-condition of EU membership. There is also a report due from the European Commission which is expected to highlight the fact that Turkey is not doing enough in terms of reform. Faced with Europe's attitude, Turkish nationalists have adopted a harder line in recent times and against this backdrop the events on the podium in Istanbul are significant.

Ironically, if nationalism increases and the idea of EU membership fades, there is less reason to have a Grand Prix.