NOVEMBER 13, 2000

A Grand Prix for Tunisia?

BACK in 1991 there were rumors of several possible new Grands Prix being held.

BACK in 1991 there were rumors of several possible new Grands Prix being held. One was in Venezuela another in Tunisia. Nothing happened and with the benefit of hindsight one can see that perhaps the hopes expressed by the Venezuelans and Tunisians were in some way related to the fact that there was an election campaign going on for the job of president of the international motorsport federation. A little hope can help with a vote.

It is probably only a coincidence that nine years later talk of a race in Tunisia has re-emerged, a few months before Max Mosley will stand for re-election for a third term as FIA President.

Is the new project in Tunis a realistic proposition, or is it another vote-gathering scheme?

The city of Tunis is, in many ways, just what Formula 1 is looking for. It is in Africa but it is an Arab town and yet, at the same time, it has a very pleasant European colonial aspect which would make it popular with the racers and the events would be taking place in the right time zone for the large F1 audience in Europe. Tunisia is also close to the team bases in Europe and so the race could fit easily into the existing calendar structure. Those are the plus points.

On the downside, the Formula 1 calendar is full up for several years to come and there are almost as many countries bidding for races as there are existing Grand Prix. This means that the going rate which an organizer has to pay has gone up steeply in recent years with the annual fee nowadays being something in the region of $10m a year. This is not much when one considers what an event generates in terms of local income and international publicity but it is sometimes hard to justify such expenditure to voters.

Tunisia has a solid history in the sport which dates back to 1928 when it became the third city in Africa to stage races, following Casablanca and Tripoli which hosted their first events in 1925. At the time Tunisia was a French protectorate under direct rule from Paris. Those first races were held on a road circuit at Bardo, which was just outside Tunis. Later the racing would be moved to the ancient city of Carthage, on the Mediterranean coastline. After World War II the French rule was re-established and an automobile club was established and a few races were held in Tunis's Belvedere Park but with the struggle towards independence racing ceased to be important and then after independence was declared in 1956 the new national government adopted socialist principles and fell out with the French.

It was only after President Habib Bourgiba was ousted in 1987 that the economy began to liberalize and outlooks changed. The ambition to restore racing (as witnessed in the planning at the time of Mosley's election) was part of that. In the 1990s the country has been quietly building up its tourist trade although political uncertainty in the region has not helped. Recent figures reveal that the country now attracts just under 4m visitors a year (which is not bad when you consider that the population is only 9m). Of these nearly one million are Germans, half a million are French. In general, however, they do not stay in Tunis but rather the tourist centers further south in Monastir and Djerba. In recent years the Tunis authorities have been working hard to improve the city. Tunis is situated on a large lagoon, which links it to the sea seven miles away. Under French rule a channel was dredged to the city and a port area built. Pollution became a serious problem but in 1985 it was decided to improve the situation. Large areas were drained, nearly halving the size of the lake but providing land for plush new developments.

The intention is to run a race on the streets of one of these lakeside areas - known as Berge du Lac - and the intention is very clearly to give Tunis a little bit of Monaco-like glamour to attract more visitors. With interest in Formula 1 in Germany very high thanks to the adventures of Michael Schumacher and Mercedes-Benz, Tunis should at least be able to attract more Germans. The planned circuit is located close to the international airport and there are plenty of hotels. The climate is Mediterranean, although in midsummer it can get very hot.

For the Formula 1 authorities, Tunis would solve several problems. The sport wants to be in Africa but the financial and political problems in sub-Saharan Africa make it impossible to hold races there. The North African countries would be perfect for F1 as they would also open up interest in the sport in the Arab world. The drawback is that in most of the Arab countries there are political or religious troubles. This means, for example, that Algeria and Libya are not really open for consideration. There have been feasibility studies for races in Morocco and Egypt but to date nothing has happened. And that leaves Tunisia.

The problem, as always, is whether or not the government is willing to fund the entire program - as, for example, Malaysia has done. It makes sense to do so. There is a serious unemployment problem in Tunisia at the moment and with industry suffering because of a lack of raw materials and agriculture marginal in most of the country, tourism is seen as a good route for the future, particularly as Tunisia offers historical venues such as Carthage.

The idea of a non-permanent facility is also not such a good idea as this is more expensive to run than a normal track and can be used for testing at other times of the year. Formula 1 teams have been looking for a permanent test facility in North Africa for some years because of unreliable weather in Europe. The journey to Tunisia is made easier by the fact that F1 trucks can be loaded on to ferries in Marseilles or Genoa and arrive in Tunis 22 hours later with the crews rested and ready for action.