AUGUST 29, 2006

Turkish nationalism threatens Grand Prix

The Turkish Grand Prix must be considered to be under threat after two of the organisers of the race admitted that using Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat to present the trophy to the winner was a deliberate action.

Murat Yalcintas, the head of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce which funds the race, told the Anatolia news agency that "the Formula 1 race was a great opportunity. Cyprus is our national cause." Worse still, Yalcintas made it clear that the Turks deliberately delayed telling the F1 authorities who would be handing out the prizes until the day of the race. The rules oblige the race organizers to notify the F1 authorities on the day before the race but Yalcintas said that "as we had Mr Talat in mind, we delayed giving the notification as much as we could. We gave the information around noon on the day of the race".

There is no question that there was a failure on the part of Formula One as well. The provocative gesture dreamed up by the Turks was not picked up by those organising the podium ceremony - which is usually Allsport Management. Nor was it spotted by the Formula One group's TV directors who allowed a controversial caption to be used on the international TV feed. They may not have understood what they were doing but anyone with a bigger understanding of world politics would immediately understand the significance of the gesture.

"Max nearly spat out his tea when that came on the screen," said an FIA insider.

There is no question that the move was designed as a provocation - and wars have been fought in the past over less important provocations.

Cyprus was a British colony from 1913 until 1960 when the island was granted independence after Greek and Turkish Cypriots agreed on a constitution, which excluded the possibility of partition, as well as of a union with Greece. Violence between the two communities began soon afterwards and in 1965 the United Nations sent peacekeeping troops to the island. In 1974 Archbishop Makarios, the leader of Cyprus since independence, was overthrown in a Greek-inspired military coup. Turkey then invaded the northern part of the island, claiming that it was protecting the Turkish minority, although this was in violation of the UN Charter and the treaties that had established Cyprus as an independent republic in 1960. This led the UN General Assembly to adopt Resolution 3212 calling for Turkey to withdraw, a move that was backed up by a UN Security Council Resolution 365.

Turkey ignored these and began to import settlers in the occupied territory to alter the ethnic make-up of the area, which is considered a war crime under the terms of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. In 1983 the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash declared the northern part of the island independent, naming it the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus". This resulted in Resolution 541 of the UN Security Council which declared this action to be "legally invalid" and called for its withdrawal and for implementation of its previous resolutions. It called on all other UN members not to recognise the entity. The Commonwealth Summit Conference in New Delhi condemned the declaration of independence and pledged their renewed support for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and non-alignment of the Republic of Cyprus.

No country other than Turkey recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

The Cypriot government, not surprisingly, reacted badly to the appearance of Talat at the Turkish Grand Prix, a spokesman saying 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".

Turkish newspapers report that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been planning to be present but was unable to make it and that the idea of Talat came from Rifat Hisarciklioglu, the chairman of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey, who admitted as much to local reporters.

The problem for the FIA is that this is a clear case of a country using a Grand Prix for overt political ends, which have been denounced as illegal by the international community. Not punishing Turkey will send out a very bad signal. One can argue that FOM and Allsport Management, which are in effect commercial representatives of the FIA, should have been sufficiently alert to have seen the problem before it developed and there will need to be questions asked about how that happened. In addition the FIA needs to stop the same thing happening again in the future at other events - and the only way to do that is a severe sanction for the Turks. There are certainly enough FIA rules relating to bringing the sport into disrepute to cover the events in Istanbul.

If the federation backs down on this, it will weaken its position and its power. To date the FIA President Max Mosley has always tended to use the power his job gives him to maximum effect, rather than backing down. This might not please FOM but the Turks only have themselves to blame and Ecclestone would almost certainly get financial damages from Turkey if the contract does have to be cancelled on such grounds. The fact that Yalcintas and Hisarciklioglu have, in effect, admitted that they deliberately engineered the situation would suggest that they will have trouble arguing that FOM and Allsport Management should have stopped them.

When all is said and done, Turkey may lose its Grand Prix - and may have to pay for the races that do not take place. That will be a financial bonus for FOM because that money will be in addition to income from any replacement race.

And finding a replacement for Turkey will probably not be very difficult in the long term as there are several countries in the region that have ambitions to stage Grands Prix, notably Kazakhstan, Russia and, of course, Greece.