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A Tale of Two Cities

With the best part of 40 years in the sport Michael Cotton has been there and back
and even has the t-shirt. Jet setting last week between Turkey and France he has
found time to reflect on the progress or lack there of in the Le Mans Series and the
FIA GT Championship..........listen he'll begin.

John Brooks
April 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

  Talking to Graham Shuter, Dunlop’s motorsport manager, at the FIA GT
Championship pre-season test in Dijon, gave me some idea of the punishing
schedule that his tyre fitters endure. “Some of my lads haven’t been home for
nearly nine weeks” he says, “and the season has hardly begun.”

  They serviced a GT test at Ricard, then a three-day Dunlop exclusive test at
Estoril, back to Ricard for the Le Mans Series pre-test, to Trieste to get their three
trucks onto a ferry to Turkey, then the opening round of the Le Mans Series opener
at Istanbul (a 20 hour day on Sunday), an early flight on Monday to Munich for
connections to France, a long drive to Dijon-Prenois, then back to Trieste to collect
the trucks, and finally, a five day drive back to Fort Dunlop. “When we go home, we
are like visitors to our own families” says senior fitter Gary Deeming.

  So let us journalists not complain about the rude awakening to the season. We
enjoyed the Floridian sunshine at the Sebring 12-hours, home, flew to Ricard,
home, flew to Istanbul then, for those in the cellar, a flight to Paris via Heathrow,
and a tiresome autoroute journey to Dijon.  Like Magny Cours, Dijon has an
airport but is not visited by any recognised airlines, so access is a long slog from
Paris, Basel or Lyon, take your choice.

  “Don’t go to Istanbul, whatever you do, you’ll hate it” I was warned by son Andrew
and senior sage John Brooks. They had been twice, to the FIA GT race last
September, and to the final round of the Le Mans Endurance Series in November.
Twice is two times too many, they said, a third visit in the space of half a year, for
the opening round of the 2006 LMS, would be three times too many.

  Did I hate it? Not altogether, I have to say. The hotel in Istanbul (once known as
Constantinople) was comfortable, there was a nice restaurant around the corner,
and our days were spent at one of the world’s most magnificent circuits, the
hopelessly bankrupt Motorsport Park some 30 kilometres east of the Bosphorus.

  It’s the bit in between that makes the experience unpleasant. The region west of
the Bosphorus, once known as Thrace, borders on Bulgaria and is,
geographically, part of Europe. Istanbul has wide highways and might, itself, be
suitable for street racing. That’s what the locals specialise in, racing along the
central four-lane highway and switching lanes without warning. If you leave a five
metre gap to the vehicle ahead, a 4.9 metre car will slot into it without a by-your-
leave, even at speeds approaching twice the posted limit.

  Approach the bridges very early or very late, because for most of the day the
queues for the toll bridges back up two or three kilometres, and will take an hour
or more to negotiate. Expect late brakers to insert a bumper-blade between you
and the vehicle ahead at any time during the procedure, this exercise become
more urgent as you approach the toll booth.

  ‘Welcome to Asia’ says the yellow sign on the Asian side of the bridge. This
forms 95 per cent of Turkey’s land mass, and is home to 60 million Muslims (98
per cent of the population, apparently). It has open borders with Syria, Iraq and
Iran and those politicians who believe it should become an addition to the EU are
living in cuckoo-land. Just for once I agree with the French, who regard the
proposition with deep scepticism.

  The 5.34 kilometre circuit was much liked by the drivers, and you can see why.
Designer Herman Tilke made good use of the up-and-down contours of the land,
incorporating 14 corners that place great demands on driver skill. Especially
challenging is a left-right-left switchback between turns three and five, including
an 8-degree drop. Jenson Button likened it to Suzuka, a real driver’s circuit. The
vast grandstands will seat 130,000 spectators, the garages are well equipped,
and the media centre would swallow a football pitch. Everything about the circuit is
excellent, as befits a Park in which £80 million was invested by the government.

  This is the home of the Grand Prix of Turkey, first run last summer with the
second to be held in August. The deal with Formula One Management is said to
cost the Turks US$20 million per year, not a trifling sum in a land where the
average income per head is $1,100, and a quoted “almost 100,000 spectators”
turned up for the inaugural Grand Prix.

  For the opening round of the Le Mans Series 2006, more like 100 spectators
paid to sit in the grandstands. They were treated to a four-hour endurance race in
freezing conditions, and a single support race featuring 16 Honda Civics. The
brutal reality is that Turkey has no motorsporting infrastructure and no real
following for motorsports generally, and without these essentials the longterm
future of the Istanbul Motorsport Park is very bleak.

  There are no decent hotels with an hour’s drive, and I can only liken it to the
Autopolis circuit in Japan, which I described in 1991 as a James Bond movie set
located in the crater of a volcanic mountain. That, too, was technically bankrupt
before it was completed, a truly spectacular example of tipping truck-loads of
money into a bottomless pit that not many really wanted in the first place. Such are
the dreams of men on the fringes of motor racing, men whose ‘vision’ outstrips
their acumen.

  I wondered, daily, about the ambition of Stephane Ratel and Patrick Peter to
create the Le Mans Series on the historic circuits of Europe: Spa, the Nurburgring,
Silverstone and Monza being the core events. History was all, a couple of years
ago, but today? Silverstone prefers to run a round of the FIA GT Championship as
the Tourist Trophy, so the Le Mans Series goes to Donington. The East Midlands
track will suffice, with rebuilt pits and facilities, but it is not big enough to
accommodate all the championship contenders. Some will have to stay at home
the August Bank Holiday weekend, which might just be a blessing.

  Monza will not host an endurance race again, predicts circuit manager Sig.
Ferrari. “We have to compromise” he says, with those who object to the noise, so
in order to keep the Grand Prix and the World Touring Car Championship,
something has to be sacrificed. This is ‘force majeure’, the fault of nobody in our
sport, but it’s goodbye to the ghosts of Farina and Ascari, and the great history of
the Monza Autodromo. Goodbye, too, to the almost traditional feasting by motor
racing people at the wonderful Fossati restaurant in Canonica on Saturday
evening. We will miss all that.

  Where instead? M. Peter is talking to a number of alternatives for a 1,000
kilometre race in September. He won’t name them, but the rumour mill suggests
Anderstorp, or Brno, or Estoril. “It is very difficult to find a circuit that can give us a
date in the autumn” he says, but if he asked the teams they might be unanimous
in surrendering a round rather than go to Anderstorp in September. It is an airfield
circuit in the middle of nowhere, with no decent hotels within an hour’s drive. Cold,
too, in the autumn. Brno or Estoril, bon.

  Dijon will be the setting for the sixth round of the FIA GT Championship, the first
weekend in September. Here is an utter contrast to Istanbul: a wonderful city in
eastern France, capital of Burgundy, superb cuisine, rolling pastoral scenes, and
an antiquated racing circuit with medieval facilities. In Istanbul the driver might run
out of fuel before he hit anything, but a mistake in Dijon is almost certainly going
to have expensive consequences.

  I went to Dijon in the early 1970s, when Henri Pescarolo was winning in his
Matra-Simca. I went there in the late 1980s, reporting the race in 1989 when the
Joest Racing Porsche 962C inflicted a spectacular defeat on the Sauber
Mercedes team, and I returned in July 1998 when the AMG Mercedes team
reversed the order and beat the ‘works’ Porsche GT1-98 of Allan McNish and
Yannick Dalmas.

  On each and every occasion, stretching back more than 30 years, I complained
about the poor facilities, which still exist. A bit of aluminium cladding might
modernise the appearance of the pits and suites, but the beauty is only skin deep.
Behind the façade they are old and crumbling.

  Worst of all are the toilets, 12 cubicles in the middle of the paddock, not
segregated for men and women, stand-up, hole-in-the-ground jobs which might
suit the French but are not good enough for the Brits, who feel rather superior in
these matters (as do the Germans). Fiona Acheson, if she reads this, will
remember all too well the horrors of needing a loo on Sunday afternoon. This is
emphatically not a place to take corporate guests, which is a pity because in other
respects it could be turned into a gastronomic weekend with a bit of motor racing
thrown in.

  There will be further contrast in August when the FIA GT Championship goes to
Bernie Ecclestone’s Paul Ricard test track, which has wonderful facilities for the
teams but is not open to spectators. I have been to races with no more than a
handful of spectators, as recently as Istanbul, but I have never been to a race
where spectators (other than ‘VIP guests’, corporate sponsors in other words) are
excluded. Find a hotel on the Cote d’Azure in August? Forget it!

  It takes all sorts of contrasts to make a championship, doesn’t it?

MIchael Cotton
April 02006

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