Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express.....
I must have the word ‘journalist’ tattooed on my forehead, in ink visible only to
taxi drivers. Landing at Marrakech airport in the 45 degree heat of a
Moroccan summer, I was escorted past the Mercedes E-class taxis and
placed neatly in a Fiat Uno with no mats and a failing water pump. We
squeaked out of the airport past the police guards who were quietly dying in
the shadow of whatever street sign they could find.
It did not take long to work out that the rules of the road were simple; you
can pretty much do what you like, as long as you use your horn. The one
thing you cannot do, however, is jump a red light, which is what another taxi
driver did because he was distracted by a conversation he was having with
my driver while negotiating a bus, three cyclists and a horse. Helmets on the
mopeds were considered optional, as were seat belts. This was fortunate as,
given the state of the taxi, I wanted to be able to jump out before impact.
The taxi ride to the Place Jemaa El Fna in Medina, the magnificent old walled
section of the city was curtailed because it was bloody hot and the market
was closed. Instead, I was taken to the Kasbah, a shopping section within
the rabbit warren of streets, in which I could buy the toothpaste I had
forgotten to pack. I would also have been able to buy a motor cycle without a
Puncture repair appeared to be the main business in the Kasbah, followed
closely by sitting on an upturned bucket and smoking. I was taken to a
herbalist who could make up an aphrodisiac from the root of a mandrake
(“have it in tea, and ten minutes, whoopee time”, apparently). I could not see
that as being well received back home so I bought a perfume bottle for Mrs
I had an entertaining conversation in French with the taxi driver on the way to
the Medina (certainly he laughed a lot) but on the way back I decided to
walk. Half way home, in the desert heat, I realised my mistake and sought a
camel to take me home instead.
From the poverty and cramped way of life of the Medina, the new sections of
Hivernage and Gueliz are in stark contrast, boasting huge, luxurious and
expensive hotels, leafy suburbs. though I didn’t have the time or the
inclination to explore, I am sure that the business quarters are attracting
massive foreign investment. From a country that produced barely 100 films
in 30 years, now Morocco aims to host 40 a year by 2020, says Easyjet’s in
flight magazine. Ridley Scott used the country in House of Lies and Martin
Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. Paul Greengrass
filmed an action sequence for the Bourne Ultimatum in Tangier.
The streets in the new section were wide, straight and busy. Jay walking for
those on foot was compulsory because otherwise I would still be there, dead
from the heat. Here, in Morocco, race organisers are preparing to build a
grade two category street track which will host the third race of the 2009
World Touring Car Championship.
The ticket prices for the WTCC race will reflect the difference in wealth
between the old and the new sections of the city, and I do not doubt that it
will be a fantastic success, on the same level as Porto in 2007. Organisers
are talking of 100,000 spectators, and they may be right to be optimistic, but
in conversation with Eurosport hierarchy, the same cannot be said of the
The television company part owns the championship, and has hired very good
people to address two main problems with the WTCC. In discussions with
these executives over a bottle of white, some vodka and something else
which was pink, it was apparent that neither will be an easy fix.
The first is that it is not considered to be superior to the national
championships. The British Touring Car Championship, with Alan Gow back
at the helm, is steadily growing in stature once again. Television and crowd
figures are rising, the popularity is returning, investment is increasing. So
why would anyone move to the WTCC? As talented as Andy Priaulx and
James Thompson are behind the wheel of a touring car, they don’t have
massive national support in the same way as a driver such as, for example,
Matt Neal. Should Neal make the move to World Championship, and
somehow find a way to take his national fan base with him, it would have a
significant effect on the WTCC. And the same goes for the Belgian, Italian,
Swedish, Danish and Asian series.
The second issue that needs addressing is the lack of an iconic race. The
Australians have Sandown and Bathurst. The DTM has the Norisring and
Hockenheim. The American Le Mans Series has Sebring and the Petit Le
Mans. The Le Mans Series trades on the name of Le Mans. The FIA GT
Championship has the Spa 24 hours. But the WTCC’s best attended circuit
race is Brno in the Czech Republic. That has a long history of touring car
racing, especially with the old, daunting and now defunct street circuit which
winds its way through the hills on the outskirts of the city. Can the WTCC
create its iconic race on the new track?
What are the alternatives? The Spa 24 hours has a long touring car history,
but would be too expensive for the many private teams in the WTCC, and
manufacturers probably wouldn’t go for the idea either. A 1000km race on the
Nurburgring’s Nordschleife ticks some of the boxes, though would suffer from
the popularity of the 24 hour race which draws more than 200,000 spectators
to the forests within the majestic old circuit. Exotic locations such as Dubai
do not suit brands such as Seat, and the series looks set to lose Macau if
local elections go the wrong way later this year.
The WTCC needs to create one event during its calendar which stands out
beyond anything else, which will draw drivers from national championships,
and will draw spectators in their hundreds of thousands. To have immediate
impact, it needs a race which will be different, longer, faster, better and more
prestigious, offering a massive prize, an exotic location and millions of
pounds of investment. It needs a true Grand Prix, Grand Prize, a place where
racing will be embraced by the locals, has support from the highest echelons
of the country and is of value to the manufacturers. It needs a place with
passion and character and you don’t get more charismatic than a Moroccan
If there isn’t a race immediately available, it needs to create one. There are
worse places to start such an event than Marrakech.
Andrew Cotton, July 2008