Istanbul Park (or Intercity Istanbul Park as it is now known) burst onto the scene in 2005 as the latest new circuit to play host to Formula One, built to high standards as the sport looked to expand to new markets. Considered by many to be designer Hermann Tilke's finest work, the circuit has numerous elevation changes and the challenging triple-apex Turn 8 quickly established itself as on the the great corners on the F1 calendar.
After some initial success, declining crowds saw Formula One - and pretty much every major series - disappeared. The circuit entered a period in doldrums, where it was more popular on computer simulations than in real life. After being taken over by car rental firm Intercity, its fortunes have revived, with the circuit kept primed for racing.
The coronavirus pandemic offered an unusual return to international attention, when it stepped in as a last minute host for Formula One in both 2020 and 2021.
Work on the circuit began in September 2003, when ground breaking started on the site at Akfırat on the Asian side of Istanbul, although its name is somewhat misleading; Istanbul Park is in reality a considerable distance from the city and two-hour drives are not unknown, a fact that has hindered the circuit's longer term development.
The completed circuit opened in August 2005, in time for the inaugural Turkish Grand Prix. Government backing to the tune of $27 million was matched with private funding to create the $40 million complex. Among the facilities was a 25,000-seat grandstand opposite the pits, plus entertainment and hospitality areas which could seat an additional 5,000, both above the pit garages and in the 7-storey VIP towers at either end of the pit lane. Additional temporary seating could bring the capacity to over 155,000.
The track itself departed from the Tilke-norm of having a long straight followed by a tight hairpin, instead using the considerable elevation changes of the site to create a fast and challenging course. Initially designed to be run clockwise, as per the majority of circuits, Tilke quickly realised that a more challenging course would result if the direction was switched.
Indeed, the whole circuit was designed to prove a test for the drivers; Turn 8 was deliberately made more difficult by its combination of speed, multiple-apexes and slight bumpiness, earning itself a nickname of 'Diabolica'... Elsewhere, Turn 1 was approached via a considerable descent before rising back up a hill, while the back straight featured a swooping uphill kink in the middle, which soon became known as 'Faux Rouge' in homage to the famous turn at Spa-Francorchamps.
The first Grand Prix – won by McLaren's Kimi Räikkönen – was a success, with a good crowd and plenty of praise for both the track and its facilities. However, subsequent events saw a dramatic fall in crowd numbers as the reality of staging a race in a country where average income was considerably lower than ticket prices hit home. It also didn't help that there was no ingrained motorsport tradition in Turkey and so it was no surprise when the race promoters ran into difficulties, threatening the continuation of the Grand Prix. What was a surprise was the solution; Bernie Ecclestone himself purchased the entire facility for $60 million (making it a subsidiary of Formula One Management) and pledged the race's future was secure.
In the end, even Ecclestone's promise of a 14-year deal could not save the Grand Prix as crowds declined further and further, giving the television cameras had a harder and harder time disguising the relatively deserted nature of stands. The 2011 GP would prove a final hurrah under the original contract – an epic event which saw the highest number of pit stops ever recorded (80) and the most overtaking manoeuvres in a dry race since 1983, before Sebastian Vettel emerged victorious.
Other series would also come and go over the years: from 2005 to 2007, the circuit hosted the World Touring Car Championship (2005 and 2006), DTM (2005), Le Mans Series (2005 and 2006), as well as the International GT Open and the World Series by Renault. On two wheels, MotoGP held Grands Prix from 2005-07, while World Superbikes put in a solo appearance in 2013.
In 2012, the operations and naming rights of Istanbul Park and its facilities were taken by the Intercity group, a car rental firm. A programme of improvement works and maintenance have kept the circuit race-ready, though the major thrust of its operations are now as a comprehensive automobile, motor sports and road safety centre. Nevertheless, the circuit did host rounds of the World Rallycross Championship in 2014 and 2015, though it seemed in recent years that its days hosting major events were behind it.
Like a number of other circuits across Europe, however, Intercity Istanbul Park was one of the beneficiaries of the much-disrupted Formula One season, as coronavirus effectively tore up the original calendar. It soon became clear that other Grade 1 circuits in Europe would be needed to host events and Intercity were keen to oblige. As a result, the Turkish Grand Prix will return on November 15 for the first time in nine years. In preparation, the circuit was given a complete resurfacing around its length, supervised by Hermann Tilke.
Unfortunately, the combination of a new, smoother surface and hard Pirelli tyres which had been allocated prior to the resurfacing added up to extremely tricky conditions for the Formula One stars. Combined with very changeable and wet weather conditions, it meant the anticipated lap record-tumbling times never materialised.
The circuit again emerged as a replacement round in 2021. Originally penned for a race in June, unfavourable restrictions saw the race postponed, then rescheduled as a replacement for the Singapore race, before a final date change pushed the race back a week in October 2021.
Following the previous year's issues, the track surface was water-blasted to create grippier conditions, though this in itself led to issues as Pirelli only became aware of the treatment after it has allocated softer tyres for the race. In the end, the weather meant this was less of an issue, with race day proving overcast with intermittent rain. Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas ran out as the winner, with Max Verstappen in second. Alpine's Esteban Ocon became the first driver in 24 years to complete a full race distance without making a pit stop (the climactic conditions meaning the usual rule mandating the use of two types of tyre was withdrawn).