Bernie Ecclestone, his white shirt immaculate as ever, grey slacks impeccably pressed, no bead of perspiration upon his brow despite an ambient temperature nudging 30C, smiled benignly and shook the local dignitary's hand. He is, of course, well practised in this particular art, having welcomed Malaysia, Bahrain and China into the exclusive club of F1 in recent years. "At last," he said as Turkey became the latest member, "we have the sort of circuit that will sort the men from the boys."
By implication that does not say much for the designer, Herman Tilke, who has earned rather a lot of money creating elegant masterpieces across the globe for all of these ambitious newcomers, but the Turkish Otodrom in Istanbul Park really is something rather special, his finest achievement yet.
Its overall architecture is no match for Sepang or Shanghai, but the track itself takes no prisoners and has already been compared favourably with Spa-Francorchamps and Suzuka. And yesterday afternoon it left some of the sport's big names feeling rather emasculated. Jacques Ville-neuve, Takuma Sato, Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher all had cause to feel embarrassed about their performances as they qualified 18th, 17th, 14th and 13th respectively. Subsequently the stewards moved Sato to the back of the grid for impeding Mark Webber's qualifying lap.
The first grand prix in Turkey has been billed as "one lap, two continents", on account of Istanbul being partly in Europe and partly in Asia, and these four could be forgiven for feeling as if they were in two places at once.
Kimi Raikkonen put in a flawless performance to grab pole position for McLaren, shrugging off lurid tabloid allegations of his latest deviation from the straight and narrow path of righteousness in the interests of enhancing his skills in dealing with things in multiples.
He was the last man to run in the starting order for qualifying, after winning the recent Hungarian Grand Prix, and therefore enjoyed the best track conditions. His lap of 1min 26.797sec was sufficient to ease ahead of the Renaults of Giancarlo Fisichella and Fernando Alonso, the Italian outpacing the Spaniard after starting the session 12th to the points leader's 10th. Alonso lapped in 1:27.050, which Fisichella just beat with 1:27.039. After his retirement in Hungary Juan Pablo Montoya was the fourth man out in the session, and thus did a fine job to take fourth on the grid with 1:27.352.
The main thrust of this afternoon's race is thus a McLaren versus Renault encounter, which is as it should be given the battle for the drivers' and constructors' world championships. But Button should have been in there too.
The Englishman has been quick all weekend for BAR- Honda, the team he now does not want to leave, and had set the fastest time in the first sector when he fell foul of the myriad bumps on this new circuit. Yesterday Villeneuve described the double left-handed turn eight as "the toughest corner in racing right now, even harder than Spa's Eau Rouge or Suzuka's 130R".
Button knew that earlier in the session his team-mate Sato had messed up there after going in too fast, hitting a bump, and running very wide on the exit. So he was being ever so slightly circumspect.
"I was deliberately going in a little slower because of what had happened to Taku," he admitted. "But I hit a bump, the car bottomed out and I got some flick oversteer. Then the car got away from me on another bump in turn 10. The bumps here are pretty bad."
Earlier on Villeneuve had pushed a little too hard in turn eight and spun his Sauber Petronas, but when Michael Schumacher came out as the penultimate runner in a Ferrari that was clearly struggling for grip all weekend, he went so smoothly through the corner that it came as a surprise when he unaccountably spun two turns later.
If Turkey has quickly embraced F1, the feeling is mutual. When car-hire prices multiplied eightfold over European rates many came here expecting the worst, but the country, and Istanbul in particular, has seductive qualities and the good feelings have been reciprocated. Even the Kurdish rebel group PKK, who were expected to disrupt the event after recently setting off a bomb in Pendik, only a few miles from the track, declared a one-month ceasefire in their campaign to damage tourism in the country.
There was further cross-pollination when the Jordan team principal, Colin Kolles, was obliged to fall back on his skills in dentistry, educating local practitioners by doing a root-canal treatment on his driver Tiago Monteiro. So far it has been one of those unusual weekends in a place that has a real buzz to it. With luck that will all prove a good augury for the race, too.Reuse content