Turkey's new circuit wins praise from drivers

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The Independent Online

You would expect myriad armed policemen and security guards in a country where terrorist bombings have recently done their worst to disrupt the crucial tourism industry, so it was no surprise to learn that there have been 4,000 independent guards, 2,000 military police and 800 Istanbul City police (on lucrative overtime) safeguarding the Formula One circus after it hit town on Wednesday.

It was the dun cow trying to race the traffic on the hard shoulder of the motorway on the way to Formula One's latest opulent new venue yesterday morning that struck the jarring note, especially as nobody seemed too bothered by their unrestrained bovine rival. Welcome to the inaugural Turkish Grand Prix.

When you consider the timescale in which the Turkish Otodrom has been put together, from architect Herman Tilke's initial concept to its awesome conclusion, it is little short of startling and a firm indication of what a suitable budget - said to have been around the €200m (£140m) mark - can do when it is spent sensibly. To a man, the drivers love the place.

Jacques Villeneuve thought it "a great track. It has a nice flow to it, a wide variety of corners, and is really good to drive."

The championship leader Fernando Alonso said: "The circuit is challenging, with blind entries to corners at turns one and three, plus a really unusual difficult corner at turn eight which is different to any other track."

BAR-Honda's Jenson Button said: "I enjoyed my first real taste of the new circuit and it has a very good layout. There are certain areas that are a little bit bumpy - especially braking into turn 12, the last complex of corners - but generally it feels quite exciting to drive. It will certainly be interesting in racing conditions, when the weather is expected to be much hotter than we've experienced here today."

The spectators had a pretty good time too, especially those prescient enough to position themselves by turns eight or 10 where most of the off-track action was centred. And it involved some of the sport's most respected names, as they pushed the envelope and explored a changing level of grip on a track that was still quite dirty and features a lot of corners where the drivers cannot see the turn-in point until they are right on top of it.

Commitment and attack are the name of the game here, and Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen, Rubens Barrichello and Juan Pablo Montoya were among those who erred at times.

While the usual faces featured at the top of the times - Friday testers Ricardo Zonta for Toyota and Pedro de la Rosa for McLaren set the pace from regular McLaren racers Montoya and Raikkonen and Button - it also provided the canvas for some stunning artistry from Tonio Liuzzi. The Italian, still unaccountably held on the sidelines by his Red Bull team in favour of Christian Klien, comfortably outpaced both the young Austrian and team leader David Coulthard despite running an inferior aerodynamic specification. In the closing minutes he bulled his way past Alonso by a thousandth of a second to snatch an impressive sixth place.

"It's not the case that we are pushing one driver harder than another," hedged the team principal Christian Horner, who is known to rate Liuzzi very highly. "But Christian had an unfortunate sequence of events since he got back in the car after Tonio raced it earlier this year. He was prevented from racing in Indianapolis and retired with an electrical problem on the first lap of the French Grand Prix and then had an altercation in the first corner in Hungary recently with Mr Villeneuve, which was no fault of his own, so we felt it was right to give him another couple of races and see how he performs."

Clearly, however, Liuzzi staked his claim in no uncertain terms yesterday to a full-time ride alongside Coulthard in 2006.

While Sir Frank Williams once again affirmed his implacable intention to have Button driving for him in 2006, after they spoke on the telephone earlier in the week and he rejected the Englishman's impassioned pleas not to be held to his contract, the BAR-Honda team are preparing to explore the maximum straight-line speed capability of a Formula One car.

Between the Brazilian and Japanese Grands Prix in late September and early October, they will take one of their racers to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. On the famed track where Sir Malcolm and Donald Campbell, fellow Britons George Eyston and John Cobb, and Americans Art Arfons, Craig Breedlove and Gary Gabelich fought their own jousts with ultimate speed, BAR will seek a target of 400kmh (250mph).

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