BAKU your first look
Transcontinental Azerbaijan will host the European Grand Prix next year along the streets of its capital city, Baku. And we’ve been there already… WORDS STUART CODLING PICTURES HERMANN TILKE
The windows of Baku’s Emporio Armani shop rattle as a McLaren roars past towards the nishing line… But this isn’t a premonition of 2016, when Azerbaijan will host the European Grand Prix on the streets of its capital city. It’s now.
Azerbaijan isn’t an obvious tourist destination – they’re trying to change that – so the chances are that you know very little of this young republic, save that it was once under Soviet control; it is oil-rich, courtesy of the vast reserves lying below the Caspian Sea; and it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012. By way of fact-nding, F1 Racing is moonlighting in the world of roofed racing cars, observing an annual event that’s whetted the government’s appetite for motor racing here: the Baku World Challenge GT race.
Hence the McLaren blasting down what will become the start-nish straight of the F1 circuit isn’t an MP4-29 but a noisy GT3 version of the MP4-12C, travelling in convoy with a multitude of other hotted-up exotica. Racing along these particular streets won’t happen until 2016; the GT circuit is in a different part of town, but they’re making the short commute to the city centre in an organised parade to drum up business. But the early signs are all good: there’s a sizeable crowd, and they haven’t come to hurl rocks at the racers for having the streets closed off.
The area of Baku where the grand prix will be held has been extensively redeveloped in recent years, although it abuts the older, well-preserved walled city that the track will orbit in the nal sector. First impressions are that when F1 rolls into town it will look great on camera, in contrast with, say, the former home of the European GP, the unlamented Valencia circuit. The tree-lined main straight presents a vista of modern architecture and designer boutiques on one side, with a leafy pedestrianised seafront boulevard on the other. Even with concrete barriers in place, only the most unimaginative photographers could fail to conjure distinctive imagery.
The architect of the circuit that will host the European Grand Prix from 2016 is, naturally, Hermann Tilke, but the man who laid the foundation for top-level racing here will be equally familiar to long-term racing fans: Thierry Boutsen. It’s 21 years since he left F1, but the three-time grand prix winner has barely changed; the wrinkles on his face might be etched a little deeper but the bouffant hair is still immaculately arranged, even as he removes that distinctive Stefan Bell-of-inspired crash helmet from his head after giving VIPs a ride in a Lotus-branded two-seater formula car.
“I’ve visited Azerbaijan a lot on business,” he says. “It’s a beautiful and interesting place. Baku has some fantastic modern architecture as well as a historic centre; it feels like a very dynamic city. I realised it would make a very good venue for a street race.”
Impressions of the wide Baku pitlane (right) and Turns 9-10 (far right), which runs through the ancient walled city and is described by circuit designer Tilke as “extremely narrow”
You may wonder what a former Formula 1 driver was doing here on business. The reason is inextricably linked with the process that’s driving this country into a more prominent position on the international stage: oil and gas wealth. Boutsen founded an aviation brokerage company in 1997, selling private planes to the rich and famous, and it has been his principal line of business since 1999, when he stopped racing altogether after injuring his back in an accident at the Le Mans 24 Hours. As you can imagine, there are plenty of movers and shakers in the oil-prospecting trade in this part of the world, all eager to acquire private jets either as transport or as an asset that can be managed tax-efciently. Boutsen’s Baku light-bulb moment came at the end of 2012 when he witnessed a small-scale GT race being held on the streets around Government House, the imposing building that will also be a feature of the coming Formula 1 circuit. Organised by City Challenge, a multi-event company that had also organised street races in Bucharest, the race attracted quite a few frontrunning teams from the FIA GT Championship. But the track itself, which packed 16 corners – mostly rst-gear right-angles or chicanes – into not much more than a mile, didn’t nd favour with drivers. Neither were the locals happy about the trafc chaos wrought by the road closures.
Back in Monaco, Boutsen icked through his Rolodex and got on the phone to Spa 24 Hours impresario Jean-François Chaumont and Belgian race promoter Renaud Jeanls. Both readily admit that at the time, neither of them could even have located Azerbaijan on a map. But with nancial backing from local businesses and the approval of the government, they found a better location and put together a package that would attract a decent grid. Teams granted entry would have their transport costs greatly subsidised and their equipment not unduly delayed by customs – this latter point being a recurrent bugbear in parts of the world where motor racing has yet to take root.
Boutsen, who won the 1989 Australian Grand Prix for Williams on the streets of Adelaide, deployed his street-racing nous to help create a circuit that would be large and fast enough to challenge drivers, close enough to the city centre to attract spectators, but not so in the thick of things that it would paralyse the city’s trafc. The result would not pass muster for Formula 1 because the road surface and run-off merit only FIA Grade 2 status, plus some parts are very narrow. However, the two events held on it since 2013 have successfully laid the ground for more top-level motorsport in Baku and acted as a debugging exercise. In 2013, for instance, the event fell drastically behind schedule when the local authorities had the roads jet-washed overnight because they thought the rubber laid down on the track surface in the braking areas looked ugly. This would only have been a minor inconvenience had the track not then iced over in places where it was shaded by buildings. Hopefully these lessons will be retained in the memory of ofcialdom when Formula 1 rolls in to town…
“Last year  was difcult – very difcult,” says Stéphane Ratel, whose eponymous company runs various tintop and single-seater championships, including the Blancpain Sprint Series that races at Baku. “But they adapted very quickly and this year there have been no problems. Last year it was complicated because they didn’t have the experience of constructing the circuit, so they didn’t actually close the roads until Friday night – okay, the concrete for the walls was there, but the kerbs hadn’t been laid down. We couldn’t convince them that it was impossible.
“This year, the roads were closed on Wednesday. Big difference! You have the time to prepare your track and to be ready, to get your evacuation procedures in place. It’s a learning curve. We hope to race here again in 2015, and by then, for sure, they’ll be ready for F1. The track will be in a different place, but they will have the experience of the organisation – and, just as importantly, the marshals will have experience as well.
“It’s denitely brought racing to the attention of the public here; there’s greater awareness of the sport. I think if the grand prix is successful, maybe after one or two years they might build a permanent circuit outside the city. Who knows?”
Visiting Azerbaijan is a fascinating two-tone experience because for all its manifest wealth and enthusiasm for
attracting visitors, many aspects of its shuttered Soviet past – it declared independence from the USSR in 1991 – remain. Entry entails an unholy level of bureaucratic faff – invitation letters, proof of employment and so on – and you’ll have to pay £160 to get your passport back with a visa in place within ten working days. Expect a minor Twitter storm as the noisier elements of the F1 media set furious nger to keypad on the bus back from the consulate. There may be some chang over the nancial arrangements, too: Azerbaijan’s currency, the manat, can be obtained only once inside the country.
Red tape aside, Azerbaijan is easy to get to from the UK; British Airways runs a daily direct service to Baku from Heathrow, but there are less costly options such as Turkish Airlines, connecting in Istanbul. From Baku’s airport it’s a short run into the city itself, and from F1 Racing’s experience of the roads – Parisian trafc density, Milanese etiquette – this city is best explored on foot. This is easy thanks to the broad, tree-lined seafront boulevard that stretches from the Crystal Hall (venue of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest) and National Flag Square (home to the second largest agpole in the world and the 70m x 35m national ag that ripples atop it) all the way to Freedom Square, where the F1 paddock will be situated.
We’re told it’s possible to experience three seasons in one
day in Baku, thanks to the interaction of the steep hills in its westerly parts with the prevailing winds – the cold Khazri from the north and the warm Gilavar from the south – that blow in off the Caspian Sea. The peninsula itself offers little protection from the year-round breeze, and the residents of Baku are clearly accustomed to it: joggers and cyclists on the boulevard just lean in to the wind and get on with the job.
The dumbbell-shaped, anticlockwise Formula 1 circuit layout has a dual character. The eastern side, which is concentrated around modern streets with big-name hotels and retail emporia, is largely at and has a predominance of right-angle bends. Sector 2, where it meets the ancient walled settlement, is where we nd the area described by Hermann Tilke as “extremely narrow”. It’s also exceedingly steep, perhaps more so than the run from Ste Dévote to Massenet in Monaco, with a challenging jiggle between historic buildings that would give UNESCO observers a heart attack.
Having run along the top edge of the walled city, the circuit then dives left, past the ancient baths and Juma Mosque, sharply downhill. At present this section is cobbled and trafc negotiates it at not much more than jogging pace. Once back at sea level it turns left for a largely at-out blast back to Government House and the pitlane.
“It’s going to be great,” says Grand Prix Drivers’ Association chairman Alex Wurz, a frequent visitor to Baku since his Test & Training International company is training all the drivers for the inaugural European Games, which will be held here in June 2015. “They’re trying hard to get everything right. Central Asia is a massive, growing market; we can’t ignore it.
“My rst experience here was of positive surprise. It’s denitely the most advanced of the breakaway Soviet states – there’s a growing middle class and a sort of Cannes vibe to Baku itself. They’ve been good to deal with; we should give them a chance to present themselves.”
Many fans bemoan the expansion of the F1 calendar to far-ung locations where there’s little motor-racing culture and little atmosphere. Baku feels like it’s nearly ready to prove a lot of people wrong.
Sectors 1 and 3 are fast and take in Baku’s modern centre; sector 2 (top) runs through the narrow historic quarter