BAKU your first look

F1 Racing - - BAKU -

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-efciently. 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 trafc 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 Jeanls. 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 trafc. 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 ofcial­dom when For­mula 1 rolls in to town…

“Last year [2013] was difcult – very difcult,” 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 denitely 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 chang 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 trafc 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 trafc 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 denitely 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

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