Three months ago, the prospect of the second Grand Prix in Azerbaijan’s history also being the last was reasonably high. Now, the chance of the race due to take place in Baku on Sunday 25 June being a longer-term prospect is slightly higher, but the feeling that it has not exactly been a spectacular success still remains. No doubt for economic reasons; which in Formula 1® count for a lot. Even with the backdrop of the seemingly infinite reserve of petroleum dollars that the Azeri Republic benefits from, the conclusion from the 2016 race was economically stark. Even to the extent that it provoked some second thoughts among the political and business classes of the country. Yes to the glamour of F1, but not at any cost.
It wasn’t really just a problem of the paying public, who were conspicuous by their absence last year, with the exception of Sunday (maybe because not even Grand Prix tickets are immune to various promotional incentives when it comes to shifting them quickly). But the financial conclusion can simply be extrapolated from the somewhat negative equation between the massive outgoings needed to host a grand prix and relatively modest revenues. Yet here we are now for the second race there. It’s return that is not especially beloved of Formula 1®’s new owners in the post-Ecclestone era, who have come out in favour of new grands prix in very built-up areas close to the capitals of Europe and America, rather than the Middle or Far East. This is a philosophy they hold with few exceptions – such as the races that are inextricably linked with Formula 1®’s history, such as Japan. It’s true however that Formula 1®’s new owners can’t allow a mass exodus of races from the championship. In 2018, there will no longer be a race in Malaysia. The return of Turkey and Germany have seemingly been taken for granted, but both are still a long way from being cast-iron certainties. So, what can this year’s race in Azerbaijan do to enhance its prospects? At least it’s moved on from being labelled the European Grand Prix last year, given that it’s not exactly in Europe, despite membership of the European Council and European Broadcasting Union (EBU).
One year ago, the race was blessed with the presence of Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev: a Premier who was extremely keen to appear as European as possible, having succeeded his father Heydar, who died in 2003, and recently nominated his beautiful wife Mehriban to be his vice president. Two events in themselves that are hardly European in outlook.
The official language is Azerbaijani, which belongs to the family of Turkic languages, and the name Azerbaijan derives from Oder-bey-can: a composition of three words of Turkish origin. Od (fire) and er (warrior) together mean ‘warrior of fire’, bey is a noble title still used today among Turkish people, while can means soul. So, the rather romantic full name is ‘soul of the noble warriors of fire’.
And this is what everything turns around: fire is a sacred cult inherited from Zoroastrianism, which was initially born in Azerbaijan and then diffused among other countries before becoming Persia’s official religion. And fire is also very heart of the image of Azerbaijan and by extension its grand prix. Fire symbolises the natural resources of petrol and gas that have created the country’s wealth. There are two places close to Baku considered sacred on account of their links with fire: Yanar Dag (the mountain that burns), where there’s an eternal flame thanks to the gas escaping from the mountain, and Atesgah: the temple of sacred fire, again built on a gas pocket that feeds perpetual fire. It’s no coincidence that Baku’s two most prominent skyscrapers, nestling on the coastline next to the marina, are decorated by illuminations at night that replicate the colours of a burning flame. And yet when it comes to a passion for motorsport, the fire is still to take hold. That’s partly down to the track itself: a street circuit featuring plenty of 90° corners, then a mixed section that goes up-and-down in the mediaeval heart of the city, with a wide variety of tight corners (especially at the beginning of the sector), which make overtaking practically impossible: especially with this year’s generation of Formula 1® cars that are 20 centimetres wider than before. Last year, top speeds were extremely high and cars were exceeding 378kph at the fastest points on the track, of which there were several: especially the long pit straight leading to the first corner. There was relatively little overtaking and around 70% of it was assisted by DRS, which delivers aerodynamic assistance to those following. Whoever’s in front stands little chance...