Baku, You Did Not Disappoint
Baku, 28 metres below sea level and on the edge of the Caspian Sea, was the destination for the 8th round of the F1 calendar. In Montreal on Monday morning many a traveller asked me, “What’s it like?” “It’s going to surprise you” was my reply, surprise was an understatement. I can see this being a new favourite on the F1 calendar. As we flew in over the Caucasus Mountains varying from snow peaked to lush green over a short period you can tell it’s a rugged and difficult place to get to, but as you bank in over the Caspian Sea you can see the jewel that is Baku. Built on the oil and gas industry but cultivated for the European visitor, this former Soviet satellite state broke away in 1991 and carved itself independence and it hasn’t looked back. In recent times they have hosted the Eurovision Song Contest, the European Games and now their first Grand Prix, followed in 2020 by hosting the two semi-finals of the roaming European Championships.
From the very off Baku was open and ready for business! All through the airport there were welcomes to Baku and at immigration, some local helpers to make sure we were all through swiftly. Once bags were collected we were off to the hotel with our local driver, Habil. As you come in from the airport you can see glistening glass buildings dotting the landscape, surrounded by older, more traditional buildings – the personification of change being played out the closer you come to downtown. Baku is certainly a city on the up! F1 on a street circuit always brings some challenges for the local driver as all of a sudden their normal routes are shut and chaos ensues while they and their fellow travellers try to work out where to go. The local security was perhaps a little overzealous on a Tuesday and it seemed all routes to the main hotels, JW Marriott and the Hilton which flank either end of the paddock, were closed for all traffic. Luckily in the minibus ahead was Habil’s uncle (it seems driving is a family affair in Baku), who was a fairly persuasive chap, and after some back and forth he produced an F1 pass and the gates opened and we were through on his coat tails!
Habil wasn’t really an F1 fan but he had seen a few races. It was amazing to see his eyes light up as we were suddenly on the track, admittedly going the wrong way round it, but he can say he has driven an F1 track and tackled turn 1 and 2 fairly well!
The complexities of getting F1 from Montreal to Baku in roughly 48 hours cannot be underestimated. In that short ride round the track you get a small insight in what it involves – 100’s of containers spilling out their contents and team members hard at work a mere two hours after they had got off the plane, throw into the mix a new venue and a circuit team coming to terms with the exacting details of a Formula 1 race, and you have an intense few days. Over the next day the freight arrived, the teams worked non-stop and by the end of Wednesday the paddock was pretty much set, garages built and hospitality suites were pristine. It’s such an incredible sight to see the teams put a paddock together in such a short space of time and amazing when you think that 72 hours ago the teams and their kit were in Montreal!
Thursday brings a paddock that looks much the same as any other, but with the back drop of the Government building looming over us, it gave you a chill of excitement for the weekend to come. In addition, there were flashes of the track on the TVs as FOM went through their camera shots, highlighting the first look at turn 8 and the narrow section going up past the 12th century castle, a mere 6 metres wide! Most of the teams walk the track on Thursday and normally some of the drivers but not all, the more senior fraternity have generally been there and done that so there isn’t much to learn, but not in Baku! Everyone was out to have a look and the feedback was pretty interesting; the older drivers voiced concern on the narrow section saying it was really what you would expect for an F1 track, whereas the younger drivers were excited by the raw pace of Baku.
The cars finally hit the track and it was time to see what Baku was made of; it soon became apparent that Baku would punish you. Run offs were narrow, go too deep and you were stuck doing an 18 point turn trying to get out, turn 15 coming down the hill soon became a nemesis, getting the braking wrong and pulling out of the corner left you only one place to go, doughnut alley, the quickest way out, light up the back tires and flick it round on full lock, easier said than done in a very tight space! On track action was intense and everyone was testing the limits – Riccardo sticking it in the wall at the end of FP1 and Perez at the end of the second session showed that Baku was going to be unforgiving. With the arrival of Saturday came the first real action. The GP2 race started like the opening of the doors at your local ASDA on Black Friday, a demented charge with anyone in the way getting trampled underfoot. As the dust settled in Turn 1 there were 5 cars stranded, two partly on top of each other and a drivers wandering around trying to work out were it all went wrong, many F1 neutrals felt we could be in for something special!
Qualifying came and went and we saw Rosberg calmly take pole while his team mate struggled and ended up in 10th. But with the Mercedes being so dominant on pace, it was felt amongst the Paddock that Lewis still had a chance with most of us believing that we were in for a safety car led race as Baku would take no prisoners. The GP2 race on Sunday morning again whetted our appetite for the approaching F1 race. The long start finish race and a complete lack of understanding on where the overtaking line was, once the safety car went in, meant we were treated to an episode of the Whacky Races for about 8 laps with each restart resulting in a pile of cars littering the run off at turn 1. At one point the field was 6 cars abreast heading into turn one, with a couple of drivers forgetting that braking was necessary for turning.
Unfortunately the F1 race didn’t live up to the billing of a demolition derby – we should probably marvel at the skill and control of the kings of the track as they racked up lap after lap without incident. The biggest excitement being Lewis getting stuck in the wrong mode and not being able to race with full power, which was frustrating for most of us as we hoped for a charging Mercedes to spice it up. The track has the potential to offer up some amazing racing and with the data the teams have collected this year it will allow them to come back in 2017 and be better prepared.
Outside of the excitement on the track, Baku was proving to be a real treat for the F1 traveller. The old town is spectacular, although I heard some parts are not as old as we might imagine, and has all been developed with a subtle old School European feel. The JW Marriott was embracing the two major sporting events ongoing at the same time (Formula 1 and Euro 2016), dinner could be accompanied by Hungary vs Austria or England vs Wales on the big screen outside, giving the restaurant a buzz of multi-cultural fun. With many an F1 driver to be spotted, Hülkenberg cheering on Germany in a 0 – 0 draw with Poland, Palmer cheering England to victory over the Welsh or Kevin Magnussen and his trainer playing a strange intense card game for many hours while the world wandered by, it was rare to see the drivers so prevalent at a hotel but great to see them mixing with the crowd and as intensely focused on football or cards as the rest of us.
On Monday as we headed to the airport, Baku was waking up from its first experience of F1. The most of us happy with our time here and already looking forward to coming back next year, I’m sure they will learn a lot from the first race and this will only improve our experience each time we return. The airport on Monday was controlled chaos, but once we were through the worst of it we sailed out of Baku with most of the newly built airport to ourselves. As departures go, it was a dream.
Baku is certainly a great addition to the F1 calendar and I would probably choose it for my next summer holiday. But, anyone going there for a short visit on business will have a great time – excellent hotels, nice restaurants and very welcoming people. See you next year Baku!
Nick Warren, Director
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