In just over 2 weeks, Formula 1 will head to a new circuit on the streets of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Just 28 000 tickets are on sale for the ‘Grand Prix of Europe’, which the autocratic Azerbaijani government hopes will improve the international profile of its country.
Images courtesy Baku City Circuit.
The deal to race in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic on the border between Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, was signed by F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone in early 2014 and apparently facilitated by disgraced former Renault F1 boss, Flavio Briatore. Azerbaijan is the latest in a series of new F1 destinations with large oil reserves and dubious human rights records (think Russia, UAE and Bahrain).
The Azerbaijanis are paying the Formula 1 Group a hefty annual sanctioning fee ($50m USD?) for the privilege of hosting the race. They are also pumping big money into a slick marketing campaign. This is against a recent backdrop of falling oil prices, which may put the long-term future of the race in jeapordy. In late 2015, the Azerbaijani government removed a long-standing peg to the US dollar due to the falling oil price. This saw the local currency – the Manat – fall 32% in a day. It hasn’t recovered. With race tickets priced in $USD, the government was forced to offer local fans a 40% discount on ticket prices to compensate.
‘The primary objective is to promote our city from the tourist point of view and investments.’ Arif Rahimov, promoter and CEO of Baku City Circuit.
The Grand Prix of Europe takes place on June 17-19, just a week after the Canadian Grand Prix. It remains to be seen just how much of a logistical nightmare it will be to get the teams and their equipment to from Montreal to Baku in such a short period of time. The race is also being held on the same weekend as the iconic 24 hours of Les Mans (and during the Euro 2016 football tournament).
Modeling themselves on the likes of Singapore and Abu Dhabi, the race organizers have booked some big names for their race weekend concerts; Chris Brown headlines on June 17, Enrique Iglesias on June 18 and Pharrell Williams on June 19. Fernando Alonso is an ambassador for the event and took a guided tour in March before the start of the 2016 season, stating “I feel absolutely confident in saying that Baku City Circuit is going to be the most memorable circuit on the F1 calendar this year.”
Hermann Tilke designed the Baku City Circuit, which benefits from a prominent city center location close to the shore of the Caspian Sea and features long straights and several tight turns in the city’s historic Old Town. At 6.006km, it will be the second-longest F1 circuit after Spa Francorchamps and is also projected to be the fastest street circuit in the world.
The local authorities have decided to offer special visas to the F1 circus (including fans holding a race ticket); an express online service costing $50 USD or a visa-on-arrival service costing €35 for citizens of Schengen zone countries.
> Getting There
The Heydar Aliyev International Airport is located 20km northeast of Baku. The national flag carrier, Azerbaijan Airlines, flies to Beijing, Berlin, London, Milan, New York JFK, Paris and Prague. Other notable routes include: Moscow (Aeroflot), Dubai (flydubai), Qatar (Qatar Airways), Istanbul (Turkish Airlines), Frankfurt (Lufthansa) and Budapest (Wizz Air).
The rationale offered by the race organizer for only offering 28 000 race tickets is that the city has a limited number of hotel rooms (9500, of which 2500 will be taken by F1-related personnel). Fans were also advised to reserve their accommodation before buying race tickets, but with a few weeks till the race, there is still good availability on Booking.com (200 properties are at 72% capacity). !). There’s a good selection on offer from a bed in a hostel dorm ($5 per night!) up to 5-star luxury hotels averaging $400-500 per night.
> Buying Tickets
Of the 28 000 tickets on sale for the inaugural race this June, 20 000 are in grandstands and 8000 are General Admission. The cheapest General Admission tickets (priced at $89 USD) have already sold out. The grandstand tickets are priced from $200 for Bulvar (sold out) and Khazar up to $590 for five categories of Main Grandstand tickets.