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East meets west at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Károly Méhes tells us about his trip to the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku, including an impromptu appearance on Azeri television!

Compared to Monaco, Baku City Circuit is not your typical Formula 1 street circuit. It has its fair share of 90 degree corners, but also some long and wide straights, not unlike former street circuits in Dallas and Phoenix. The capital of Azerbaijan is located on the border between Europe and Asia. It’s rooted in a Muslim past, but the modern areas of the city are much more European. Some of the new skyscrapers, such as the Flame Towers, are really stunning.

Racing on the streets of a major city means chaos for residents. Main roads are closed not only for race weekend, but also for a few weeks before and after the event due to construction works. My local host tells me that the race was generally welcomed when it joined the F1 calendar in 2016, but lately there have been some dissenting voices; that the event is only for the wealthy but that the whole population pays the price. Some ministerial buildings are located within the track and you can imagine that the numerous checkpoints erected for the race don’t make life easy for the workers in these offices.

As with any street circuit, there’s a lot of walking on foot and climbing on bridges to get from A to B. Even the journalists have their fair share of running since the accreditation building, the Paddock and the press centre are rather far from each other. On the other hand, you have the chance to see Baku’s most prominent buildings and attractions – the old city walls, bastions and palaces – right next to or within the track’s limits. An added tourist bonus for visiting the circuit.

And the race has proved popular with tourists. My flight from Budapest in 2019 was packed with F1 fans. In the old town, you barely heard anyone speaking languages other than English, German or Russian – Baku is especially popular with wealthy Russians. Baku is certainly a charming destination for Formula 1. The weather is pleasant, you can eat and drink good in bars and tea houses, and if you are feeling a bit more adventurous, you can leave the glamour of the downtown era to discover the average life of the Azeris. With oriental markets, block houses and streets full of old Soviet cars like Zsigulis, Volgas and Moskwiches, it makes for an interesting diversion from the average F1 city.

I’m lucky as an accredited journalist to meet the drivers and team members, and to spend time in places where the ordinary fan cannot enter. But Baku had one new surprise in store for me. I was invited to appear on Azeri state television to discuss the race! I spoke in English, which was then translated into Azeri. A different experience for me to end a unique weekend in one of Formula 1’s most fascinating new cities.

The 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix takes place on June 4-6 without spectators. Learn more about attending the race next year: Azerbaijan Grand Prix Travel Guide

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