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 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.”