- The Inside Line
The Baku reality facing BernieKate Walker March 5, 2014
As part of Formula One's unending quest to cover the world in chequered flags, news emerged today of a deal with Baku, Azerbaijan, which is set to join the F1 calendar in 2015 or 2016.
"We're going to Azerbaijan," Bernie Ecclestone told the Daily Mail. "The people out there are talking about holding a race in 2015. That may be a bit soon - unless it's at the end of the season; that's a possibility. But 2016 is more likely."
While Baku is not exactly a stranger to motor-racing, having played host to the FIA GT Series in November 2013, the Azeris are not exactly au fait with the sport either. As part of their desire to show off the country to its best possible advantage during the televised broadcasts of the GT racing, organisers took the unusual decision to wash the street circuit of all those pesky bits of rubber prior to the qualifying race.
Saturday morning saw the officials elect to power-wash the track in cold conditions, leading to an ice-covered circuit when the competitors arrived. The next day's running was little better. When FIA officials and teams arrived on Sunday morning, they discovered a sopping wet track, leading to a "rain" delay and a Safety Car start. Worse, the rubber wasn't blasted off using high-pressure water. Instead, soap was a factor. Yes, soap.
To a motorsport fan (or anyone who's ever driven a car…) the idea of washing a road with soap is mind-boggling. But for a country not so well-versed in racing yet keen to make a good impression, it's an easy enough mistake to make, even if the decision to use soap was followed by a collective facepalm.
And a mistake like that is the sort of mistake you only make once. Formula One's forthcoming grand prix is highly unlikely to face the same problem. Other issues that preceded the GT race are all too familiar in the world of F1, however: delays to circuit construction (which ran over into the Saturday of the GT weekend, affecting running); issues with adequate power supplies including the odd failing generator; and concerns over the safety provisions, including the placing of barriers around the street circuit.
Which isn't to say that Formula One shouldn't go to Baku. Azerbaijan is a country rich in culture, with a long history of oil production and a recent upswing in its luxury car market. The GT series finale took place in front of large crowds, and the local organisers played a big part in promoting the race to the Azeris. It is as close to Europe as Dubai, has sufficient hotels for the F1 circus, and local attitudes to road safety will give the FIA plenty to work with on the campaign front.
Baku is an exciting prospect, and could be a positive addition to the F1 calendar. But ensuring that the grand prix is free from the basic errors that plagued last year's GT race will mean a lot of work for the FIA, and a lot of sleepless nights for Charlie Whiting. The media spotlight that accompanies Formula One is rather brighter than that which follows GT racing, and bright light is far less forgiving.