Analysis: How Baku proved to be a success for F1
There's little doubt that the first European GP in Baku was a successful event, one that earned a positive response from members of the visiting F1 circus, most of whom had little idea what to expect.
The city proved to have a lot to offer visitors, especially the picturesque old town and its medieval walls, which provided iconic views for TV cameras and photographers. The sheer scale of the circuit itself was impressive – this was 6km through the heart of a major city, not some forgotten docklands area like Valencia.
The size was perhaps one of the drawbacks. It meant everything was so spread out, while a lack of access via footbridges made getting around difficult. The track was also completely closed off to traffic and pedestrians throughout, in stark contrast to Monaco, where fans can stroll around in the evenings.
It was obviously a huge inconvenience for locals, and the restrictions on access meant there was a lack of a buzz, especially around the paddock area, once the track action stopped.
The circuit itself received a thumbs-up from drivers, who found it unexpectedly challenging. By the end of Friday, everyone bar Rio Haryanto had recorded at least one off-track incident on the official timing screens, and that continued all the way into qualifying.
It was thus surprising that after the first two days of action only three drivers had actually damaged their cars, namely Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez. It probably says something about how tricky Baku was that these were the same guys who finished on the podium at Monaco...
As Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said: “One of the areas where F1 needs to improve is nobody wants to see racing on supermarket parkings, with run-off areas that are miles wide and where you can rejoin if you make a mistake. This makes all the difference.”
The two GP2 races provided some sensational action, with safety car restarts bunching up the field and triggering further carnage. Naturally expectations were raised for the Grand Prix itself, especially as it was clear that the ultra long straight made for great passing opportunities at Turn 1.
Alas the headline event fell a little flat as Nico Rosberg won at a canter, and the only yellow flags came when cars parked with mechanical failures. Unfortunately that left TV viewers who tuned in only for the race itself with the impression that this was another Valencia, which was manifestly not the case. A shunt or two and the odd safety car would have made all the difference to the show.
Of course there were issues with kerbs causing tyre damage, and the pit lane drain that was collected by Valtteri Bottas, but that sort of thing even happens at established events like Monaco, and the problems were quickly addressed by the FIA and the organisers.
Race promoter "ecstatic"
Inevitably there were some hassles behind the scenes, but overall things went pretty smoothly for the organisers.
“I'm ecstatic,” said race promoter Arif Rahimov, Ecclestone's point of contact throughout. “It was a great event, we had a lot of good feedback, and I think we achieved all our targets. We made everyone happy, we made all the stakeholders happy.
“The race was great, the marshals did their job well. It can only get better now. We had some small internal issues that weren't visible to everybody else, but these issues occur.
"It's a learning curve. You have to really implement it to understand what's not working according to the plan.”
Like Bernie – and indeed track designer Hermann Tilke – Rahimov insisted that there was very little that he would do differently in 2017.
“There is always something to do better. We can do better checks on the track, things like the kerbs and the drains. Those are little things, as long as we get them sorted. And everything did work on Sunday, which is great.”
There was some chatter from the drivers about run-off areas, although Charlie Whiting went some way to addressing that in the drivers briefing, where he explained why certain things were arranged as they were.
The bottom line is that like Monaco or any other street circuit, space is limited. “We really tried to utilise as much of the space that we had,” said Rahimov.
“Whether that was to do with the sporting side, where you had the run-offs and escape roads, or the commercial side, the actual grandstands. We tried to utilise pretty much every single centimetre.
"We can probably have some fine tuning next year, and get a tiny bit more, but it's not going to be a huge difference.”
One thing that was very obvious that those grandstands were far from full. Of course, given the investment made in the event, and the relatively modest number of tickets on sale anyway, gate receipts were not exactly going to mean the difference between success and failure – the whole point was to advertise Baku on TV.
But a bigger crowd, and especially more visitors from overseas, would not have hurt.
“We haven't sold out,” Rahimov admitted. “I think for next year we did the biggest marketing we could, which was hosting a great race – as the shots were beautiful.
“I think next year more people will want to come to see the race. The same for locals. There were a lot of people who never went to a Grand Prix and didn't know what to expect.
"Now they understand the magnitude of the event, that it's a huge international event, and a very high quality event as well. I hope that will change some people's minds and bring the fans in.”
Locals may also have been a little confused by the bland European GP moniker, used after the city hosted the European Games and the Eurovision Song Contest.
It probably seemed a good idea at the time, but perhaps a more patriotic Azerbaijan GP title would be a better sell next year, helping to give the race more of an identity.
It wasn't just spectators who were missing. Few corporate guests came from overseas, and it was very noticeable that a lot of “non-essential” paddock regulars – marketing folk, driver managers and family members, and assorted hangers-on – were missing.
The proximity of Canada and uncertainties about what to expect in Baku clearly had an impact, but having seen that it's actually a good weekend, they may well come next year.
Night race unnecessary
Rahimov is well aware of the desire from some quarters for a night race, but is not sure it would be the right move.
“Having a night race adds quite a bit of complication. The lighting that you needs for broadcast is very complicated. Obviously it needs to be installed and dismantled every year, like they do it in Singapore.
"It's around €20m – that's what I heard from other promoters, that's around the right figure – and it's additional power.
“In Singapore they wanted this unique selling point. I think we have enough in this city to sell it. Maybe some time down the line, when people get used to this track and they conceive it as just another race to go to – if they do – we'll try to stir things up and introduce a new element to it.
"I think at the moment for the next five or six years it's going to be a must-go-to event, and what we have is enough.”
One thing which probably didn't help the perception of Baku on TV was the 5pm start.
For the GP2 races and the earlier F1 practice sessions the track looked sensational in bright sunshine, but come the race time shadows from buildings and trees had the effect of dulling everything down somewhat.
That start time remains flexible, as does the date – the obvious wish being that next year it won't clash with the Le Mans 24 Hours.
“We'll figure it out next year, depending on the date," Rahimov added. "We'll see if we can adjust.
"We wanted a date in the summer, that's what we asked for from Mr E. Obviously everybody enjoyed the weather, which is what we wanted. And we have longer days, so we can shift it a bit further towards night time.
"I think if you start later on during the day it creates a different kind of effect for the spectators where you finish with an evening atmosphere and you can go to the concert. I personally think that the time worked well, but we'll see for next year.”
It seems inevitable that for logistical reasons the race will remain next to Montreal on the calendar, given that they are both flyaways, but Rahimov hopes that next year Ecclestone can find a way to put a free weekend between them.
“I don't think we're going to be back-to-back with Canada next year, because it was very challenging to bring all the stuff in by Tuesday, especially taking into account it was the first race," he said.
"Obviously we had to learn how to manage things in the paddock. It went well, but ideally we would have had a gap before and after.”
Overall things could hardly have gone better for the Baku organisers. And for all those involved in the project, the spectacular overhead TV shots must have made it all worthwhile.
“It's a huge element of national pride when you see your city from above, knowing it's being broadcast to many hundreds of countries, that's what it's all about," concluded Rahimov.
"The government and investors are very happy with the race I think. It's a good start and I think it could continue this way.”
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