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Interview: Baku still a talking point as 2017 F1 season moves into archives

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Interview: Baku still a talking point as 2017 F1 season moves into archives
Dec 15, 2017, 12:31 PM

One of the things that has really struck me about the 2017 F1 season is how much 'talking points' make a difference to the way F1 is appreciated by...

One of the things that has really struck me about the 2017 F1 season is how much 'talking points' make a difference to the way F1 is appreciated by fans.

It came up in F1 head of research Matt Roberts' findings this year, that there is a large subset of the fanbase, over 30%, that really only engages with the sport when there is a big talking point. Getting them to become more committed fans is one of the main goals, by improving the show.

I noticed that Baku continues to be a talking point, not least because Sebastian Vettel keeps talking about it as his big regret from the season.

The race produced quite a few talking points in fact; the Force India duo colliding and ultimately it could have cost them a race win as they were well ahead of the ultimate winner Daniel Ricciardo at the time. Then there were the overtakes, of which there were many, especially Ricciardo's multiple overtake, which fans voted the best of the year on F1.com.

For a race that is trying to establish itself on the F1 calendar and which had some negative comments even from Liberty Media boss Greg Maffei, there is nothing better than talking points like that to start to lodge the place in fans' minds.

Baku 2018 will be keenly anticipated by fans and insiders as a result.

With that in mind, I sought out Arif Rahimov, the promoter of Baku, for some thoughts on what this year's event did for his race.

Arif Rahimov

JA: Arif, you couldn't have wished for more; a really exciting race and even now at the end of the year, Vettel is still talking about “Baku this” and “Baku that”.

AR: It was a brilliant race. Yeah, I mean, I don’t know how it was for Vettel (laughs) but in general it was a lot of fun, we had a crazy race; I think it’s the most hectic race in Formula 1 in maybe the last twenty years! I mean, can you name any other one? In the end, we had this year what we should have had in the first year. Better late than never!

And then we saw the overtake by Bottas when he overtook Stroll. Ricciardo overtook half of the grid so it was a lot of fun, and I just hope we can transfer this one to the next year. There are some things that are not up to us, it’s up to the drivers.

JA: That's interesting because what was clear this year was that the track - well mainly that big, wide, high-speed straight into Turn 1 - seemed to lend itself to action - some of those moves were what F1 should be all about; the extreme of excitement.

Everyone was saying that with the new cars and how they work, that it’s hard to pass, but why do you think the race happened as it did, do you think it's more about the drivers?

AR: I think it’s the confidence of the drivers rather than the cars. If you look at the high-speed turns, that’s what these cars were made for, right? In high-speed turns, they have more downforce and that’s what we saw in Barcelona when they were first testing and how they could get around fast corners. I think it’s more that the track has these high speed corners, like turn 13, and turn 17, 18 and 19 around the long straight, I think that’s what makes it really crazy, and maybe they feel more confidence with the cars, but they’re used to the track and now they can exploit the full car as opposed to last year when they were playing it safe.

JA: What about the reaction? Has it helped your goal to draw attention to the country? Did the fact that it was an entertaining race do much to boost the popularity of F1 in Azerbaijan?

AR: It looks like people really appreciate the race, we’ve had a huge increase in tourism, the recognition of Azerbaijan, the recognition of the Baku Street Circuit is dramatic. Wherever people go, where the locals go and they say “I’m from Azerbaijan” then everyone can relate it to the race. It puts Azerbaijan on the map, whereas before we were kinda struggling to explain exactly where Azerbaijan is, and now we have a Formula 1 race, everyone’s like “oh Baku, that’s where the Formula 1 race is”.

It’s great, and people do appreciate the fact that the recognition of Azerbaijan has risen throughout the years.

JA: So what about the fans from abroad? And where are people who are buying the tickets coming from?

AR: The majority of the audience comes from Russia, and the second place is actually the UK. Holland for Verstappen, Holland is a big factor – the Max factor – and, well, we’re happy to accept any guests from any countries coming to Azerbaijan. That’s what we’re doing, we want to have a lot of internationals coming to explore Baku and Azerbaijan and for the race.

Relations with F1's new owners, Liberty Media

JA: You did the deal with Bernie Ecclestone - you’re dealing with a different owner now and they want to make the F1 weekend more of an 'event', off the track.

Any changes in the way you deal with them compared to Bernie?

AR: That’s what we were doing from before with Bernie. From the operational perspective, the way we deal with the middle-management of Formula 1, it’s the same people pretty much so it works about the same. We deal with the same people.

The approval of different ideas, the processes are a little bit different..

JA: I hear from sponsors, promoters and so on that there are a lot more “yeses” now!

AR: Yeah! During the GP weekend last year, we had millions of new things that we sort of improvised and did on the go during the weekend, which worked really well. You can see how it changes throughout the different races now, you saw in Austin how they have the appearance of the drivers during the national anthem ceremony, and in Mexico how they have the podium with the DJ. I think every single track has experimented with new things, and we’re currently brainstorming to try and figure out what we can do to make our race a bit different and make it a bit more fun. And yes, we have a lot of “yeses” coming from FOM’s side just to make sure that the promoters can be creative and figure out new ways of making the races more exciting.

JA: In terms of the attendance, how’s it gone, what’s the forecast for ’18?

AR: From 2016 to 2017, we had a 30% increase in ticket sales, which was very promising, and we had a twofold increase in international ticket sales, which has completely amazed us. That was our target internally, but we were a bit sceptical at times like, how are we gonna achieve a two-times increase in international ticket sales? In the end, we had exactly twice more people coming over to watch the race compared to last year so yeah, that’s amazing.

JA: So it’s looking like a sustainable event?

AR: If it keeps going in this direction, continuing to grow and grow and grow, we’ll see how it goes next year – two races is a bit of an early call to make an opinion on it, but we’ll see how it goes. If it keeps growing at the same tempo then I think we will have quite the race in terms of attendance.

JA: Do you feel Liberty Media are helping you?

AR: Oh yeah, we’re talking to them constantly, talking about ways to attract the customers, attract people into the race, in the paddock club and the general audience in the grandstands – so far it’s been good, what we’ve been proposing in going forward, so it works. The relationship works.

JA: There seems to be a really good dialogue among the different countries' F1 promoters?

AR: Yeah…

JA: It’s a good exchange of information…

AR: True. Some considered us competition, I think it’s more of a compliment to have all those races around the world, all the different promoters considering us competition between the different tracks, but it’s making sure it’s promoting the sport as much as your own race and that’s what every single promoter is doing.

JA: Have you got through the negative comments about Baku in the first year?

AR: There was never a negative comment coming from Formula One Management. There was a negative comment from Liberty Media, from Greg Maffei, but I think it was a little exaggerated in the press. It was during an event that lasted one-and-a-half hours for Greg, he was speaking for a long time.

JA: But you got through it…

AR: Well, nothing came from Formula One Management, I’ve been on good terms with Chase, Ross and Sean, and everyone in middle-management, and I think when they came they realised how good a race it is. On the track and off the track, we’re doing a huge job to make sure everything runs well. They appreciate that the race is run in Azerbaijan, I think it’s a collaborative respect for each other and it works well.

Where does that Baku 2017 race rank among your list of races this season? Leave your comments in the section below
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