Looking back on the first ever Baku F1 race: Q&A with organiser Arif Rahimov
The organisers of the Baku Grand Prix got their wish for Formula 1 to avoid a clash with Le Mans in 2017 when the FIA published the championship’...
The organisers of the Baku Grand Prix got their wish for Formula 1 to avoid a clash with Le Mans in 2017 when the FIA published the championship’s official calendar last week and moved the race around the streets of the Azerbaijan capital back by one week.
The inaugural F1 race in Baku, the 2016 European Grand Prix that took place on a 6.003km track that features several long straights and a tight and twisty middle sector around the city’s medieval area, was won by Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg with Sebastian Vettel and Sergio Perez finishing second and third for Ferrari and Force India.
Arif Rahimov, the race’s chief executive, spoke to JAonF1 at the recent Abu Dhabi Grand Prix about the first event and discussed the lessons the organisers have learned ahead of 2017.
Q: Lots of people had positive feedback from the first event in Baku despite not really knowing what to expect – what can you tell us about what went into making the event feel the way it did?
Arif Rahimov: We tried hard to get it right, as right as we could for the first year. That’s why we did a lot of stuff in the entertainment zones, we tried to make sure that the track is nice – as much as we could because we’re bound to the streets of Baku, [so] it wasn’t a brand new track that you could design from scratch.
But still we really tried to make sure it went through all of the nice parts of the city and it was good for the racers and the audience. I think we achieved that and at the same time we were really trying hard to make sure that our huge entertainment area was full for all the audience.
It’s a big challenge because we’re in a city and doing a race in a city where you have to build everything every year and then dismantle it and put it into warehouses, that’s a huge logistical operation.
Q: What single aspect of the 2016 event and organising it did you take the most pride from?
AR: It was very important for us that all the local audience really appreciated the race itself. Obviously because motorsport is quite new in Azerbaijan [and] we were never really a motorsport country that actively watched and supported race, so to have all of those people in the grandstands and to have all those compliments from the locals was very important for us.
Another fact is all the positive feedback that we got from the press because I know a lot of people are quite hard to impress. And hearing all of those compliments was a really a big deal for us.
Q: Are they any plans to encourage the locals to take up motorsport at a grassroots level in Azerbaijan?
AR: We’re really trying hard to educate people through social media channels. We’re also doing a lot of work in universities to educate the younger generation on what motorsport is, [and] what Formula 1 is. It’s very important that they become interested so that when they grow up they watch it actively.
We’re also doing a lot of TV shows and everything else, so we’re trying to push motorsport quite hard in our country, [and] that’s part of our mission. It’s not just organising the race but it’s also making sure the local population is interested in what we’re doing.
Q: Where do you need to improve for 2017?
AR: We’re generally quite happy with the way it went, obviously there were some rough edges because it was the first race that we need to polish. But we’re not planning to massively change the actual concept of the race and what we’re doing.
We’re changing the ticketing strategy [and] we’ve already announced how we’re going to structure it with the tickets.
Q: Is that the way you sell the tickets or the price points?
AR: It’s both. It’s the price points – we’ve now fixed it to the local currency because before it was fixed in dollars – and also the variety of tickets. Now we have more ticketing options – we cannot increase the number of grandstands because we are bound by the streets of Baku, but we’ve just increased the variety of tickets. We have two-day and three-day tickets, Friday-only tickets [and] general admission tickets are going to be daily. So it’s just a different strategy.
We have announced what the ticket structure is going to be [for 2017] and it’s already one our website and we’re launching with the early bird [offer] from 1 December up until January with discounts of 30 per cent.
Q: Where did people come from to watch the first race?
AR: From internationals, it was mostly Russia, but we saw a lot of people coming from Western Europe as well from the UK and Germany. But the majority was definitely from Russia. I think the UK was the third biggest market.
Q: Did your approach to hosting the race work for Baku?
AR: It did work for the city; we saw a huge increase in tourism income coming from visitors. It was twenty times over what we had in 2015. So for the first half of 2016 we had twenty times the currency income from tourism in-flow as it was in 2015. What Formula 1 brings to Azerbaijan is not just the weekend, it’s the exposure of the whole country throughout the year and all those years that you do the race.
So what we saw was up from 100m in 2015 to one billion in 2016, so that was a massive increase.
Q: How big a part of the reason for doing the race is tourism?
AR: It is important for us to expand into new sources of income for the country because obviously the oil prices are not optimal for us right now and we’re really trying to make sure that we do something else to add some economical income in the country.
We’re expanding into agriculture quite heavily, and one of the biggest in-flows that we’re expecting is the tourism. So it is really important that we do that – we have a beautiful city and city tourism in Baku is a significant part of what we’re trying to do.
Q: How many years have you got on the contract to host F1?
AR: It’s a ten-year contract. There are some break clauses in the contract but it’s a ten-year contract altogether, so we’re racing until 2025.
Q: Have you had any discussions with Chase Carey and Liberty Media?
AR: We haven’t met yet, no. We’re still working with Bernie Ecclestone for all of the details that we need to sort out and polish for next season.
Q: How are you communicating the look of the 2017 cars to your customers and how excited are you for the regulation changes for next year?
AR: We didn’t have much of a competition over the last few years [in F1], so it’s good that maybe with the chassis regulation change we will have more competition.
What we’re trying to do is educate the local crowd on what the regulation changes are and what that brings forward. For the international [fans], I think the people who travel are motorsports enthusiasts and they know a lot about it so there’s not much to educate. But for the locals, we will really try through the social channels, on TV shows etc, to really explain to them what the regulation changes mean. From our perspective, I really hope it brings more competition up so we can see the show again.
Q: Speaking of social channels – have you got sense of which drivers the Baku fans support?
AR: We had Fernando Alonso as our ambassador last year and we did a lot of promotion and communication through Fernando, and I think that brought a lot of interest from the locals. It felt like he was own of their own and I think everyone was really supporting him. Obviously the [McLaren] car is not as good as it could have been, but maybe that will change for next year.
What did you make of the 2016 Baku F1 race? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JAonF1 Facebook page for more discussion.
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Looking back on the first ever Baku F1 race: Q&A with organiser Arif Rahimov
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