The slogan of the F1 race in Baku was “Speeds are higher in the land of fire”.
Azerbaijan has been known as The Land of the Fire since ancient times and historians argue as to whether this is a reference to the natural burning of surface oil and gas deposits or to the oil-fueled fires in the temples of the once-dominant Zoroastrians who inhabited these places. Either way, oil is the key element in the history of Azerbaijan. It has brought the country wealth and pain, because where there is oil, there is usually fighting over the “black gold”. The history of the country is complicated and even included a battle between Ottoman Turks and British soldiers for control of Baku. If you look hard enough in the city, you will find a memorial to 47 of the 92 British soldiers killed in the city at the end of World War I, when Britain sent 1,000 men under Major General Lionel Dunsterville to secure the city’s oil fields, against any German or Turkish attempts to seize them, following the collapse of the Russian Empire. The British were sent packing by a 15,000-man army under Ottoman General Nuri Pasha.
There is a scrawl on one page in my green notebook which says “Pasha Hamilton” because that was what leapt to mind when Lewis appeared on the grid, sheltering beneath a black umbrella, like some sort of dignitary in days of empire. To be called “Pasha” was a great honour for an Englishman, and was recognition from the Ottoman Turks of some important act, at times when they were not fighting the British. A notable example was Colonel William Hicks Pasha, the hero of the Mahdist Wars.
There is note next to this which says that a lot of the F1 crews were knackered by race day, with the back-to-back with Canada being a nightmare for them all, with the knowledge that we have two more back-to-backs in the next six weeks, albeit easier ones, adding to the sense of weariness. The last few weeks have been tough.
Given the late start of the race in Baku, we finished GP+ at around midnight, in a media centre (in the Hilton Hotel) which was being taken apart around us. It was back to our hotel, dodging the post-race drunks, and I then spent two hours finishing off the JSBM newsletter, with some room service pasta for company. This was followed by a 60 minute kip, a shower, check out and a taxi to the airport at 04.00. We didn’t care that we were paying three times the usual rate, because anything that makes life easier at that time of day is worth it…
The airport was awash with F1 people, all flying in different directions to get home, by way of such exotic locations as Kiev, Helsinki, Moscow, Frankfurt and Istanbul. The flight to Istanbul was only a short one, but much sleeping was done and then in Istanbul we all went our separate ways, although many had long waits in the airport between planes.
Stopovers are fine if you have access to lounges, but often one does not have the right card to get into them. Years ago someone recognised the potential for a business around this fact and created a scheme called “Priority Pass” which gets you into different lounges around the world, without being airline-specific. I am not a member these days because I tend to use one airline to go east and one to go west, but fortunately DT is and so he kindly got me into his lounge, as he has done many times over the years. It is one of those things that F1 folks do when they can help one another, even if you barely know the people involved. These things are what makes the F1 community such a special place.
After DT flew off I still had three hours to kill and so hooked up with GP+’s photographer Peter Nygaard, who is a Turkish Airlines frequent flyer and he got me into the Turkish Airlines lounge, which he has long argued is the best in the world. I’ve seen a lot of lounges over the years, but thus far I have to say that Peter is right. You could even play golf or race Scalextric. It was so pleasant an environment that I fell asleep for rather too long and then had a mad rush to get my plane… Back home, it was pouring with rain in Paris, with traffic jams caused by flooding, and I didn’t reach home until just before 9pm. Yes, I know that there were probably direct flights from Paris to Baku, but they were too expensive. Readers always think that F1 media all have Ferraris and private jets and don’t understand that we have to pinch our pennies to survive.
Anyway, Baku was certainly an experience and it was generally a pleasant one. I know that some folk have qualms about human rights issues in the country, and I tend to agree, but these things are never easy to define. At one point a number of us were invited to meet a presidential advisor, who clearly wanted to send out a message about this matter. He blamed the Armenians, which was entirely predictable, as the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians are consistently fighting one another – if allowed to do so.
I have always been of the opinion that sport should rise above politics and be a uniting force, but I also know that it rarely happens. F1 races can, nonetheless, help develop countries and so, in general, my view is to go ahead, unless the race itself is a political issue. Human rights is a complicated business because, as Bernie Ecclestone says, if we took human rights into consideration everywhere we go, we would have a very small F1 calendar, as almost every nation has something that someone else thinks is a human rights issue.
Baku is not a place that F1 needs to be. It is a country of just nine million people and the GDP per capita is a shocking $5,700. Most of the money that comes in from oil and gas is concentrated in the hands of just a few. There were only 14,000 grandstand seats for the race and not all were occupied. The strangest thing was that the balconies all round the circuit were not packed with people, as one would expect. What kept them indoors?
For F1, the logic of being in Baku was simple: money. This is probably the biggest ever F1 race contract, with an annual fee in excess of $60 million. Some even think it could be $70 million. The deal is for five years (plus a 10 percent annual increase), meaning a deal worth at least $360 million to the sport, with an additional four years + one option that could increase that total to more than $750 million. Azerbaijan also has to pay the costs of erecting and dismantling the circuit each year (which will amount to more than $200 million over a 10-year period), so we are looking at an investment of $1 billion from the government. There is no way that this race will ever make that kind of money, but the logic is simple: if it makes people think that Baku is nice place, it will produce huge returns in tourism. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) the world average of travel and tourism’s contribution to the economy of an individual country is $19.4 billion, so one can see that investing a billion can bring impressive returns for any nation that pulls in big numbers of visitors. Azerbaijan is dependent on oil and gas (to a crazy extent) and so they are keen to diversify the economy and tourism is the obvious place to start.
On the first day there I walked around the track and was curious about the architecture. It was a wild mixture of different styles and traditions. It made no sense. Obviously the place had oil and so had money, but who had built the Belle Epoque-style buildings so reminiscent of Paris and the pavilions that would not have been out of place in Brighton? Soviet Russia was not famous for its architectural prowess, so what was the story? The best description of the place I read was from the Lonely Planet, which described Baku as being “the architectural love child of Paris and Dubai… albeit with plenty of Soviet genes floating half-hidden in the background”. So I asked around and discovered that the Presidential Palace, behind the pits, was built by German prisoners of war after WW2, and that almost all the buildings between that and the UNESCO-protected Old City (effectively the race track district) had all been built in the last 10 years. For new-builds, these are fantastic, but they should not be mistaken for historical buildings. But that does not really matter? Disneyland is all fake and Las Vegas used to be only sand. Dubai is much the same (minus the casinos). What matters is that the bit of Baku where F1 folk hung out was a nice town, with its olive-lined promenades along the Caspian waterfront and the delightful Old City.
After meeting the President’s man, I decided to take a look at Azeri history, in order to understand more about the country. It is a complex story which began, in modern terms, in 1918, after the Russian Empire collapsed. Independence brought chaos, which resulted in ethnic cleansing that left as many as 12,000 people massacred in just a few weeks. In the end, after the adventures detailed above, the Soviets invaded and calm was forcibly restored. When Soviet Russia collapsed, 70-odd years later, a new Azerbaijan emerged and there was a similar pattern, there were a series of governments and massacres that cost 30,000 lives before a strong man emerged. His son now runs the country. Poverty has been reduced from 49 percent of the population to just five percent, which is a number that most international organisations seem to agree upon. But a lot of the population are still very poor, even if jobs have been created to keep them fed. Stability has been key in achieving this, but stability has come at a price. People do what they are told to do, or else… One can live inside the F1 bubble and praise the place without looking at the whole picture, or one can look at the whole picture, understand why it is as it is and see the logic, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Is strong leadership worse than chaos and massacres? I don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is that history relates that some places are not ready for democracy and it is naive to believe otherwise.
All great democracies come through great struggles to become what they are today. Formula 1 exists to go racing. We are sports journalists and, in the end, is it our job to decide what is right and wrong? We can merely present a picture of what we see and leave the reader to decide, or we can ignore it all and pretend it’s not there. I prefer the former route.
There was not much going on in the F1 world beyond that. There was simply little time for much to happen in the days between Canada and Baku. There was talk about the new track and whether it was dangerous in places. The run-off area at Turn 15 quickly became known as “Doughnut Alley” because of the number of drivers having to do doughnuts to get back on track…
There was some gossip about the 2017 driver line-up. There was a visit to the F1 world by Kurt Busch of NASCAR fame and, after the race, there was talk about whether having radio bans in a good idea. The race was not exciting, but that happens from time to time. It was more of a disappointment because the GP2 had been wild, so wild in fact that it ended up with ART GP driver and Honda protégé Nobuharu Matsushita being given a one race ban for his actions behind the Safety Car. He deserved that for his daft accelerating and braking which led to chaos behind him.
Elsewhere in the scrawls in the notebook, I noted that Red Bull’s GP2 driver Pierre Gasly again managed to lose the race and wondered whether he will be climbing higher on the ladder. This could be good news for Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz, who may get to stay at Scuderia Toro for longer now, as Red Bull has no drivers ready to step up. I even heard that Sainz has already signed a new two-year deal with Red Bull and will perhaps one day join Max Verstappen in the big team, if Daniel Ricciardo moves on. I also have a note about an amusing discussion I had about whether the sport should promote itself with topless F1 drivers appearing in calendars, a bit like the Firemen calendars one seems around the world, which have raised many millions for charity, while also promoting the idea of firemen being hunky heroes. This is not a bad idea for a sport that wants to attract 35 year old women…
I also have a note that says “250 Bahrainis” which relates to the fact that Bahrain has a three-year deal to supply officials and marshals to Baku, to give the locals time to get trained up for the roles. This is part of an FIA scheme to have clubs helping one another and helping them all to develop. The only slight problem is that while Bahrain and Azerbaijan are both Muslim countries, the former is Sunni and the latter is Shia and, I hear, there was some tension between the two groups, although there was no sign of marshals getting into fist fights with one another. There were a lot of problems with excessive security with local types making it difficult for the race folk to do their jobs. We were even told to bring our passports in addition to our F1 passes on Sunday, which seemed a little excessive. In the end they were not required.
The one thing that made me smile more than anything, however, was the F1 flag flying over the crenellations of the Old City. Rich men often like their own castles…