They call Azerbaijan “the land of fire”, but at least it’s friendly fire… if you see what I mean. It is a place where F1 enjoys visiting, although those who look beyond the end of their own noses realise that there is more to the picture than immediately meets the eye. Still, people believe what they want to believe.
Back before kids had the Internet, you could convince them of lots of things. Napoleon Bonaparte, a famous enemy of Britain, was portrayed in the English newspapers as a devilish individual and a tyrant. The word bogeyman does not derive from “Boney” as some would have you believe, but nursery rhymes at the time warned that Napoleon ate small children who did not behave properly. Across the water Napoleon was more revered, although like most men of power, he had his moments of excess, such as the time he kidnapped Pope Pius VII, after the latter excommunicated the self-styled Emperor. Napoleon then held the pontiff hostage for five years in the palace at Fontainbleau. Perhaps a proper tyrant would have done away with him, as King Henry II did to rid himself of the “troublesome priest” Thomas a Becket, but Napoleon did not. However, while eating children may have been a bit over the top, he wasn’t warm and cuddly.
Years later, when he was exiled to Saint Helena, Napoleon wrote that “if only the heavens had given me 20 more years of rule and a little leisure, one would vainly search today for the old Paris; nothing would remain of it”.
By all accounts at the time, Paris was a dump, filled with pestilence and filth. It was dark and dangerous and very unhealthy. Napoleon wanted to flatten it and start again. It took a while but when his nephew Louis-Napoleon was elected president in 1848, promising to end poverty and improve the lives of ordinary people, he planned to do what his uncle had failed to achieve. According to the constitution he could not stand again in 1852 and so he organised a coup d’etat (as you do) and seized power, getting rid of opponents and declaring himself Emperor Napoleon III. He had been exiled in London for some years before the revolution that overthrew King Louis-Philippe before the 1848 election and had been impressed by London’s large public parks, wide tree-lined streets and impressive squares. And so, once he was in charge, he went to work to do what Napoleon had been unable to do: demolish the place and then build proper sewers, create proper water supplies and follow the ideas in London and lay out wide boulevards and parks and nice buidling. A lot of people weren’t happy with this but today the work of Baron Haussmann, who led the reconstruction programme, is much appreciated. Paris is lovely and among the most visited cities in the world, with with close to 20 millions tourists a year – before the pandemic.
Anyway, the point I am trying to make here is that perhaps we should not criticise the folk in Baku for flattening 500 acres of the city centre a few years ago in order to get rid of nasty Soviet developments, which were falling apart, and instead building a facsimile of Paris, even down to the shape and colour of the road signs. If you are going to try to build a tourist industry why not simply copy the market leader?
Azerbaijan, of course, needs new industries as its dependence on oil is shocking – at around 90 percent of the country’s exports, and so once it had built this new Paris between the old medieval walled city and the imposing Government House, running alongside the Caspian shoreline, now filled with gardens, fountains and iconic buildings, it was necessary to find a way to put the city on the international map. Prior to F1, locating Baku on a map was akin to the game Pin the Tail on the Donkey. It was somewhere over there in the middle, but very few knew where it was and how it related to the mish-mash of ‘Stans left behind as independent countries when Soviet Russia collapsed. Today, Azerbaijan is a little better known and using F1 to attract visitors seems to be working well. In 2015 the country had two million visitors a year, most of them Russians. A year later that grew to 2.24 million and in 2017 it had climbed to 2.69 million. In 2018 it reached 2.85 million and in 2019 was up to 3.17 million. We will have to see what the long-term impact of the pandemic will be, but things will probably bounce back.
Formula 1 needed a bit of convincing back when the deal was done but money has a way of making people think differently and as Baku pays about the twice the fees of the European races, it has been good for F1, not least because the races have always been wild because of the nature of the track. So long as F1 understands that all comparisons with Paris end with the buildings, things will be fine.
Travelling in the age of COVID has been fascinating. It’s complicated and things are not always as they are supposed to be, but one must make allowances. If people are doing their best that’s all that one can expect. I have to admit that when I got to Baku the hotel did not at all live up to the claims on booking.com and I was less than happy until the hotel owner invited me to tea to explain the problems. Tea is part of the local culture and tradition and is rather bright in colour and comes in pear-shaped crystal glasses. It is their way of welcoming guests and enjoying discussions with them. The hotel owner explained that although the majority of his guests might be Russians, the British were the next most numerous nation and although he struggled to understand people from Manchester and Glasgow, he was an admirer of the British because they did not complain as much as other nations… and they did not get as drunk as the Russians. In the end his humanity and humour saved the day. The hotel was right next to the paddock, two minutes from the Media Center in the Hilton and 20 percent of the price of said establishment. There was no operational restaurant, no room service, not even breakfast, and the shower wasn’t working that well, but there was a bed and good internet – so it was survivable. The media centre had food: morning, noon and night and I could have eaten out if I wanted to do so, but I was in a small bubble (the media numbers were pretty low) and we were all staying in different places. I have pretty much lost interest in eating alone in restaurants outside hotels and so I made do for the duration of the trip.
It was a funny state of affairs because the population in Baku is no longer required to wear masks, but in the F1 world they are still de rigeur and so we wandered around with our masks and the local wandered around without them. At the airport we all had to wear them but the Azerbajianis have obviously forgotten how to do it, because every nose was fully visible…
In the F1 Paddock it was quiet. With so few journalists at work and TV crews still at a minimum, and the teams still (largely) sticking to their own areas, it was calm, but there was access enough to meet the movers and shakers and find out what is really going on, although some are still using the pandemic as a way to hide and avoid having to deal with difficult questions. The driver market is set to take off soon, but Sergio Perez’s victory in Baku will no doubt have cemented his place with Red Bull Racing in 2022 and with Pierre Gasly and, presumably, Yuki Tsunoda under contract to Scuderia AlphaTauri for next year. There is not a lot left. Esteban Ocon is going to stay where he is and one can expect an announcement to that effect at Paul Ricard while decisions from Mercedes may take a little longer to come out – Silverstone being the obvious place for that to happen. For the moment it looks like Lewis Hamilton will be a back, probably for another one-year contract in 2022 and it is a matter of public speculation about who will take the other Mercedes. I get the feeling that there could be wild celebrations during the British GP weekend.
Elsewhere, there seems to be little change at Alfa Romeo at the moment although the company’s CEO is making positive noises about F1 – at least in public. This might not make much sense in racing terms, but the amount that Alfa Romeo puts in to get global coverage from F1, despite no real hope of any success, is still cheaper than chips and it keeps alive the idea that Alfa Romeo is a sporting brand. The fact that it is not a successful sporting image is another matter…
The big topic of conversation was the calendar because no-one really knows what is going to happen later this year. The cancellation of Singapore was no big surprise and we should wait a few more weeks before Melbourne has to throw itself under the bus as well. The Australian Grand Prix Corporation is keen to go ahead but Fortress Australia wants guarantees that there will be no COVID-19 cases and that is something that no-one can give. The last thing F1 is going to do is put itself into a situation where the whole F1 circus turns up in Melbourne and someone tests positive and the race is called off. As someone in F1 once said, it would be “déjà vu all over again”.
So we wait to see what the travel schedules will be later in the year with question marks over Japan (OK if the Olympics happen), Australia, Mexico and Brazil. F1 has races in China and Turkey currently in reserve, in case they are needed, but the concept of another race in Bahrain can probably be written off for now as Bahrain has been put on Britain’s red list, which effectively means that F1 will not go there because of quarantine complications on the way home.
So, if the sport is going to be short of a few races this year it is worth looking at the possibility of spending two weeks in Austin with a United States Grand Prix one weekend and the Grand Prix of Texas (brought to you by “Yee ha!”) on the second weekend, as previously mentioned here on the blog. Sounds like fun.
What we all hope is that we will home by Christmas…