By Fikret Dolukhanov (Baku)
I remember how in my childhood I watched the battles between Hakkinen and Schumacher. Not understanding then much of what was happening on the track, I enthusiastically looked at the Formula 1 race cars gaining tremendous speeds. The roar of the racing car motors thrilled my child soul even through the speakers of the TV.
Twenty one years ago I watched my first Formula 1 race. It was the Brazilian Grand Prix on the Interlagos, won by a “Flying Finn”. I was always more impressed with Schumacher, although to many he seemed to be too academic. But it was Scuderia Ferrari with its red livery that seemed the icon of the racing world in the eyes of a child. Then, many years ago, I really wanted to see Formula 1 race cars alive. And not only me, but many, probably, could not even dream that the prestigious championship will eventually come to Baku.
Over twenty years have passed. Formula 1 in Baku has become a matter of course, an integral part of the championship. Baku did an excellent job and copes with the competition by firmly inscribing its name on the calendar. However, what exactly does Azerbaijan Grand Prix mean for fans of motorsport?
When the first talks about holding Formula 1 stage in the capital of Azerbaijan has begun circulating, many fans reacted to this with much skepsis. However, Baku wasn’t the main reason for that.
First of all, no one loves city tracks. Like really no one. The city races are not “cool”, they are dull. With no overtaking, with pole equalling to the first place in the race, and with the race being extremely slow and monotonous. Monaco, for example, has nothing fancy apart from the famous tunnel and palm trees. That being said, nothing notable has been happening for a long time around the palm tree, and it’s interesting only for amateur photographers.
Secondly, Bernie Ecclestone in the last years of his leadership has clearly headed for the extension of the championship calendar, which many did not like because quantity honestly doesn’t always make quality.
And thirdly, the tracks of Hermann Tilke’s authorship are clearly not favourites among Formula 1 fans for some objective reasons. In pursuit of security, Tilke created most of his tracks in a very monotonous manner, leaving no room for intense competition and entertainment. Rare exceptions are, probably, Sepang and Red Bull Ring. However, fans of the “queen of motorsport” are still unable to forgive the Formula 1 management and the German architect for what they did with the once legendary track in Hockenheim. Thus, when it became clear that Tilke will also be the author of the Baku city circuit, many reacted to the news with frustration.
But what has really happened?
Baku City Circuit turned out to become one of the best tracks on the entire Formula 1 calendar, both in terms of entertainment and in purely sporting indicators. The Baku race, for example, has many advantages compared to the aforementioned Monaco. Except that here is no tunnel from which, back at the time, the broken Ferrari of Schumacher rolled out after being hit by Montoya.
The Baku City Circuit is a street race track for motor racing, located in Baku (Azerbaijan) near Baku Boulevard. The length of the track is 6,003 kilometres (3,730 miles), which makes it the second longest track on the Formula 1 calendar. The first race of Formula 1 on the track was the 2016 European Grand Prix. A year later, in 2017, the first Azerbaijan Grand Prix was held on the track.
However, this is more than compensated for by the long straight section, on which Valtteri Bottas, as Williams says, set an unofficial speed record for Formula 1 – 378 kmph! A fantastic figure for a city race! In Monaco, such performance is quite unreal. Moreover, the races in Baku are much more interesting. Who doesn’t remember the truly Caucasian fight of Vettel and Hamilton in 2017?
Ulrika Schmidt from Germany has been watching Formula 1 for 12 years, and the track in the capital of Azerbaijan, in her opinion, wins in comparison with other city circuits.
“The track in Baku is absolutely exceptional. Monaco is extremely expensive. The quality of the race does not match the price of the ticket. As a fan, I would not go there, because the show is not worth the money. You get almost nothing there for a lot of money, whereas here you get a lot for a very small price,” Ulrika said.
And hey, we are talking about the track, designed by Hermann Tilke! And it has probably become one of his best creations. The long straight section and limitations of the urban architecture seem to play their positive role.
“In Baku, Hermann Tilke was limited to street layout. And, as it seems to me, as a result of the restrictions, the track turned out to be more interesting. It is easy to overtake, there is a long straight, and the speed is almost like in Monza. Due to the high downforce, the race cars reach speeds of up to 350 kmph. When you see the old buildings in the background of flying cars – it’s just fantastic. Very impressive,” a guest from Russia, Yuli Andreev, said.
The six-kilometre anti-clockwise layout of the circuit was designed by circuit architect Hermann Tilke. The circuit starts adjacent to Azadliq Square, then loops around Government House before heading west along a kilometre-long straight to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and Maiden Tower. Here, the track has a narrow 7.6-metre (25 ft) uphill traversal and then circles the Old City before opening up onto a 2.2-kilometre (1.4 mi) stretch along Neftchilar Avenue back to the start line. The circuit is the fastest street circuit in the world, with a top speed close to 360 kmph and the second longest circuit on the current Formula 1 calendar behind the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.
It is hard to not agree because the Baku City Circuit is really impressive. Such a battle, which occurs at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, can’t be seen at any other race. The times are over when each race had been a unique show, so intense that everyone discussed it until the end of the season. Recently, the role of electronics and automation has become increasingly important, safety plays a decisive role, and Formula 1, which has always been much more “academic” than Indycar, for example, is becoming quite monotonous.
On such a background, the Baku stage looks like a reminder of the past days, as the 2018 race, which was full of real struggle, proved. Vettel, with his pole position, could not even take a place on the podium. Moreover, the final table was also strikingly different from the qualification results, which is a very, very unusual for a city race. Speaking of the cities: the Azerbaijan Grand Prix 2018 became the first race since 1950, where a driver from Monaco earned points. Charles Leclaire of Sauber took sixth place, which brought him eight points.
The Baku race really brings a new breath to the championship that has recently becoming monotonous, and not only thanks to the track, but because of everything that happens around. The atmosphere in the city, like electricity in the air, is exactly what Formula 1 has been lacking for quite some time already. Excitement, enthusiasm. It’s great that fans of motorsport can once again plunge into such atmosphere in Baku. But I would like to see Formula 1 has not one, but many such races so that the real struggle doesn’t fuel up on one or two routes, but throughout the whole championship.
“Much has changed in Formula 1. Maybe I have such a feeling because of my age: for over 40 years I’ve been watching those races [chuckle], but now it seems that everything is not the same as before. The fire in the eyes of the racers seems to be burning not so brightly, there is no such excitement. Maybe it’s because of the cars – they have too much electronics… and they are all too similar. Or maybe because McLaren is not as good as before [sincere laughter]. But everything is felt somehow differently in Baku, just like in good old times. Even people around have some more lively, sincere interest. This can rarely be seen now. Thank you!” Simon Moore, who first watched Formula 1 when my mother was a child, said.
Many drivers praised the circuit for the challenge offered by its mixture of long straights, slow technical sections and no margin for error due to the proximity of the walls. In December 2018, Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was among the three best races of 2018, according to spectators’ voting. Over 16,000 people took part in the voting. The US Grand Prix (30 per cent of votes) became the favourite race of 2018, followed by the Azerbaijan Grand Prix (13 per cent), while the British Grand Prix at Silverstone came third.
In conclusion, I would like to wish that the Azerbaijan Grand Prix helps to kindle in the eyes and hearts of racers and millions of fans around the world the same fire that the guest from the UK spoke about. I hope, we will soon witness battles no less intense than the struggle between Hunt and Lauda, which Simon was lucky enough to watch over 40 years ago; or the Hakkinen’s battle with Schumacher, which I followed with delight in my childhood, just like hundreds and thousands of others from all over the world. At the end of the day, wherever we are, and no matter how old we are, it is nice to realize that there is something that has been uniting us on TV screens on weekends for so long – Formula 1.
The next Formula 1 races will be held in Baku on April 26-28, 2019.