I must admit, Azerbaijan had never featured on my list of countries to visit, but once Baku became the latest of Bernie’s unlikely Grand Prix outposts, it was only a matter of time before I would be going there.
And the more I looked into it, the more it began to appeal – easy to get to with a direct overnight flight, a city centre circuit with plenty of hotels within walking distance, lots to explore away from the racing and as a bonus – cheap. So when the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was brought forward to an earlier April date for the 2018 season, that clinched it for me as my season opener.
Despite my best laid plans I hit a few glitches on arrival.
My pre-booked airport transfer never showed up so I ended up haggling over the fare in one of the official ex-London airport taxi cabs with a ‘broken meter’ and then my hotel did not appear to exist. No-one knew of it despite supposedly being next to May 28 metro and Baku’s main railway station. I had cancelled my original after reading some alarming reviews such as ‘the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed at’ and ‘avoid this hotel like the plague’ but eventually my replacement ‘4–star luxury hotel’ turned out to be some rooms still under construction on two rented floors halfway up a government office block. But it was clean, most of the essentials worked, the holes in the walls were literally papered over and most importantly, it was in Baku and Friday morning practice was soon to begin.
Only about one third of the track is open to spectators in what is the city’s main public recreation area, a large park between the Caspian Sea and the highway used as the final straight of the Grand Prix track. Most of the stands plus the general admission area are here except for a couple of small stands in town. It contains gardens, cafés, children’s funfair rides, the seafront promenade and even a shopping mall and is accessed by crossing the track twice via temporary footbridges and permanent underpasses.
The buildings inside the circuit are mostly residential and each day there were more people coming out on their way to work or school than there were going in. Unlike Monaco, the surrounding streets are closed and fenced-off permanently over the weekend which must be a major inconvenience to all concerned, especially vehicle owners. But there did not seem to be any resentment towards this invasion, perhaps the residents are well compensated for their inconvenience. In fact the Bakuvians, although friendly and welcoming, seemed to be totally indifferent to their Grand Prix. Most of the balconies of the apartment blocks and office buildings with their privileged views overlooking the track remained uninhabited over the weekend, neither were the locals interested in trying to catch a glimpse of the action as they made their way along the screened-off pavements beside the track. Again I thought of the comparison with Monaco.
Tickets are valid for your chosen stand only plus the general admission zones between them. Viewing. although spectacular for speed and proximity is overall fairly restricted both laterally and by a couple of rows of hefty fencing.
The exception is the ‘Azneft’ stand which I chose on intuition as the best for photographic possibilities being high and givimg a view of the cars head-on as they come down the hill from the old town and through the turn on to the final straight. It was a good choice and I would suggest the best to be had. However, I also enjoyed the Friday afternoon and Saturday morning F1 practice sessions as well as the F2 sprint race roaming the general admission areas as I like to do.
Plenty of additional entertainment was laid on in the fan zone, some traditional – a street circus, and some not so – tango dancing seemed very popular. Remarkably, the avenue of life-size driver cut-outs was still there on the Tuesday after the race and that says something about the local’s passion, or lack of it, for the sport. At Mexico last year I saw ‘drivers’ being carried out daily.
I felt quite at ease out and about on my own in the evenings. At the circuit a group of marshals greeted me each day shaking my hand, or mostly fingers, through the fence and posed for photos. But more than once I was asked why I was visiting Baku, bearing in mind the track was literally in some cases, right on their doorstep. It became evident that the price of admission tickets, although cheap compared to other venues, was still well beyond the means, and interest, of the ordinary Azerbaijani.
The first available Azerbaijan Airways flight back to the UK was late Tuesday afternoon which gave me a day and half to explore the city which was well worth doing as well as watching the start of the monumental task of the dismantling of the circuit.
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix is an extremely well organised and fan friendly event both inside and beyond the track and is easy to get to although not embraced by the locals. The stands were nowhere near full, but it is well worth making a visit whilst still on the calendar.
Note: Many of these images are taken from original prints, negatives and slides that are nearly 40 years old and are therefore not reproduced to the same standard as current day digital images. All reasonable attempts have been made to ensure these images are reproduced to the best possible standard, however, in some instances colour casts and blemishes may be present.