From Eurovision to fast cars: Azerbaijan joins F1 calendar


Story highlights

Formula One is racing in Azerbaijan

The new GP being held in capital Baku

It aims to be fastest street circuit in F1

Cars can reach top speeds of 210 mph

CNN —  

The globetrotting sport of Formula One is off on an adventure to Azerbaijan, host to Sunday’s European Grand Prix, for the very first time.

F1’s newest circuit will wind through the streets of its capital Baku.

What can F1 fans expect? CNN Sport picks 10 need-to-know facts …

A different kind of gas

The former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan declared its independence in 1991 and set about building its economy on oil and gas.

However, the nation is now banking on F1 to fuel a new trade in tourism and raise its profile on the world stage.

Red Bull Racing's Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen look down on the Baku City Circuit
Dan Istitene/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images,
Red Bull Racing's Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen look down on the Baku City Circuit

“It’s been a long aim of our country to expand beyond the traditional income revenues,” explains Baku City Circuit executive director Arif Rahimov.

“The F1 race will bring tourism and show the world what Baku is. We have a beautiful city with a mix of traditional and modern culture, we are in the middle of Asia and Europe. It will bring its own flavor to F1.”

The crowd capacity of the new race is modest with enough seating for just under 20,000 as well as general admission access.

Driving the next generation

F1’s expansion into new territories such as Russia and South Korea – a race which has now been abandoned – has prompted questions about why the sport is holding races in places where F1’s fan base is negligible.

The same questions applies to Azerbaijan – where the most popular sport is Olympic wrestling.

The organizers of Baku race have been doing their bit by running a campaign to educate the locals and counting down to the historic race with a giant clock in the city center.

“We’ve done a lot of large events in Baku,” explains Rahimov. “We’ve visited schools and universities to teach kids about F1 and motorsport, including taking along local celebrities.

02:42 - Source: CNN
Baku City Circuit: Designing F1's fastest street track

“It’s not just about F1, it’s about raising the tradition of motorsport in our country. We hope some of the kids will be inspired by having a race in their own city.”

At the age of 19, Gulhuseyn Abdullayev is Azerbaijan’s great hope as he aims to become the nation’s first-ever F1 driver.

“For now, I’m the only motorsport driver,” Abdullayev, who had to travel from his home in Baku to race go-karts in neighboring Turkey, told CNN.

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“When you talk to most people in Azerbaijan about motorsport the only thing they know is Michael Schumacher and fast cars. They don’t know the details; which teams are competing, who won the last title – they know Schumacher and that’s it.

“Motorsport isn’t developed yet in Azerbaijan. Everyone hopes this race will change that.”

Bustling city to street circuit

Construction of the Baku City Circuit began in November 2015 but the roads were only closed two days before Friday practice.

“We’re turning a city into a racetrack,” explained Tom Butcher, the circuit’s Venue Delivery Manager. “We’ve done a lot of the work at night to try and keep the city alive.

“No-one is used to the city being closed so you have to get people to understand what’s going on.”

It's race week and the final touches are made to the Baku city center circuit
It's race week and the final touches are made to the Baku city center circuit

The biggest logistical challenge was resurfacing the roads and temporarily covering up the city’s ancient stone.

“Monaco already had the road base but we had to start from scratch,” he said. “We had to mill the existing surface and then build up two layers of asphalt.

“There are two sections of cobblestones through the old city to cover – no other circuit has that problem! – and when the race finishes we will take up the asphalt layer and return them to the people of Baku.”

Fastest street circuit in F1

The Baku City Circuit is staking its claim as the fastest and longest street circuit in F1.

The temporary track has some impressive vital statistics – six kilometers (3.72 miles) in length, with 20 turns and a maximum speed of 340 kph (211mph) – but what’s it like to drive?

“It’s a real nice track,” says Abdullayev, who was the first person to officially take a racing car round the full circuit configuration.

“There’s a combination of slow and fast corners and some elevation changes. Through turns eight, nine and 10 in the old town seems very narrow so that will be a fun and tricky section.

“It is a little slippery, which is normal for fresh tarmac, but most of the roads are central roads with three or four lanes, which is quite wide for a street circuit.

“Just like the F1 drivers enjoy city circuits in Monaco and Singapore, they will like Baku – although it is faster than those tracks… It will be a good challenge.”

Armco barriers, ancient walls

F1 drivers try to stay out of the wall at all costs but they must be extra careful to avoid plunging into some historic brickwork in Baku.

For the first time in F1, the cars will drive by 12th Century city defensive walls listed as a world heritage site.

“The walls are protected by UNESCO so we have a mixture of guard rails and concrete blocks in front of them to make sure they don’t get damaged,” explains Rahimov.

Baku's ancient Qosha gate as seen from the new street circuit
Mark Thompson/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images,
Baku's ancient Qosha gate as seen from the new street circuit

This weaving run through the ancient city walls and Baku’s iconic Maiden Tower between turns eight and 10 is likely to be a highlight of the race weekend.

“It’s something really different to have a medieval tower on your left hand side as you turn right,” enthused Rahimov. “McLaren driver Fernando Alonso was here recently and he was extremely excited about this particular corner.

“It’s very unique, it looks beautiful and the technicality of the corner on an incline is quite complicated for the drivers.”

Divide and conquer

The Baku City Circuit could also conjure another F1 first by introducing a divided highway along its seaside straig