Racing in Baku – The Most Absurd F1 Track Ever?

I’m going to say something now that you seldom see written by blog writers – which is that I am often wrong. For example, I put a pound on the first eight matches at the Euro 2016 football tournament, and despite the fact that I was only betting on outright wins or draws, rather than correct scores etc, it still took me until the sixth game to actually win any money.

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So hopefully, I’ll be wrong when I say this too: the new track that F1 is heading to at Baku this weekend, looks to my eye, both utterly absurd and recklessly dangerous.

There are big questions as to why F1 is even anywhere near Azerbaijan in the first place, of course. The country has a truly dreadful human rights record, and is to all intents and purposes, run by an enormously corrupt oligarchy. Despite a charm offensive that has led to Azerbaijani sponsorship seemingly everywhere, from pitchside at the aforementioned Euros, to a bizarre Conde Nast magazine all about the Baku race (£6.99 and apparently resolutely unbought by anybody at every newsagent I’ve seen it in), the country has no connection to F1 at all, and there appears to be no compelling reason for it to be hosting a race. The country has no previous drivers, no previous team, no previous races, no obvious fanbase.

No, the race is heading to Baku simply because the country is awash with oil money, and thinks that an F1 race will be handy PR for its tourist trade and international standing. Not to mention a nice vanity project for the oligarchs. As ever, money is the only deciding factor in Ecclestone-era F1. Never mind that wonderful and evocative old tracks such as Spa and Monza are crumbling and in danger of falling off the schedule, never mind the fact that Germany – host to crowds of 160,000 a decade ago – can barely afford to host a race and didn’t last year, never mind the lack of a race at all in France, let’s head off to another new track in a country where the locals have limited interest in the sport (see also: Korea, now defunct; India, now defunct; Turkey, now def…you get the idea).

But this might not matter if we were dealing with a sensible track.

We are not.

The circuit is not purpose-designed, but has been designed using the existing streets of the capital, Baku. And in a bid to promote tourism, the picturesque “old town” apparently had to be incorporated into the design, irrespective of how suitable its streets are for single-seater racing cars. So, first off, F1 cars are going to be going through here. At about 100mph.

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That is not a mistake. Through there. Apparently the 300 year old cobbles have been covered, with a track surface “that won’t damage them”. Pull the other one. The fact that the kink is barely wide enough for one car, the fact that any accident will be an enormous one, the fact that any accident will end in the wall and quite possibly with the track totally blocked or with following drivers unsighted, the fact that (quite aside from driver safety) that’s a 12th century structure to the left there, vulnerable to all sorts of flying debris….Nope, doesn’t matter. Money talks in F1.

It gets worse, there is a section where cars will be blasting at about 140mph on the opposite sides of the same carriageway. What of the possibility of a wheel or debris flying from one side to the other? Is the barrier between secure enough to prevent, God forbid, a car ending up on the ‘wrong’ side following a crash? We haven’t seen any layouts like this since the 1950s, and with good reason.

Lastly, this is going to be “the fastest street circuit in the world”. So cars will be going up to 200mph, on a track that is surrounded by all the normal furniture of a city – lampposts, buildings, kerbs, trees. At points the track is wide enough for four cars to run side by side, at others (as above) it will be single file. What could possibly go wrong?

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And if you think the FIA wouldn’t be daft enough to create a ridiculous racetrack, then simply consider the 2006 Beijing A1 Grand Prix. Again, this was the debut for a street circuit in a country unused to motorsport. All went well until the cars actually started going out on track, when it was swiftly realised that they couldn’t make it round the 180 degree hairpin bend used to connect two parts of the circuit. The lock on the A1 car simply didn’t produce a small enough turning circle to make the tight bend. We had therefore, the spectacle of single-seater cars doing three point turns just to be able to complete a lap. As a result, extremely hasty widening was carried out so the cars could just about make it round the turn – at a snail’s pace that led to at least one driver stalling the engine. What thrills! Later, during qualifying, it was noted that manhole covers on the roads were coming undone due to the racing cars’ high downforce and low ride height. (And as we all saw Jenson Button’s lucky escape when he hit an errant manhole in Monaco a few weeks ago, this is not a trivial issue. The front of Button’s car was destroyed, and from the amount of damage done, it was clear that a flying manhole hitting a driver on the head could be fatal). It carries on – some advertising banners also came loose around the circuit during the race itself. Oh, and lastly, at same that Beijing A1 event, the FIA decided that, after some issues in qualifying, that the race should actually start behind the safety car as the first corner was too unsafe for race starts. But nobody had worked that out until the day before the race, or in any of the 12 months leading up to it, of course.

Just so you know, most of the FIA delegation that approved the track for the 2006 Beijing A1 race were involved in approving the layout for the 2016 Baku F1 race.

So, my hopes for this weekend? Usually, I hope for a close and exciting race. This time, two things. One, that I’m totally wrong about the circuit. But more importantly, this – for the first time ever, my main desire is simply that all 22 drivers come back from this absurd Grand Prix in this absurd setting, in one piece.

(ps here is some onboard footage of the track, at less than half racing speed, in a GP3 car. If you get bored, you could always make a cup of tea between turns 2 and 3…and probably drink it. Top speed at an F1 car then, with concrete, buildings and trees either side…. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQgAET0KczI )

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