F1’s newest circuit will wind through the streets of its capital Baku.
However, the nation is now banking on F1 to fuel a new trade in tourism and raise its profile on the world stage.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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 straight.
“We have a section which we call a dual straight where the cars travel in opposite directions,” explains Butcher. “We call it turns six and seven and 19 and 20.”
“Singapore has a small section like this but ours is close to 600 meters long. We’ve built a special dividing wall that separates both sides of the track.”
Baku organizers hope the quirks of the circuit design will help it sit alongside Suzuka’s unique figure-of-eight layout and Monaco’s winding, narrow streets as an F1 drivers’ favorite.
The European Grand Prix has previously been held at five venues across Europe, most recently in Spanish seaside city Valencia from 2008 to 2012.
“We wanted to stage a European Grand Prix for the first year rather than the Grand Prix of Azerbaijan,” explained Rahimov.
“It was a natural choice for us to show the closeness of Baku to the European mentality and way of life.”
On the world stage
The race organizers are hoping the sound of hybrid engines, not European pop, will be music to the ears of the watching worldwide audience.
“Eurovision was a very big spectacular,” explained Baku-born driver Abdullayev. “We don’t normally see a lot of tourists in Baku at one time but everywhere you could see tourists.
“I think F1 will be bigger than Eurovision.”
Rahimov added: “F1 has 500 million viewers around the world. The race will bring a lot of publicity to our country and that’s why we’re doing it.”
A successful European Grand Prix in Baku could be a springboard to hosting other major sporting events. Azerbaijan has already been picked to host three group games and one quarterfinal in the Euro 2020 soccer championships and has ambitions to stage an Olympic Games.
Trophies … and cuppas
British teams and drivers Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Jolyon Palmer should feel just at home in Baku as tea drinking is a national pastime.
“Our people don’t drink a lot of coffee, we always drink tea after every meal,” explains Abdullayev. “Even in summer people drink it to make their thirst go away.
“Kebab and rice are also very popular — we have more than 50 rice meals! There’s a lot of food to enjoy and it’s very delicious.”
Earth, wind and fire
“In Baku we always have wind, which is why we call it ‘The City of Wind'” explains Abdullayev. “It makes summer that little bit cooler.”
Windy conditions can also affect the balance and driveability of the car, which could make learning a new circuit that bit more tricky.