F1 returns to controversial Azerbaijan

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix on 25 June may be the country’s second Formula One race, but the event has had little difficulty garnering attention during its short tenure on the calendar.

The dubious titling of the first race as the ‘Grand Prix of Europe’ in 2016 — despite Azerbaijan’s being close to Baghdad than Brussels — raised eyebrows, and its deliberate scheduling by then commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone to clash with the renowned 24 Hours of Le Mans race outraged motorsport fans worldwide.

With Formula One now under new commercial ownership, however, the sport has addressed some of the more problematic aspects of the race. The renamed Azerbaijan Grand Prix has been shifted in the calendar not only to avoid clashing with the famous Le Mans endurance race but also to give teams a free weekend on either side of the grand prix to move more easily in and out of the tiny seaside capital, Baku.

But inescapable is the fact that Formula One was brought to Azerbaijan not for its rich racing history nor for any particularly memorable racing circuit; F1 is in Baku for the money in a deal characteristic of Bernie Ecclestone’s reign over the sport.

F1’s new commercial bosses have been keen to emphasise their intention to preside over an era of sporting reinvigoration. Bringing the Formula One closer to its core fan base and expanding into new motorsport-enthusiastic territories are among F1’s highest priorities today — but these values are obviously incongruent with the philosophy underpinning its contract with Baku.

Greg Maffei, CEO of the company that bought F1’s commercial rights at the beginning of the year, wasted little time spelling out the discrepancy, saying in a conference earlier this year that Azerbaijan pays “a big race fee but it does nothing to build the long-term brand and health of the business”.

Race promoter and MP Arif Rahimov was understandably unhappy.

“It does upset us obviously,” he told Reuters. “Mr Maffei has been involved in F1 for less than half a year. We’ve been working on this project for three years now, so we have more experience with F1 than them.

“I think saying something like this is ignorant, but we’ll see.”

It’s hardly the sort of pre-race build-up the grand prix promoter will have wanted for the race’s sophomore running, but the prospect of a hard-fought grand prix could spare both sides of the argument their blushes.

Mercedes and Ferrari remain locked in a tight championship battle, but the peculiar characteristics of the Baku street circuit will make mastering this weekend a difficult affair.

Baku’s long straights will favour Mercedes and its class-leading power unit, but the low-energy corners, most of which are 90-degree turns, are similar to those that caused the Silver Arrows problems with tyre warm-up in Russia and Monaco.

Worse still is that Pirelli is bringing the same medium, soft, and supersoft tyres as it did last year, but with all compounds one step harder in 2017, Mercedes’s difficulties could be exacerbated further.

Mercedes’s strong showing last round in Canada suggested it was at last coming to grips with its car’s unhappiness with its tyres, but if its optimism proves premature it might open the way for another unlikely podium for Force India.

The pink-liveried team had an extraordinary weekend in Azerbaijan last year, when Sergio Perez qualified second behind Nico Rosberg before finishing the race in third.

Force India has marked itself as the best performing midfield team in 2017, and with a Mercedes engine powering its aerodynamically efficient car, another weekend of heavy points scoring could be on the cards.