FIA GTs in Azerbaijan


“Yes, is a big weekend for Baku, for sure many challenges.” The barman smiles diffidently, hands me a glass of the local red wine. “Enjoy your stay with us,” he says, ” you like our wine? It comes from the mountains, far from here.” I will, and I do, I tell him.

The Baku World Challenge gets underway tomorrow and certainly it has already been something of a challenge for the inhabitants of this city on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Last night, en route from the airport, our bus driver somehow found himself on the circuit where we narrowly missed being forced into the concrete barriers by an errant Lada in the braking area at the end of the main straight. For the racers there is however plenty of room for overtaking on the three-lane highways that make up a circuit reminiscent of Long Beach.

The first street race in Baku, known as the City of Lights due to its modern architecture which is spectacularly lit at night, was held last year. This was a low-key affair on a circuit using the wide boulevards inland from the port. Thierry Boutsen was there and came away with an idea to bring the Blancpain series, in which he enters his own team, to the city streets.

This plan inspired both the Azeri politicians and the ever-resourceful Stephane Ratel whose SRO organisation promotes and stages the championship.

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Following the inaugural event last year a new circuit has been designed using the dual carriageways that serve the waterfront alongside the Caspian Sea. The track has, as its backdrop, not only the sea and the city, but some of the most extreme architecture anywhere in the world.

An impressive city

Buildings with complex glass shells include the Crystal Hall, the Flame Towers and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre which hosted the Eurovision Song Contest last year. Baku is upwardly mobile in every sense, and an international motor race will only help put this oil-rich state on the map before the European Games come here in 2015.

You can smell the money, or to be precise, the source. A whiff of petroleum on the breeze that blows across the bay from Baku’s refineries is a reminder of just how the Azeris have transformed their capital city.

Night and day cleaners are washing and sweeping the streets, the parks and gardens are constantly trimmed and tended. Azerbaijan is dressing up for the big occasion. Tomorrow the TV cameras will send their pictures around the world beyond its borders and you can sense the ambitions of these hard-working people. We are going to hear a great deal more about the ‘Land of Fires’ in decades to come.

Up in the mountains they are creating an impressive new ski resort with its own new airport. Down here, by the sea, an international motor race is about to get underway. The Baku World Challenge will be televised in 80 countries, over 100 journalists are here, invited and looked after by the government.

Sunday sees the final round of the Blancpain FIA GT Series, and this race will decide the 2013 Championship, so there is a lot at stake on the streets of Baku this weekend. A 28-car entry has brought plane loads of racing folk from all over Europe, none of them having seen the new circuit until today.

Some have put in a few laps on the simulator and found the layout to be fast and challenging. A lack of grip is the subject of many huddled conversations, so getting the Pirellis up to temperature on virgin territory will be the first hurdle to overcome, not to mention keeping away from the barriers and the bumps.

As I write, from a ‘Media Centre’ within the vast expanse of the Crystal Hall, the FIA GT cars are being scrutineered ahead of qualifying tomorrow. Later today the waterfront boulevards will be closed, the new circuit cleaned and prepared for racing. The city traffic, already chaotic, will be something of a challenge this weekend. Gone are the Volgas and Ladas of a decade ago, now the streets are clogged with shiny new BMWs, Mercs, Audis and Hyundais.

Watson’s opinion

What will, or should, thrill the locals is the sheer variety of cars on track. This final round of the FIA GT championship will be fought out between Audi, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, McLaren and Ferrari to name a few. Former Grand Prix driver and winner of street races John Watson is here to commentate for Eurosport. He anticipates an exciting weekend out on the streets of Baku.

“It will be all about tyre temperature and keeping the car out of the walls,” he says, “in cold weather, and on a green track, the guys who get the Pirellis up to working temperature will be in the pound seats. There’s only one really quick corner, the rest is chicanes and a hairpin, so downforce is not at an absolute premium here. The Audis will be quick, of course, but the McLarens could be a handful in these conditions.

“Both Sébastien Loeb and Oliver Turvey are in the McLarens so I’m interested to see how they handle a street race. It will be down to which team can optimise the tyres and which drivers can stay away from the walls. On the long return straight there’s a crest which will catch some of them out and you might see them running four or five abreast on these very wide streets that run along the waterfront.

“We’re looking at a level playing field for the championship finale so let’s hope for a decent crowd because that will create some atmosphere and certainly the race has created a big buzz around Baku.”

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The Azerbaijanis have embraced this latest project with enthusiasm in their continuing efforts to attract tourism to this former Soviet state. Baku is buzzing, the drivers are champing at the bit, rain is predicted. Everything else is entirely unpredictable. And that’s just how sport should be.

Practice starts tomorrow with the race on Sunday and historic F1 cars will entertain the crowd in between sessions. The locals have never seen a Grand Prix car in action, let alone the much-missed cars of the 1970s and ’80s. Assuming they turn up, they are in for a treat on their city streets. My taxi driver told me today that Baku traffic is “totally wild, chaotic” and he’s right. It will be some time before an Azeri teenager appears in the F1 paddock. Or maybe they will be bitten by the bug this weekend.

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