Azerbaijan’s capital, which inaugurated its grand prix in 2016, is unique. The first part of the track consists of a series of left and right 90-degree corners, hemmed in by guardrails and fencing. The track here is wider than Monaco, but visibility is still limited – as are the prospects of overtaking. The middle part of the track snakes its way through the old city in a way that’s almost claustrophobic. Here, the asphalt narrows dramatically, meaning that the cars have to negotiate some parts in single file: especially the almost surreal uphill climb towards the castle. Finally, the track opens up again, and as the cars head down towards the seafront, there’s another notable shift in tempo, which is seriously fast.
This is where you’ll find an incredible straight that’s more than 2.2 kilometres long. It’s not exactly a straight in the strictest sense of the word, as it’s formed of two straight sections linked by a sweeping right-hander. However, in a modern F1 car, that’s still flat-out – with top speeds that have been measured at an incredible 378kph in the past as the cars flash by the pits. It’s a spectacle like no other.
While spectacular, Baku has never been crowded by fans – so it’s a rewarding race to go and watch, for those who make the effort to travel to Azerbaijan (not the easiest place in the world to get to, but there is a surprising number of direct flights to Baku now on Azerbaijan Airlines). The population of the entire country is only about 10 million and racing culture is still yet to take hold, so you’ll always be guaranteed a good view, with plenty of choice. A number of vantage points overlook the track, but an excellent place to watch is the main grandstand (also known as Absheron grandstand) that overlooks the pit complex on the start-finish straight and the first corner, plus the imposing Government House building. The first corner is one of the main overtaking spots: this is where Daniel Ricciardo completed a fantastic move on his way to victory in 2017, but also famously clashed with teammate Max Verstappen in 2018. Things happen in Turn 1, and the Absheron grandstand is also the only covered grandstand in Baku: an important consideration as it can get very hot in Azerbaijan at this time of year. Alternatively, if you want to see modern Formula 1 cars going as fast as they can, choose the Bulvar grandstand, where you have a good view of that famous straight. It will blow your mind.
Baku is unlike anywhere else. There’s a huge mixture of influences on the landscape and culture: the backdrop of a fascinating Soviet legacy, but also some ultra-modern skyscrapers and a historic centre that is modelled on Paris, alongside medieval fortifications. Someone once described Baku as a bit like walking onto a filmset, and that’s a great description: it does have that slightly surreal feel to it. The new money that funds the city and the grand prix is derived from the oil industry, but the old city dates back almost a thousand years: with the centrepiece being the Maiden Tower, a prominent feature of the circuit. Baku is rich with museums, including the carpet museum (which actually looks like a carpet) and the museum of modern art, which includes works by Picasso and Dali. But perhaps the best thing to do is just wander down the beautiful promenade along the Caspian Sea and soak up the eclectic sights. Nights out are memorable: there are plenty of happening bars thanks to a young population and the food is delicious – especially if you are a kebab fan. With a relaxed atmosphere and so much to do, Baku is a true hidden gem of a destination.
Pirelli North America is ready for another...