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BILLION DOLLAR DODGEMS

Hello race fans. Spy here, perched high in his eerie above Istanbul’s swanky new airport, heading down in a couple of hours to Baku and the multi-billion dollar game of dodgems that is the Azerbaijan Grand Prix!

Istanbul’s become quite the F1 hub in recent years. It’s a handy connection point for Sochi and Baku, and not bad for Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and points East. The new airport is very shiny, and exactly like every other airport in the world*: same shops, same coffee bars, same naff trinkets. If it wasn’t for the different labels on the (same) beer, you could be anywhere. Quite a few circuits are like that. Baku, most definitely, is not.

Avid readers of this column** may have noted that Spy isn’t a particularly big fan of street circuits. They masquerade as nail-biting high-stakes racing but, for the most part, they’re not. Sure, you get exciting races sometimes, but they need an external factor to make it so: rain, or a Safety Car, or Daniel’s dodgy MGU-K last year. Otherwise, what you have is a procession. But Baku is different. Baku has all the exciting things people like about street races: big walls, low grip, overly-enthusiastic driving, plus the stuff that tends to make a proper F1 race exciting too: overtaking opportunities, strategy decisions, setup dilemmas, high-speeds etc – basically, all the stuff street races traditionally lack beneath the endless conveyor-belt of second gear, 90° corners that are a waste of a perfectly good F1 car.

Our new overlords say they want more street races – but what we’re all hoping is that the silent end of that statement is ‘…like Baku’. The problem is, those venues are going to be difficult to find. It’s not easy to locate a 2km straight next to a series of suitably fiddly bits, and it’s even harder to find a council prepared to close it for six months to turn it into something suitable for an F1 race. Even harder still is getting all of that in the middle of the city. No problem if you want to stick the race track out of town and site the pitlane in an abandoned fishmarket***, but if you want fans to be able to step out of their hotel door onto the circuit, and give TV directors the opportunity to shoot pictures of people hanging off balconies, with soft focus geraniums obscuring the track. That’s a little more complicated.

With hindsight, Baku was a winner from the off – though very few people would have thought that before arriving for the first race. It would not be betraying any confidences to suggest not many people in the paddock could have pointed to Baku on the map****before the race was announced. But we were especially wary before the first race, given that the Inspector Google seemed to suggest Baku was mostly famous for gale-force winds and mud volcanoes. Suspicions that the race might be ‘difficult’ were compounded by the decision to put that first race back-to-back with Canada – but the wrong way around.

Back-to-back flyaways are always a hassle. There’s a rushed packdown, a rushed setup and not a great deal of sleep in between. There’s also 8 hours of time difference between Montreal and Baku, which means there’s considerably less setup time if you do Montreal-Baku than if you do Baku-Montreal. The only reason to do it the awkward way around is if you think getting the kit out on Sunday night is going to be difficult.

The reality of Baku would have been pleasant anyway but given how low the bar was set, what we got was amazing: a good, easy setup, an exciting race track, and a good buzz around the city after the pitlane had closed for the evening. Fans started flying in, in bigger and bigger numbers the second and third year, so obviously the word got out. And the race has turned into that most prized of things: something to circle on the calendar and look forward to.

I just hope I can find the right plane to get there.

*unlike the old airport, which wasn’t like any other airport in the world. Except Luton.

**Hello Mum!

***Cheers Bernie.

****Geography not being deemed a core skill outside the travel and logistics departments. One of Spy’s colleagues only realised we are only 30m from the coast last year, and that was because the bar moved from the hotel lobby to the rooftop.