With the action in Baku concentrated in the heart of the city, and with teams and drivers staying in clusters of hotels within the confines of the circuit, it’s all too easy to miss out on all Azerbaijan has to offer.
So, when we heard that about 70kms south of Baku there existed a national park sometimes known as Land of the Bulls – well, you do the maths. Kind of a no-brainer really.
The only question was what to do there? The semi-desert of the Gobustan Reservation is home to some of the world’s best-preserved prehistoric rock art, much of it 40,000 years old, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it wasn’t really plausible to let Max and Daniel loose on those. But with the park covering 537 hectares, packed with treacherous rocky paths, narrow gullies, mud volcanoes and barely navigable roads it was just crying out for some 4x4 action.
Step forward the Lada Niva, now called the 4X4. In production since 1977, it’s a fairly basic but pretty much indestructible beast of a machine and ideally suited to the terrain of Gobustan.
It would have been no fun without some competition, however, and so we set Max and Daniel the challenge of beating some local drivers with expert knowledge of the landscape. But, despite the locals’ familiarity with the trails and paths, F1 pace won out in the end and with Max at the wheel and with Daniel ‘navigating’ (it’s more accurate to say ‘holding on for dear life’) the Red Bulls tamed the Land of the Bulls in style.
“It was a lot of fun,” Max laughed. “A lot of rocks! But it was a good day. I find it quite fascinating that so close to the sea you have this kind of landscape, it’s really beautiful.
“As for the driving, we had some competition from some locals with the same car. We got some fun drifting going, did a bit of filming with the cars and I have to say I enjoyed it. The local guys knew the terrain pretty well, but unfortunately for them we were just a bit faster.”
With Max at the wheel, Daniel took on the role of ballast, and while he had full confidence in Max’s abilities, he admitted to a few nervous moments.
“Fortunately, the Lada handled like an absolute gem,” he said. “Any time Max got into a slide I felt he could bring it back, so I had confidence, but there were definitely some ‘oh boy!’ moments.
Max, meanwhile, was quick to point out that he hadn’t been trying to freak out his team-mate.
“I wasn’t trying to scare Daniel, but I know from myself that once you are a passenger it’s always a bit more scary, because you are not in control. But I think we kept it quite safe. No major dramas."
Daniel agreed, adding: “I’m actually glad I was with Max and not the local guys! They were kind of loose! I was happy to be with Max.”
Both drivers were also impressed with how the little Lada handled the challenge. “The Lada was loads of fun,” said Max. “It’s a very short wheelbase but the handling was fine. It’s quite old school, still a manual, but I have to say both Daniel and I were laughing a lot, so I guess that’s a good sign.”
Daniel was even more pleased with the performance of the 4X4, adding: “I want to get one for my farm. Definitely. I’m picturing a Lada derby. I’m talking a dozen Ladas, two dozen Lada pro drivers and just a big derby-off. Can we get a dozen of these to Perth please?”
In the end, both drivers were happy to have experienced another side of Azerbaijan. “This is actually the first time that I’ve seen more than the hotel and the track,” said Max. “I’m always happy to explore new things, and I was quite surprised. I’d never heard of anything like this, so it’s pretty nice.”
Daniel commented: “I had no idea that out of the city was like this. The hotel is right next to the track, so it’s very easy just to go hotel-circuit all week, so to come out and see a bit is cool. Some crazy little towns, some scary-as-hell cemetery – it’s pretty rugged, but very cool.”
It’s back to Baku city now, though, as the main event, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, begins to ramp up.
“I’m just looking forward to starting the weekend and driving. Last year I think the car was actually very competitive here so hopefully it will be the same this time,” said Max of the weekend ahead. “Streets circuits are always quite cool, but the second sector, where it’s quite twisty and tight around the castle, I think that’s a lot of fun. We should get some interesting racing.”
And for 2017 Azerbaijan winner, Daniel, returning to Baku is rich with emotion. “It feels good; good momentum and good memories of last year here,” he said. “It doesn’t really change my approach to a weekend but sure, it’s nice to have a good feeling about coming into a race.”