The debut race in Baku will be remembered for top speed records. Valtteri Bottas, Williams’ driver, was officially clocked across the start/finish line as going at 366.1 km/h during qualifying in Baku. However, as the braking zone for Turn 1 is after the start/finish line, Williams’ data showed that his car continued to accelerate after that reading and reached a peak of 378 km/h shortly afterwards.
According to motorsport.com, this figure is in excess of speed trap figures from F1’s other high-speed venues, Mexico and Monza. During qualifying at last year’s Mexican Grand Prix, Felipe Massa was recorded at 364.3 km/h through the speed trap, which beat the previous benchmark of 354.6 km/h which Sergio Perez had delivered at Monza earlier in the season. “Baku’s top speeds are more a shock because of the tight and twisty nature of the track once the cars have left the 2.1 km-long straight,” the motorsport edition commented. The iconic feature of the Baku City Circuit is the narrowest part alongside the Old City wall; it is only seven-and-a-half meters.
Right after this announcement, Tilke said that neither he, nor the teams had expected Baku to be so quick, with original estimates being as low as 340 km/h. “Our computer program for lap time and speed simulation stops at 340 km/h, because you never know what teams will use in terms of wings and settings,” explained Tilke. “Some teams said it would be about 345 km/h or 350 km/h, but in the end it was a lot more. I think it is a record in all of F1."
The track’s designer claims to have created a challenging street circuit, in terms of engineering and design; one that thrives on Baku’s very attractive urban atmosphere and its great combination of the historic city center, the beautiful seaside promenade and the impressive government buildings, all combining to provide the perfect backdrop for a spectacular new track.
According to Azad Rahimov, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Youth and Sport, “our brief to Tilke Engineering was simple – create a circuit that is unique, one that will help the Grand Prix in Baku quickly establish itself as one of the most exciting, thrilling venues on the F1 calendar, and one that the fans and teams alike are excited about … Most importantly, we wanted a track that would showcase the best of Baku, our capital city, and I am delighted that the circuit the F1 teams will race on in 2016 has achieved exactly that aim.”
However, human rights campaigners believe that President Aliyev uses international sports events to improve his image. Sport for Rights coordinator Rebecca Vincent stated that, “… the elite athletes and performers gathering in Baku for the Grand Prix this weekend should be aware that their presence is being used as propaganda by a rights-abusing regime. They should take this opportunity to speak out and call for the release of political prisoners, instead of enabling repression.”
Last year, Azerbaijan hosted the European Games, the first-ever continental games. Azerbaijan’s state energy company SOCAR is a “global partner” of the Euro 2016 football championship in France. The F1 race is widely believed to be a pet project of the president.
Gulnara Akhundova of International Media Support believes that tangible reforms are needed to truly improve Azerbaijan’s image. “If President Aliyev really wants the respect of the international community, instead of spending millions on sporting events, he should show a commitment to democracy and the rule of law by repealing regressive laws, allowing journalists and NGOs to work freely and releasing the many political prisoners held for expressing critical opinions,” she said.
How much the government is spending on hosting the event is unknown. Minister Rahimov claims that the race will cost less than US$ 150 million to stage.
“The primary objective is to promote our city from different points: from the touristic point of view, investment,” said Arif Rahimov, a race organizer for the Grand Prix who is also the son of the country’s sports minister, referring to the 500-million international audience of F1. “Aside from the state, private foundations, businessmen, travel companies and banks are taking part in organizing the race,” he said, without elaborating.