As part of our series of blogs on the inaugural Baku Grand Prix, motorsport enthusiast @jaschintaz wrote a guest article on her visit to the 2016 European Grand Prix 2016.
Prior to the announcement of the 2016 F1 calendar, I’ll admit that I’ve never even heard of Azerbaijan or Baku. In fact, until now, when I needed to wire payment to the Baku agents for my travel visa and mail letters to Baku, the Singapore Post (which is fairly international) will ask me a few times what country it is. Google reveals a Turkish-like city with well-preserved old monuments. I never thought I would visit Baku, even for F1. I had previously travelled to Valencia, Hockenheim and Melbourne for F1 races, but they were established cities, and I didn’t need a visa.
One day, my husband surprised me by saying that his application to marshal for the Baku F1 was accepted. They required international marshals to help out as it was the first time the city was hosting a motorsports event of this scale. We were planning an Eastern Europe trip in summer anyway, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to merge both. Accommodation was provided, but I booked a (free cancellation) hotel in the Old City just in case. We booked our flights to Europe on Turkish Airlines, but there was an issue with the connecting to Baku, so we booked flights independently on Azerbaijan Airlines. I got my e-visa sorted (cost around US$65 minus wire transfer fees).
On our third day (Thursday), my husband headed to the track for marshal duties and I ventured out to explore Baku on my own. This wasn’t the first time traveling on my own and I didn’t feel at risk. I took an Uber in the morning to the Bibi Heybat mosque which is about 45 minute drive from where I stayed. Most roads in the city were closed for F1 but the whole trip cost only US$5 (a similar trip would have easily cost me US$30-45 in Singapore!). From the mosque, I took another taxi to the famed Flame Towers. Sadly, the Towers aren’t open for viewing (wasted opportunity for F1 tourists!) but the hotel was open.
Afterwards, I walked to Martyrs Lane and Upland Park, on a hill nearby the Flame Towers. There is a funicular to take you up and down, but signage was non-existent so I ended up walking up and the view from the top was amazing. Then onto the Old City, the Maiden Tower and Palace of Shirvashahs. After this, I went to the track for the Mercedes team autograph session. After queuing for about 1.5 hours under the scorching sun (it was 36 degrees on most days), I managed to snag an autograph and a selfie with Nico Rosberg!
Friday was the first day of track events. The stands were quite empty and organisers were extremely strict with spectators – no standing, no tying of driver/team banners to the barriers, no waving of banners etc. I had a “Team Rosberg” banner and tried to reason with track officials informing them that elsewhere, so long as the banner was not an advertisement for a product or company, display it was allowed. They checked with management but it was still refused.
Food and drinks at the track were comparatively expensive compared to outside food (mineral water cost about US$1.50 and beer about US$3.00) but still a third of the price at the Singapore or Malaysian track. However it was troublesome that you couldn’t use cash to buy items, you had to purchase food and drink coupons which were located next door to the food and drinks stall which caused delays.
Things took a turn for a better when my fellow-Malaysian GP2 driver, Nabil Jeffri (driving for Arden team) asked his manager to provide me with a paddock pass for the next day’s GP2 race so I could explore the paddock. Security at the track and metro stations were tight – they constantly scanned bags and even checked to make sure our mobile phones and cameras were legit equipment.
Saturday: This had to be the highlight of my trip (apart from Nico Rosberg’s win on Sunday). In the morning, I met Nabil and his manager and they brought me into the paddock. And before the feature race started, they provided me with a pass to access the starting grid! Nabil is such a promising driver. Baku was his 3rd time being in a GP2 car, but he’s already one step closer to F1. His dad is really dedicated – he’s been flying from Malaysia to anywhere in the world where Nabil races. I wished him well for Sunday’s race, and told him drive steady and more importantly, stay safe. A million thanks again to Nabil for the amazing opportunity. After GP2, I headed to the grandstand to watch the F1 qualifying session and needless to say, was given another present when Nico Rosberg secured pole.
Sunday: Race day! I wanted to squeeze in some more sightseeing, so I headed out earlier and took a train to Nariman Narimanov metro station (3 stops away), had lunch at one of the restaurants nearby and then walked to the Heydar Aliyev Centre. The centre itself was an architectural wonder!
From there, I took a London taxi to the track and accessed the track (easy access from the gate nearest to the Marriott hotel) and when I arrived at the grandstand, the GP2 sprint race was about to begin. Happily, Nabil finished in 7th scoring his first points in the GP2 championships. Yay! Way to go, Nabil! You did it 🙂
I went to get a bottle of water and returned for the F1 drivers’ parade. I was informed by the track officials that no banners were allowed as the President of Azerbaijan was present. Thereafter, was the race and the rest is history. I won’t bother with the race details since you can read that elsewhere.
Other than the banner issues, the track officials were very nice to me (I even made friends!) and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Having spoken to the Arden racing team personnel, I was told that before they arrived, they were expecting the worst but were pleasantly surprised. I was too, and I admitted that the city was slightly more modern than some of the smaller European cities I’ve visited.
Overall I’d rate this track a 7/10, the vibe overall is pretty amazing and generally people are helpful although definitely there is room for improvement. Events and track activities are also pretty well organised, especially since it’s their first year. I really liked that it was quite easy to get around the track and that things weren’t located too far from one another. For example, the concert stage was about 15 minutes walk from my seats whereas in Singapore, it is a 45-minute walk to get to the concert area.
After the race: It’s time to bid farewell to Baku, and I was suddenly extremely sad to leave. We were made to feel so welcome, and everyone was so warm to us. We left the Athletes Village for the last time in a taxi, and headed to the airport for our flight back to Istanbul. I sent a message to thank the marshal officer who was in charge of the international marshals and tell her that I had an amazing time and to thank her for their hospitality.
At the airport itself, we saw the McLaren Honda and Red Bull Racing teams arrive in coaches and matching team gear and suitcases. The airport is beautiful, but the customs clearance on exit could have been sped up. Despite heavy traffic, they only had 3 counters open, resulting in long queues. They also want to view your visa when you exit, so I’d advise not discarding it.
So this brings me to the end of my rather lengthy article about Baku, but I hope it’s been informative! If you want to view more photos of my trip, please head to Facebook.com/TeamRosberg or Instagram.com/jaschintaz. Thanks for reading!