The Formula 1 calendar of 2016 was an issue that triggered a lot of discussions. Now that it’s all clear about the venues, we examine one of them – Baku, Azerbaijan – with the help of Mark Hughes, who is the founder and CEO of Mrk1 Consulting, an innovative consultancy company specialising in advice, guidance and assistance in the operation of sporting venues and major sporting events. Mark is a renowned expert in race circuit and sports venue operations, also event management, he has helped with construction, fit out, set up and running of world-class venues including Brands Hatch, Bahrain International Circuit, Yas Marina Circuit – Abu Dhabi and Buddh International Circuit – India.
Politics and media in Azerbaijan
I’m not sure that there are many countries where free media and free politics truly exist. If you look at a high percentage of the countries that Formula 1 visits and you dig deep enough, you will always find problems even in the so-called ‘free’ countries.
I think it is the responsibility of the professional press to respect the rules of the country they are in, but, at the same time, to try to form an honest opinion. As someone who is based in Bahrain for example, I find some of the headlines I read really quite extraordinary. Journalists looking to sensationalise issues that they simply don’t understand, issues that get blown out of all proportion or stories that are so one sided they simply don’t reflect reality.
The media that I spoke to at the European Games in Baku were delighted with the response they received and with the quality of the sport that they were witnessing. Azerbaijan will welcome Formula 1 journalists with open arms and I am sure all members of the media will enjoy the city as much I do.
Baku is really an extraordinary city with some fascinating history, architecture, culture and wonderful people. I know that visitors to the city will be pleasantly surprised by what they find there.
In terms of the track, it will be totally different to Monaco or Singapore. It has some great elevation changes, it follows the walls of the ancient city in some places, whilst in others it runs along wide open boulevards with plenty of overtaking opportunities. It will be a great race in its own right.
My company has a number of motorsport venue services. We offer advice and guidance to organisations, governments or private individuals considering building a race circuit who need help with their feasibility studies or business planning. As for Baku, I am personally working with the Head of Operations to support him and his team in the planning and execution of the race, sharing the lessons learned from the 18+ Formula 1 races I’ve worked on. The support I give them covers both the race delivery such as advice on marshalling, race officials, training, planning and execution as well as off-track support with advice on logistics, traffic and transport, way finding and signage and event management.
The Baku team have an huge amount of enthusiasm and, coming off the back of the European Games, they have learnt a lot about major events which they can put to good use on the Grand Prix.
The circuit has some great elevation changes, it follows the walls of the ancient city in some places, whilst in others it runs along wide open boulevards with plenty of overtaking opportunities.
The calendar for 2016
Putting together the calendar of Formula 1 is no mean feat and I respect anyone that has an input to the process. From a fans perspective, I think it’s a shame that the seasons is starting so late. I know everyone will be chomping at the bit for the start of the season. From the perspective of someone who has been intimately involved with the Bahrain Grand Prix for so many years, I think it’s quite a shame as it’s getting blisteringly hot by the end of April. Going to Bahrain one or two weeks earlier really makes a huge difference.
I also struggle to understand the logic of why Formula 1 goes from Europe to North America (Canada) for one race then comes all the way back again. I am sure there are reasons for that though, even if it won’t be a comfortable travelling process for most professionals in the sport.
I believe, on the whole, local organisers do all that they can to work closely with Formula 1. It is in their obvious interests to have a strong relationship and to utilise the marketing tools, the glamour, the buzz that Formula 1 generates to increase tickets sales for each track.
Having said that, I don’t think Formula 1 is accessible enough to the average fan. A lot of these people will queue for a long time to get a glimpse of their heroes and often never get that glimpse.
I think one of the most positive things to come out of Formula 1 in the recent years (and I believe we’ve introduced it in Bahrain if memory serves me correctly) was the Thursday pit walk for ticket holders. This is now a common practice at a lot of tracks. It gives people that can’t afford a Paddock Club ticket or aren’t well-connected enough to get a paddock pass the best access they ever will get. However, the number of drivers that appear during that pit walk is abysmal. I know they all have hectic schedules, sponsors commitments and other affairs, but it can’t be beyond the realms of possibility to build an appearance into their schedule, can it? The fans are at the core of this sport and we need to do more to support them.
In terms of outright business, I think things like the business forums hosted by some circuits are great and I know that there are incredible opportunities in these new markets to find new sponsors, develop technology partnerships, work with different industries. Bahrain is a case in point with Bell Helmets now being based in the Kingdom. That would never have happened had it not been for Formula 1.