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At this stage it feels like with each passing week brings another host of postponements and cancellations in the motorsport world due to COVID-19, and last week came the Azerbaijan Grand Prix’s turn to be called off.
With the Baku City Circuit being a temporary venue in the heart of the capital, a decision had to be made before funds were spent starting to assemble the track ahead of what was originally a June 7 race date.
“We tried really hard not to disappoint the fans to have the race this year at the date that was on the calendar, but obviously it didn’t work out,” Baku City Circuit executive director Arif Rahimov tells RACER. “So we were trying to see if there would be some light on the situation until our cut-off point, which was just over two months before the race.
“Obviously there are several things that we have to think about when actually putting this deadline in place. There is the track readiness – the time it takes for us to build up all the temporary facilities at the track and to make sure that it’s fit to host a Formula 1 race – and on the other hand we also have the commercial factor. So we have all the ticket sales that were a huge factor, but one of the most important factors was the health and safety of all the participants.”
Before deciding to postpone the event, Rahimov says all of the options were considered, but the sheer size of a Formula 1 event proved too difficult to negotiate in the current global climate.
“We had an idea of having a no-spectator race, something that Bahrain had thought about, but even that would involve thousands,” he said. “We estimated about 6,000 or 7,000 people would be involved in a no-spectator race, including all the security, all the F1 personnel, all the teams, media, stakeholders etc. So that’s still a huge gathering of people in one spot.
“That was obviously one of the last resorts when we were thinking of doing something like that, and in the end we figured it was not an option because we were still putting a lot of people at risk if we did it this way.
“And the last bit was the limits that were imposed by the government to avoid the spread of COVID-19. We had quite a few decrees by the cabinet ministers to stop certain activities in the city to reduce the spread of the virus. At some point, that basically made it impossible to even speak about hosting the race anymore.
“Right now, Azerbaijan is in quarantine and we can’t market and go ahead with the race given that we’re in this situation. It’s not only politically incorrect, it’s also illegal as we’d be trying to promote a mass gathering of people at a time when the country is in quarantine.”
Coming to such a decision is not the work of a moment, and it also requires the involvement of a number of stakeholders. Race hosting fees are a significant part of F1’s income and a major negotiating point, but Rahimov says the financial side was not a priority in the context of the wider pandemic.
“We had to coordinate everything with F1,” he says. “I would speak with F1 on several occasions just to give them an update on what’s happening here. I had to be the middle man between the government of Azerbaijan and F1 to make sure that we were all on the same page with the measures that we have to take. So I did speak to them on several occasions, and I think it was quite obvious that this was coming to this conclusion.
“There was no resistance from either side. We all understand the situation we’re in, and it wasn’t a negotiation, it was just coordinating the crisis that we’re in, and making sure that we come up with the same messages and we’re on the same page about the fees and all the expenses that’s involved in stopping the race. In the end we did agree to postpone the race, and we will talk about the new date when everything has gone back to normal.”
The first job for the Azerbaijan GP team will be to contact fans and work out ticketing arrangements depending on whether they want a refund or to hold on for any rescheduled event. Then, Rahimov says it’s a matter of working out the financial implications for the year and waiting for the coronavirus situation to improve in order to be able to start planning for a potential race date later in the season.
“To be honest, we’ve done four races in the past and we kind of know our plan As and Bs and Cs,” he says. “So if we have a date, we know when we have to start working for it. It doesn’t matter if it’s April or June or September or October, we know that we need that many days to prepare the circuit, we know how much time we need to start selling the tickets and for marketing this or that.
“So it’s all kind of irrelevant to what the date is. We have to adjust for summer months where things are a bit less active, but to be honest right now everything is so unpredictable. Planning all the scenarios is just impossible because there’s this massive unknown variable right in the middle, so it would be a waste of time to play around with something that you don’t know about.”
While Rahimov says the Australian Grand Prix was an example of an “absolute disaster” for a race promoter as it was a temporary venue that suffered a last-minute cancellation, he is confident Baku can build its track at a different time this year having not caused any disruption to the city when it was originally meant to.
“We can build the circuit, yes,” he says. “We’ve done it in April, we’ve done in it June. Obviously it’s inconvenient for the city, but we haven’t done it in June this year, [so] it’s not like we’re doing it twice. Everyone is expecting every year that we will be hosting the race, people do understand the inconvenience and they understand the benefits of having this race. There’s obviously pros and cons, but the people of Azerbaijan and especially residents of Baku are in line, and they feel the benefits that the race brings to them.
“So we just need two-and-a-half to three months to prepare the circuit and to make sure everything is in place, and if we’re given a date that is less than that time away then we wouldn’t be able to make it. It’s just a matter of when we will have some clarity about the future of this planet and how everything is going to be, then we can work at that time.”