The Azerbaijan Grand Prix may not take place this year due to the coronavirus pandemic according to the organizer of the race through the streets of the country’s capital city, Baku.
The Grand Prix was due to be held in June but was postponed last month following the outbreak of coronavirus which has infected 1,340 people in Azerbaijan and claimed 15 lives.
It is one of nine F1 races which have been delayed due to the deadly disease but only the ones in Australia and Monaco have got the red light so far. Last month F1 announced that it hopes to start racing in summer and its motorsport boss Ross Brawn recently added that “probably a European start will be favourable.”
It appeared to put Azerbaijan in pole position as the oil-rich nation sits on the edge of Europe and has far fewer coronavirus cases than its bigger brothers in the region. This still might not be the winning formula according to the boss of the race.
“In our case, it is still uncertain whether or not we will be able to host the event,” says Arif Rahimov, executive director of Baku City Circuit. He adds that his team “would need at least a 10 to 12 week lead time to be able to prepare for the race that has to be run before the weather becomes unpleasant (mid-October).”
It is a race against time as there is no visibility on when borders will re-open or when countries will be clear of coronavirus. In order to host an F1 race, not only does the destination country have to be completely clear but also the UK, Italy and Switzerland as the teams are based there.
If there are still active cases in these countries there is a risk that team personnel could catch the virus which could put the brakes on the race. This is what happened last month when a member of the McLaren team tested positive for COVID-19 just two days before F1’s season-opener in Australia. F1 cancelled the race and Rahimov has put measures in place to prevent that from happening in Baku.
“We have generally had an agreement with F1 that we will only confirm our date in the calendar once the threat of another cancellation is past,” he says. There is good reason for this.
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix joined the F1 calendar in 2016 and snakes through the streets of downtown Baku against a backdrop of futuristic skyscrapers and a 12th century fort. Transforming the streets into an F1 track costs an estimated $30 million annually so Rahimov doesn’t want to be left with the bill and nothing to show for it if the race is cancelled at the last minute. He says that “if we can satisfy the above conditions, I believe we can host another great race with no significant negative impact on the ticket sales.”
This prudence is one of the reasons why Rahimov is one of the smartest operators in F1 and the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is probably the sport’s best-run street race. It has put Azerbaijan on the global sporting map and fueled tremendous economic growth.
Hosting the first race required renovating roads in a 4,500 square meter area around Baku city. According to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) it helped to boost the domestic construction industry by $181.4 million and drove up the number of jobs created by the track. In 2016 and 2017, Baku City Circuit directly contributed to the local labor market by generating 5,000 to 10,000 short and medium-term jobs with up to 7,500 created over the next two years.
The PWC report revealed that the total economic impact of the race has accelerated to $506.3 million since it was first held. Its effect is felt far and wide.
The report states that the economic impact includes “the spend across various sectors including the professional services, hotels and general accommodation, catering, transport, social and cultural services, agriculture, post and telecommunications, wholesale trade and electricity, gas and water amongst others.”
The spectators are the engine behind the spending and they hit an estimated total of 85,000 in 2019. Surprisingly, Rahimov says that the attendance could actually get a boost from the lock down that is currently paralyzing the world.
“Coming out of the quarantine, we might actually see a sudden overall boost in the entertainment sector. You can imagine how this can be applicable to all the people who have been locked up at home for months.” He adds that “there will certainly be less races in the F1 calendar, meaning that fans might want to travel to the nearby race if their own race has been cancelled.”
However, it isn’t guaranteed to be an easy ride. He believes “there could be a potential social aftershock, where people would avoid public gatherings even after we, hopefully, defeat the COVID-19 virus.” Additionally, the expected “economic downturn means a reduction of household disposable income that is usually spent on entertainment.”
Rahimov’s requirement of at least ten weeks’ preparation means that F1 must make a decision on the race by mid-August so we won’t have to wait long to find out if it gets to the finish line.