F1 Business Diary 2016: the European Grand Prix

The inaugural European Grand Prix in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku was notable more for off-the-track controversies than the racing on the city's street circuit.

With the build-up to the inaugural Grand Prix in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku dominated by controversies surrounding the country’s human rights record and widespread corruption, race organisers would have hoped for the on-track action to ignite discussions of a different kind.

Sadly, those hopes were not entirely fulfilled. While the race was not plagued by the stop-start safety car interventions of the GP2 sprint race on the same circuit earlier in the day, it also failed to provide much of a spectacle, with the dramatic contrast between the surroundings of the city’s medieval old town and the oil-fuelled modernity of its newer district proving the most engaging visual feast on the day.

Having described the street circuit as a “big balls track” ahead of the race, world champion Lewis Hamilton singularly failed to show such cojones in his efforts to overcome technical difficulties and a tenth-placed starting position, ultimately falling further behind Mercedes team mate and rival Nico Rosberg in the drivers' standings. Upon finishing in fifth, leaving himself 24 points adrift, Hamilton conceded that Rosberg “looks good” to claim a first-ever world championship this season.

 

“Sportswashing”

Though some of the stars of Formula One spoke favourably of the newest addition to the calendar – notably former world champion Sebastian Vettel commenting that Baku had been  “a great track” and “incredible” – the somewhat stale nature of the race ultimately couldn’t distract from the criticisms that have been building ever since Formula One Management’s decision to bring the sport to the nation ranked 130 out of 163 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Writing in UK weekly newspaper the Observer  on the day of the race, Azerbaijani journalist and human rights activist Emin Huseynov accused the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, of using the Grand Prix as part of his ongoing attempts to “sportswash” the problems in the country. Huseynov, a member of the Sports for Rights activist group, criticised the likes of Hamilton and Vettell – as well as pop singer Pharrell Williams, who sang at the post-race concert – for their failure to speak out against the regime and the use of money to host high-profile sporting events while ignoring the widespread poverty that continues to plague the country. 

 

Beer backlash

While Formula One's bumper deal with Dutch brewer Heineken may have offered a significant boost to the sport, to the tune of up to US$200 million according to some estimates, other observers have been less impressed with the decision to associate high-speed racing with alcoholic beverages.

In a letter to FIA president Jean Todt, Mariann Skar, secretary general of the European Alcohol Policy Alliance, encouraged the Formula One organisers to “ask themselves if they want to be a motorsport or an alcohol brand event.”

“We would like to remind you that drunk driving is one of the key killers on the road,” the letter added. “It is therefore worrying that F1 is now bringing the link between alcohol brands and motor sport even closer together.”

Given the sport's controversial past with tobacco sponsorships, finally banned in 2006 after years of protests, the campaigners perhaps have a point regarding the on-message nature of Formula One's newest partner – a point that was summarily dismissed by those figures within the business who passed comment.

“I think it's a positive thing,” said Christian Horner, team principal of Red Bull. “There are some great brands involved in Formula One now and hopefully we can put on a good show for them.”

Manor racing director Dave Ryan, meanwhile, added: “I think it will be great for Formula One so no, I don't have a problem with that level of involvement.”

 

Radio gaga

Rule changes are, of course, nothing new to the world of Formula One, but of the several that came in at the start of this season, the new restrictions placed on radio communications has proved the biggest talking point.

Intended to level the playing field and minimise help from the pit team – with FIA regulations stating that “the driver shall drive the car alone and unaided” – the clampdown has instead caused confusion and, according to Hamilton at least, a decrease in competitiveness.

“The radio ban, as far as I am aware, was supposed to stop driver aids,” explained Hamilton. “But it wasn't a driver aid, it was a technical issue. Formula One is so technical that it is far too technical almost. To have that many switch positions, that is something you should be able to rectify because the only people who can see the issue are the people in the garage.

“Today would have added to the spectacle if I had full power because I would have been more in the race fighting with the guys up ahead.”

Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff and Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen echoed Hamilton’s complaints, with both arguing that at least part of the reason for the stale racing on display at the European Grand Prix was down to drivers’ inability to receive vital instructions from their colleagues.

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