Rumours of a new grand prix in the former Soviet satellite Azerbaijan were confirmed in the week before the Hungarian Grand Prix. Formula One CEO Bernie Ecclestone told Forbes' Christian Sylt that the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, on the Caspian Sea, will host a race in 2016.
This announcement continues what is becoming a disturbing trend for F1: the addition of countries with authoritarian regimes and questionable human rights records to the calendar.
Azerbaijan's current president, Ilham Aliyev, was named the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project's Person of the Year in 2012. The citation noted that he "has been compared to a mafia crime boss in U.S. diplomatic cables, and is referred to as a dictator by many analysts."
The World Factbook produced by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) states that "Corruption in the country is widespread," while Human Rights Watch's (HRW) 2014 World Report found that "The Azerbaijani government’s poor record on freedom of expression, assembly, and association dramatically deteriorated during the year."
There is an old adage that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only a moment to lose it.
F1 has spent over 60 years building the value and reputation of its brand—the sport should not jeopardize those now for a few quick bucks.
At an FIA press conference before the Hungarian Grand Prix, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner complained about having to answer questions on the wisdom of F1 going to Baku, saying, "I think it’s wrong to make Formula One a political statement or subject when we are a sport."
Although he did not mean it that way, Horner was perfectly right. F1 should not be used as a political tool—but that is exactly what these corrupt governments are doing with the sport.
Authoritarian regimes have been willing to pay a premium for their race-hosting fee to gain the perceived legitimacy that comes with hosting a major international event. The same thing has happened with countries like China, Russia and Qatar hosting the Olympics or the World Cup.
Meanwhile, it is F1 that suffers. The traditional races are not willing to suddenly pay double or triple the amount for their right to host a grand prix, putting classic circuits at risk.
Sponsors must deal with seeing their logos associated with countries like China, Russia, Bahrain and now Azerbaijan. For some, this is surely not an issue, as they are hoping to sell product in the massive Asian markets. But others are likely more wary of where their brands are advertised—particularly in the midst of a crisis such as the one in Ukraine.
If the F1 circus does end up in Baku in 2016, millions of television viewers will likely see a glittering city with a state-of-the-art F1 circuit. However, those images will come at a real cost for residents without money or influence.
The HRW report states that, "The government continued its urban renewal campaign in the capital Baku, forcibly evicting hundreds of families without adequate compensation. Torture and ill-treatment persists with impunity." This is not a good image for F1 to be associated with.
Still, there is potential for some positive outcomes from a grand prix in Azerbaijan.
First, the media coverage could help to shine a light on some of the government's abuses. The economic development that the race will bring could also help raise the overall living standards in the country. Finally, there is an opportunity to draw Azerbaijan further into the western sphere of influence and away from Russia.
According to the CIA's Factbook, Azerbaijan's "Trade with Russia and the other former Soviet republics is declining in importance, while trade is building with Turkey and the nations of Europe." The race could help accelerate this rapprochement. In fact, it has even been named the European Grand Prix, although there is not even a consensus that Azerbaijan is in Europe.
Of course, the current calculation in F1 has nothing to do with morality or social responsibility; it has to do with money. And as long as Azerbaijan and similar countries are willing to pay exorbitant rates to host races, they will continue to be added to the calendar, no matter how the governments treat their people.
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