APRIL 19 (The Conway Bulletin) – The Central Asia and South Caucasus region will host its first Formula 1 Grand Prix next year in Baku.
Formula One boss Bernie Eccelstone gave the green light for Baku to host a Grand Prix despite lobbying from human rights and media groups who accuse the authorities in Azerbaijan of cracking down on civil liberties.
“Baku? No problem. That’s going to be another good race,” Mr Ecclestone told reporters ahead of the Grand Prix in Bahrain (April 19).
Formula One signed a deal with Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev last year to host a Grand Prix, but without Mr Ecclestone’s support the race wouldn’t have gone ahead.
On the human rights issue, he said that Formula One had done their checks. “I think everybody seems to be happy,” he said. “Doesn’t seem to be any big problem there.”
Human rights groups, the United States and the European Union may disagree — they have all heavily criticised Azerbaijan for locking up activists — but Mr Ecclestone’s comments will be a vindication for Mr Aliyev.
Mr Aliyev has sort to promote Azerbaijan through sport. Later this year, Baku will host the first European Games, it sponsors the shirts of major football teams and will host matches at UEFA’s Euro 2020 tournament.
But Formula One is another level up. It is one of the most watched sports in the world and is certainly one of the most glamorous and now it will act as a prism for viewers to discover Baku when they watch Formula 1 race through its streets in 2016.
It will be the second Grand Prix held in the former Soviet Union. Last year, Russia hosted a Grand Prix at Sochi.
>>This story was first published in issue 228 of the weekly Conway Bulletin newspaper