Fernando Alonso, McLaren, Baku City Circuit, 2016

Why Azerbaijan called its race the ‘European’ Grand Prix

2016 European Grand Prix

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Although the title ‘European Grand Prix’ was first used as the official name of a world championship round in 1983, at Brands Hatch, it had been around long before then.

The title pre-dates the beginning of the world championship in 1950. And while the opening round of that first season at Silverstone was named the British Grand Prix, it also held the European Grand Prix title.

But the history invested in the European Grand Prix name has less to do with why Azerbaijan has adopted it for the title of its first grand prix than other, political concerns.

It isn’t unprecedented for a race to hold a title belonging to something other than the country it is held in. It has often happened in the case of one country being given more than one round of the championship.

This was the case when the European Grand Prix title was revived in 1983 for a second race in Britain. The year before the ‘Swiss’ Grand Prix was a second world championship round in France held at a time when French interest in the championship was high due to the success of Renault and a plethora of successful French drivers including Alain Prost, Rene Arnoux, Didier Pironi and others.

More recently the European Grand Prix title was used for second races in Germany during the height of Michael Schumacher’s success and in Spain after Fernando Alonso raised F1’s profile in his home nation.

But the rising cost of race hosting fees now means many European promoters cannot afford races at all, let alone one in close proximity to another in the same country. The name fell out of use when F1 left the Valencia track after 2012.

So why has Baku adopted the title instead of calling its new race the Azerbaijan Grand Prix? It would once have been taken for granted that a circuit owner looking to promote their race would prefer the honour of hosting their country’s round of the world championship.

That largely remained the case even as governments have replaced circuit owners as FOM’s top customers for the rights to hold grands prix. China, Russia and others wanted their own round of the championship to stand alongside the likes of Britain, Australia or the USA.

But Azerbaijan, a former Soviet state which gained independence in 1991, is a different case. Azad Rahimov, the minister responsible for its race, hinted at the thinking behind the decision to adopt the ‘European’ title when the grand prix was announced in 2014: “Azerbaijan is a modern European country that has established a reputation as a centre of sporting excellence.”

Azerbaijan is at pains to project an image of itself as being ‘European’. It has already hosted the Eurovision song contest and the European athletic games – the latter amid some controversy over its poor human rights record and refusal to admit journalists who had written anything critical about the country.

It’s not hard to see why an undemocratic and highly corrupt regime which suppresses freedom of speech and imprisons and tortures its critics would wish to adopt a title which by implication associates itself with countries to which the same does not apply.

One wonders whether it occurred to Bernie Ecclestone the very Europeanness he repeatedly disparages has, on this occasion, turned out to be rather lucrative for him.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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33 comments on “Why Azerbaijan called its race the ‘European’ Grand Prix”

  1. It’s purely a marketing programme.

    All the recent plethora of Azerbaijani European events are just a branding campaign.

    It’s not about whether or not the place is geographically European or not, I think it’s about building an image which projects the traditianal western ideas.

    Are they trying to build a big tourism industry from this, or perhaps look for European Union membership?

  2. Not hard to figure out really. Trying to promote themselves to the more chic and desirable European market. And Bernie with his hands out to help market them as such.

    1. How about the Corrupt and Oppressive Petro-cash Grand Prix?

      1. Didn’t have the same ring to it. :p

  3. Why must a country be democractic to fit into your western mindsets as being a “good” and “free” country. Democracies have failed and are generally built upon the corrupt and dehumanizing capitalist model. You through the word “dictator” around as if every country without a democracy is a crackpot junta. Human rights? You think blowing up children in Syria and Iraq which the USA, UK, and Russia are all taking a part in, is that human rights? Should stick to f1 and leave all politics alone because people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Oh, but they do when they come and “bomb them some democracy into a country”.

    1. ‘Should stick to f1 and leave all politics alone’
      Perhaps listen to your own advice?

    2. The political errors of (most) European countries are different to the political errors of Azerbaijan. If the political leaders in the latter think it is slick marketing to portray itself as the former will make it look more attractive, it is bound to do so. If a situation occurred where a political leader in a European country thought it was slick marketing to portray itself as resembling Azerbaijan, I’d expect it to use the exact same trick.

      I am uncomfortable with the FIA sanctioning such behaviour. This is not 1980, before the adoption of the anti-political-statement Article 1 (that, I understand, was created in 1981). The FIA’s defence is that nobody batted an eyelid at similar non-literal descriptors of races across Europe – how can Asia be denied the same rights? It is a defence it has to use as otherwise, admitting there might be a political purpose to this blatantly inaccurate description use (Europe, the tectonic plate, is nowhere near Azerbaijan; no amount of desire or societal configuration can move a city’s geography!) would cause Azerbaijan to protest that Bahrain was allowed to break the Statute without question at the start of the decade. And if the FIA is not in compliance with its Statutes, that is storing up trouble for when the EU concludes its investigations into anti-competitive behaviour – it would give an excuse to remove the FIA’s current right to behave more monopolistically than usually permitted for sporting organisers in Europe, instead of mere fines and series restructuring, should the anti-competition findings be adverse.

    3. Allan Goodall
      18th June 2016, 17:34

      As Churchill said, “Democracies are the worst form of government, except for all the others.” In order for a country to even attempt to be good and fair it has to be a democracy at a bare minimum. Democracies aren’t perfect, but they beat the alternatives. Having a democratically elected government should be a requirement for hosting a F1 grand prix. Of course applying that rule would free up huge chunks of the racing calendar.

    4. “as if every country without a democracy is a crackpot junta.”

      I can’t think of any countries where this isn’t true.

      1. Singapore may be the one exception where a dictatorship did not just benefit a ruling elite, but also the population at large.

    5. There are plenty of countries ruled by a dictator or oligarchy that devote considerable propaganda to pretending to be democratic, but I can’t think of a democracy that proclaims itself a dictatorship and tries to cover up its elections. As an example, Libya under Gaddafi had an eleborate system of multi-stage elections from local to national level. Yet, strangely enough, the only people who got elected were those approved by Gaddafi and his cronies.

      You don’t need a ‘western mindset’ to believe democracy is more desireable than dictatorship: the dictators themselves believe it.

    6. Yeah, because without ‘western bombing of kids’ no-one would be dying in Syria. Idiot.

      If a country wants to market themselves as ‘western’ it might help to have some ‘western’ ideals. Otherwise, just be yourself. You can’t tout to have the same values you also decry. That’s lunacy.

      F1 races should be held in nations with motor-sport credentials. Otherwise you get the empty grandstands as seen during qualifying and ridiculous political attachments to the event. Do they really think F1 fans (and other fans) are falling for their expensive propaganda?

      A ‘sporting nation’ doesn’t just host, it also participates and, hopefully, wins.

  4. “The speed is higher in the land of fire.”
    What?

    1. +1, my initial reaction too

    2. Nick, the reference seems to be a combination of a few things – the name “Azerbaijan” is thought to be derived from Atropatene, which meant “Land of the Holy Flame” in antiquity. Furthermore, there is also the famous Yanar Dag, or “burning mountain”, where there are flames erupting from the mountain where natural gas is leaking to the surface through fissured sandstone.

      1. Anon, thank you for your explanation – and to @alianora-la-canta and @strontium as well.
        You will forgive my jaundiced viewpoint when I say that the slogan sounds like one made up on the spot by one of the eight-year-olds at the PR Agency, which is then enthusiastically received by the CEO and imposed upon the project to the disbelief of all others around the table. The CEO is probably only interested in the slogan because he wants to get into the pants of the eight-year-old, but the slogan is adopted and plastered over everything from the packaging to the billboards and unveiled to a totally clueless and disinterested public.
        After a few tedious weeks, the slogan starts to slip from view as the CEO’s wife has told him it was trite manure and anyway, the eight-year-old in question has now left the Agency and is fundraising for ‘Save The Whale/Tiger/Puppy’ or whatever she has found this month.
        Quietly forgotten after a year or so, the slogan serves only to embarrass those who had to work with it while launching the pointless product into the vacuous minds of the ignoring public.
        Cynical, moi?
        Yes.
        But really, the slogan should be interesting engaging and relevant to the outside audience – i.e. those who know little about Azerbaijan or antiquity and who may be persuaded to visit or invest or find out more. This slogan is inward looking and requires detailed knowledge of the country’s geography and the etymology of its name before the slogan makes any sense at all. It is therefore a failure.

    3. Plus, it rhymes.

    4. “The speed is higher when you’re toally wired.”
      That would be a bit off-message though.

  5. I believe it is really just a promotional thing. I don’t think the title is particularly politically driven more than anything else

  6. It’s a thought-provoking tone you hit at the end there, @keithcollantine. Great article.

  7. “It’s not hard to see why an undemocratic and highly corrupt regime which suppresses freedom of speech and imprisons and tortures its critics would wish to adopt a title which by implication associates itself with countries to which the same does not apply.”

    I’m having a hard time finding which countries you’re referering that does not apply.

    1. Neil (@neilosjames)
      18th June 2016, 15:55

      Most of Europe?

      1. @neilosjames, with regards to corruption, it is still a major issue in quite a few parts of Europe.

        In terms of direct corruption, places like Hungary, Italy and Spain are ranked relatively low on the global transparency listings. Meanwhile, whilst the UK itself is rated as relatively clean, some of the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories of the United Kingdom, such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, have been routinely labelled as tax havens and accused of being some of the most prolific centres for money laundering in the world.

        With regards to freedom of speech, similarly there are nations in Europe which have been criticised on that front. For example, Hungary has been criticised by Human Rights Watch for undermining both freedom of speech and the rule of law and accused of increasingly overt and mainstream anti-Semitic prejudice and minorities being subjected to violent attacks and forced evictions.

        Meanwhile, last year Spain was heavily criticised by the UN for tabling a public security law which included a number of provisions they felt breached the rights of freedom of expression, such as being able to levy punitive fines for people taking part in public protests.

        Now, that is not to say that things are anything like as bad as in Azerbaijan, because it is clear that there are certainly many areas in which most European states are far better. However, it is to say that most European nations are not unimpeachable when it comes to their treatment of their citizens either.

        1. … As a rule, corruption scales with openness and peoples freedoms, including freedom of the press and separation of powers.

          This isn’t to say there aren’t people happy to do bad things in those countries, just that it tends to be harder and their is more oversight to stop them.

      2. You can get jailed over social media posts in most of the EU. You would be surprised how often this happens.
        Ironically, Hungary is not one of those places. People shouldn’t take these bogus all talk NGO’s seriously like their opinion matters. They are blatant political lobbyist groups using shaming tactics to promote their agendas. They are harmful for their host countries.
        This article was a nice read until the sentence in question at the end. I really dislike how Keith tends to venture into making political judgements from time to time, since he is failing at them massively.

  8. Eh, obviously it’s all about politics and image. But I really don’t see what the big deal is. San Marino GP was held in Italy, Swiss GP in France, Lux GP in Germany.

    Further, Paris-Dakar rally has a round in South America, Australia and Israel participate in Eurovision.

    And so on, and so on..

    1. Paris-Dakar, or now just the Dakar Rally, is completely in South America because it was determined too dangerous to hold the rally in Africa for the time being. They kept the name for the sake of tradition.

  9. I thought it was named the European Grand Prix because Bernie’s contract with the FIA stipulates there must be a certain number of rounds in Europe, therefore, if any more true European races drop out he still has this race to boost the numbers. Let’s face it, the German GP is under threat and Monza maybe too, Silverstone is always complaining of financial issues, along with a couple of other races. I think it’s an insurance policy for Bernie and it also fits into the agenda for the Baku race organizers and the Government there.

    1. Not sure that would work, unless the definition in use in the current bilateral agreements is different to that in Concorde (where it’s defined as races which don’t require car freight to be flown, assuming it is travelling from the UK or Italy). Azerbaijan has flown car freight, so it’s not a European race on that definition.

  10. Spot on with your last sentence, @keithcollantine

    Someone should remind Ecclestone that he is an ungrateful beneficiary of the contribution of European thought to civilization. He owes his life trajectory to a modern world made possible only by fundamental changes in human thinking, governance, and empowerment of the individual arising out of the European drive toward freedom of thought and belief: the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Yes, important philosophy and science came out of the East, and Muslim societies of the Middle Ages preserved Greek and Roman ideas and enlarged upon Indian and Arabic mathematics, science, and medicine when Europe suffered the Dark Ages. But beginning with Magna Carta, it was European (including English and later American) minds who insisted on the primacy of the “natural” rights of the individual, the rule of common law over “divine right” with equality of all before the law regardless of station, the right to personal property with limitation of eminent domain, trial by peers rather than tribunal, reason over dogma, the robust pursuit of science with real-world application into the technology that shapes the modern world, and democratic application of capitalism to allow the common man to rise in economic power. Without European revolution in thought, Ecclestone would still be a fisherman or scrap dealer.

    And yes, oligarchy, corruption, and warmongering remain in “Western” nations as a result of narcissistic business and political leaders who, like Ecclestone, once in power, subvert to their own selfish ends the principles that allowed they themselves to succeed. But this is just means that the ongoing universal project in human moral evolution remains unfinished, and it doesn’t in any way negate the obligation of anyone–European or otherwise–to continue to hold accountable anyone in any country who tries to maintain medieval suppression of thought, speech, or individual agency.

  11. Stop hating on Azerbaijan y’all.

    1. I like how you said y’all!

  12. I think these people need a lesson or Geography, then again this could be the next target for the EU as they attempt to take over Asia

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