By Tom Hayward
BAKU (Reuters) - The inaugural European Games has established Baku on the sporting map but the Azeri capital is already gearing up for a far bigger spectacle next year -- a Formula One race through its stunning streets.
Azerbaijan’s Formula One debut was originally penciled in for 2015, but a contract was signed last year for a 2016 Grand Prix of Europe and work has since been underway in Baku to prepare for its highest-profile sporting event yet.
“Baku is on track,” Chingiz Mehdiyev, head of operations for the Baku Grand Prix, told Reuters on Wednesday, standing on what will be the race's start grid, adjacent to the iconic Azadliq Square.
“We are working on the project, we have almost completed the project, now we are going through some stages of homologation and after that stage we can already start working on actually building.
“There are some civil works that need to be done, because our race is within the city and we are going to start ordering the fencing, so it will be prepared in advance and before the race we will be totally ready."
A 6.007 km track has been confirmed, taking in the stunning architecture of the old city, multi-million dollar developments in the city center and the glittering Caspian seashore.
The 20-corner track will be lapped 51 times with cars reaching speeds of 340 km per hour, which, according to Mehdiyev, is the fastest single speed at any race currently on the Formula One calendar.
“Actually, because it is within the city I think the race will be just fantastic," he said. "The race will go along the seaside and also it is a unique part of the track.
“It will go all around the old city, which is a UNESCO heritage area, which involves very stiff turns, inclines, declines. So I think it will be a challenge for the drivers.”
The first race, scheduled for July 2016, will be during the day but, beyond next season, Mehdiyev said the possibility of staging the event at night was very plausible and “exciting”.
Azerbaijan only has a short history of staging sporting events but the race will place the country, with a young population providing a potentially lucrative new market, in the sporting spotlight.
“It’s very important to put us on the sporting map, positioning the country on the map of the world and, of course, to excite the young people,” Azad Rahimov, the country’s minister for youth and sport, told Reuters.
“It’s very interesting actually, we are a very sporty country. We have a very young population in our country; 66 percent of the people living in Azerbaijan are under 55 years old.
"For the young people, apart from the concerts of megastars, celebrating the sports event in Baku is number two.”
Baku is currently hosting the inaugural European multi-sport games and Rahimov said the Formula One race represents just one event in the country’s ambitious sporting plans.
In 2020 it will host matches in soccer's European Championship, while in 2016 it will also host the 42nd Chess Olympiad and soccer's under-17 European Championship but it is Formula One which is garnering immediate interest.
When asked where Baku would rank on the Formula One calendar after the chequered flag is brought down on next year’s race, Mehdiyev was optimistic.
“As one of the best races in the world,” he said.
(Reporting by Tom Hayward; Editing by Toby Davis)