By Ollie BarstowFollow @OllieBarstow on Twitter

If there can only be one word to describe the first F1 event to be held in Azerbaijan, it is surely ambitious. That or hot.

A race that on paper seemed unfathomable in a country of barely any sporting heritage pitching itself as a European event, as far as Bernie Ecclestone's penchant for 'new market' (translation: wealthy) races go, this was an entirely new level of 'huh?'.

Fast forward almost two years and while the event certainly had its flaws and the European angle isn't nearly as convincing as the organisers think it is, not only did it carry off with only a few minor hitches, it was roundly well-received too.

Euro sceptics: Azerbaijan made its much anticipated 'European Grand Prix' debut and largely won over many pre-race cynics

I actually remember when the race was first announced during the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix weekend... it's probably safe to assume the Azerbaijan Wikipedia page received a spike in traffic as many sought to discover more about a country that some couldn't pronounce, let alone find on a map. My parents still think I went to Azkaban.

In fact, the premise of the race was unprecedented in many ways. It would revive the European Grand Prix moniker despite how far your finger traces from Istanbul, which pitched its F1 event as the race where east meets west (1,700km if you were wondering) and the plan was to take the cars through a UNESCO World Heritage site before slinging them down a walled stretch where speed records would be broken.

Some interesting - and mind boggling - concepts but after a spate of stillborn events after bold declarations, cynicism was rife and few genuinely believed the event would go ahead. This overriding cynicism would continue right up until the first car turned a wheel on the Baku City Circuit, though this can in part be explained by the jet-lag induced bitterness of having to tackle this event as part of a brutal back-to-back with Montreal.

Nonetheless, while the race action itself failed to live up to expectations, complaints were relatively few and far between. Even the weather was good.

In fact, the dull race come Sunday was a frustrating discredit to an event that thoroughly deserved more than a Nico Rosberg walkover, an anti-climactically sensible conclusion to what may expected - and hoped - would be a crazy weekend.

City life: The Baku City Circuit has the bizarre distinction of being the first F1 race to wend through a UNESCO World Heritage site

Even so, Baku itself has proven itself to be a welcome addition to the calendar, the warm hospitality and the picturesque cityscape finding favour amongst drivers, teams and journalists, before the circuit itself ultimately won plaudits for an unusual and challenging layout that forced drivers to tiptoe the fine line between boom and bust.

From a personal perspective, the intrepid traveller in me has enjoyed exploring a new culture and a city that most agreed they would probably have never visited otherwise, where clean streets, efficient infrastructure and a very stylised blend of striking modern architecture and historic monuments impress on first glance.

That said, it's a culture that left most baffled, the 'European' hard sell in the self-proclaimed 'Land of Fire' proving somewhat overbearing but convincing precious few. Indeed, scratch beneath the shiny European-modelled veneer and you'll find Baku's heritage bears all the hallmarks of its former Soviet roots - from the copious Lada Rivas on the road to the distinctively nondescript high-rises - and a population where the English language is relatively scant.

This is by no means a criticism in the slightest - the more authentic the better for me personally -, but many agreed that billing this as Central Asia's first F1 race would have better justified Azerbaijan's presence on the schedule. It is no coincidence that it was colloquially referred to as the Baku GP by many news outlets.

A new kind of old: Baku's Old Town sits in the shadow of some impressive modern architecture

Then again, following on from hosting Eurovision Song Contest and the European Games, this is a policy that shows no sign of abating and an annual 'European Grand Prix' might well ensure the 'new image' sticks eventually. You may have even noticed more than one Azerbaijan sponsor flash up on the billboards during Euro 2016 - it will host four rounds of the 2020 championship as part of its move to a pan-European format.

Indeed, there was always a sense from the beginning that this was an event to be viewed on screen rather than attended. Whereas most street circuits are placed where they can be - which can lead to a bland backdrop as Valencia found to its cost -, there was a clear intention to ensure Baku showed as many of its good sides with its circuit, which some drivers felt - initially at least - forced the FIA to make some unnecessary concessions on safety in favour of the 'show'.

In the end, that Turn 8-12 complex didn't result in a sporting first of an F1 car crashing into a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it admittedly looked great on TV and in photos. Indeed, pushing Baku as an attractive holiday destination to a western audience is very much part of the government's strategy so I'd be interested to know whether it has indeed tickled your fancy.

Already a low-capacity venue, spectators and interest locally still seemed disappointingly thin...

However, by moulding Baku as a tourism destination, F1 appeared to alienate the locals. At no point was the city buzzing, the atmosphere was remarkably flat and every person I spoke to said they didn't really have an interest in F1 as they navigated a more laborious route to work for 5 days. For an event with a capacity of just 28,000, it was always going to be a tiny event by F1 standards, but even then spectators seemed thin on the ground. It is telling that no spectator figures (which are usually hilariously inflated anyway) were released.

Some have pointed out that the sheer expense of hosting fees (reckoned to be the highest on the calendar) coupled to the dip in gas and oil prices that Azerbaijan is very reliant on pushed ticket prices to unattractive levels. There were a smattering of visiting fans - including some very vocal Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas fans we kept bumping into -, but the airport heaves mostly with team members heading home. Furthermore, during a wander around Baku the Monday after the race, I counted just a small handful of people wearing merchandise, one of which was a Schumacher cap.

Finns out in force: There were a few 'out-of-towners' including these loyal Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas fans

Baku did win a fan in Bernie Ecclestone though, who candidly elevated Azerbaijan by referring to Montreal as a 's**thole', though the curious decision to move the original July race date so that it clashed with Le Mans rather satisfyingly came back to haunt the F1 supremo when the hugely dramatic finish in France almost entirely overshadowed the start of this race.

Furthermore, the irony of Azerbaijan agreeing to move its race into the month of Ramadan only for Bernie to announce a huge new sponsor deal with Heineken a week earlier was not lost on anyone either...

Whether you regard the inaugural F1 race to be held in Azerbaijan to be a success depends largely on your perspective. In F1 terms it won positive feedback with its fun (if somewhat bonkers) circuit, the relatively minimal disruptions and a city that captured the imagination. In short, those visiting Baku without knowing what to expect had those expectations pleasantly exceeded.

Unfortunately, in an era where F1 is routinely accused of trading heritage for cash, the flat ambience and its slightly muddled identity does the event few favours. Whilst the shiny novelty factor Baku had in droves means positive first impressions will stick for the time being, it remains to be seen whether this will fade if it cannot bolster audiences, engage locals and attract outside interest.

Nevertheless, Baku has quickly proven itself deserving of its place on the calendar - at least more so than some -, if only for the audacity that has gone into pulling off such an unlikely premise for an F1 race. Money may have brought it to the schedule but it the effort and determination to make the unworkable largely work seemed to earn respect from drivers.

So long as Baku is considered a welcome addition to the calendar - rather than 'instead of' Brazil, Italy or Germany -, many F1 personnel rightly feel Baku has all the ingredients to become a highlight of the F1 schedule and that alone deserve plaudits.

Like the billboards around the circuit said, 'well done Baku'. Well done indeed.

 

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