London - Bernie Ecclestone has struck a deal to take Formula One to Azerbaijan — thanks to help from his old friend Flavio Briatore.
Sportsmail understands Briatore, who has been called the “Bling King of Azerbaijan” after opening his couture business Billionaire in the capital Baku, will pocket a seven-figure bonus for acting as a linkman in the creation of the new race.
“We’re going to Azerbaijan,” confirmed Ecclestone, who still speaks regularly to Briatore, his fellow former QPR director who was sidelined from Formula One after his Renault team fixed the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix.
“The people out there (in Azerbaijan) are talking about holding a race in 2015. That may be a bit soon - unless it’s at the end of the season, that’s a possibility. But 2016 is more likely.”
The advent of the Azerbaijani Grand Prix, which will be held on the streets of Baku, marks another step in the relentless globalisation of the Formula One calendar.
Turkey, China, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Malaysia are among the countries recently added at the partial expense of traditional venues in Europe.
Ecclestone remains hopeful of going to the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi this October. But if the turbulent political situation in Ukraine continues, the race could be in jeopardy, leaving oil-rich Azerbaijan - at the crossroads of western Asia and eastern Europe - as the sport’s first destination in the former Soviet Union.
Ecclestone has no qualms about wading into trouble spots and is even planning to travel to Russia in the next few weeks to meet president Vladimir Putin.
“I have no problem with Vladimir,” said Ecclestone, who previously backed Putin’s stance against the promulgation of homosexuality among children. “He ran a good Winter Olympics. We get on very well - no problems.”
Ecclestone’s relationship with Putin illustrates his global reach - a factor in the F1 board, who meet in Germany today, having stuck with the 83-year-old despite a High Court judge calling him “unreliable and corrupt” last month.
Two board members have told Sportsmail that Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, is the only conceivable replacement, being both a confidant of Ecclestone and one of the paddock’s shrewdest operators.
But while Ecclestone awaits criminal proceedings in Germany for alleged bribery, Horner is trying to remedy Red Bull’s 2014 car ahead of the first grand prix, in Melbourne on March 16.
So far behind are Red Bull that their adviser, Helmut Marko, admitted: “The opening race comes at least two months too early for us. This is a very serious matter. We do not know in what time-frame it will be possible to catch up, or if it is possible at all.
“We are struggling with turbo lag. You step on the gas but the power does not arrive. It comes all of a sudden, the wheels spin, the car slides and you lose speed.
“We are working with Renault on the test benches day and night.”
By the time of the Australian Grand Prix, Ecclestone will know whether his attempt to take Formula One back to Long Beach, California, after an interval of more than 30 years has been successful.
Aware that the circuit’s agreement with IndyCar is due to expire in 2015, Ecclestone wrote to the city mayor at the end of last year to express his interest in filling the potential gap. A decision is expected this week.