When I am old and grey, maybe I will write a guide for new race promoters about how to stage a Grand Prix and get good publicity from it. The very first point I will make in this consulting document is that you need to advertise the race in the airport. Successful races usually have adverts for the race before one gets to immigration. Baku did that. There was no way that anyone in this town would not know what was happening. It was written on every bridge between the airport and the city. That was a great start.
But, let us rewind just a little, and look at the most important ambassadors. You might argue that it is the immigration folk, but no-one is at their best at 05.30. A smile never hurts. However I believe that the first impressions of a place are usually created by the taxi drivers. They are important ambassadors for a country and, all too often, they are robbers and cheats. Ask international travellers if they feel sorry for taxi drivers because of the onset of Uber, and you won’t much sympathy because we have all been ripped off too many times. I’m all for set prices from airports to the city (as they have in Montreal) because at least you know that you can trust the people. It is a simple thing, but very effective. Arriving in Baku, I was met by a bunch of squabbling robbers all trying to get me in their cabs with any trick in the book. I asked for a meter and was told “No problem, no problem” and, of course, there was no meter. The price, they suggested, was 40 Manat. What they did not know is that I had read a guide sent out by the race organisers, which made it clear that a taxi from the airport to downtown costs 20 Manat. The meter in the cab I finally got recorded 12, but we were unable to get through to the hotel because of road closures relating to the Grand Prix and the taxi driver was kind enough to show me how to get to my hotel and so I gave him 30 Manat and a handshake, for being a nice fellow and doing some good for his country.
I learned also that one does not trust policemen, because I asked several of them which cabs could be trusted and they all agreed that 40 Manat was fine, which they obviously know is not the case.
This aside, my first impression of Baku was the smell of burning oil that was in the air as I walked out of the terminal building. The trip into the city, on nice new roads, revealed lots of nice new buildings, all spotless. It is clearly not a good place to indulge in graffiti. So Banksy, stay at home on this one. When I did finally find my way to the hotel (a short 300 metre walk with luggage), they could not find my booking, but that is not unusual with a new Grand Prix and I am a patient man (up to a point). The boys on the desk were very nice, very keen to please and very apologetic. I am sure they will sort it out. They gave me a room because after a second overnight flight in three days, I was ready for a snooze. My room overlooks the main straight, with views of the Flame Towers and the pit lane exit. Everything looks neat and new. In a while I will go and have a wander around and see what are working with here, but for now I’m going to have breakfast…