Niche marketsJanuary 23, 2012
Penelope (Roedean) had been sent to Austria, stopping off at the embassy in Vienna to rendezvous with some shadowy character from the east (who may be dead by now), before popping down to Kitzbuhel for the weekend. Her mission was to keep an eye on Bernie Ecclestone, and all the usual suspects (not, of course, that Ecclestone is suspected of anything), at the Hahnenkamm downhill ski race. This has long been a gathering point for F1 types in the winter months – and over the years, much (alleged) blackmail material has been gathered there (about people other than Bernie). A little too much Austrian glühwein (basically mulled wine with a little anti-freeze added) has been known to warm rather more than the cockles of a motor racing heart.
There were about 30,000 people there to watch Switzerland’s Didier Cuche win his fifth victory in the race, beating the great Franz Klammer’s record, just a couple of days after announcing that he will retire from the sport at the end of the season.
“Good idea, I think,” Penelope said, as she related her adventures to The Mole. “These downhill skiiers are all mad. I’ll parachute. I’ll climb cliffs. I’ll jump through windows and get involved in car chases. I’ll even marry Guardsmen, but you will never get me skiing down the side of a steep mountain in fog. They are all bonkers! I suppose it was very sweet that Klammer himself congratulated Cuche. Bernie was there and Niki Lauda too, but the star of the weekend was The Governorator himself. Arnie Schwarzenegger was in town, returning to his roots or something like that. He’s got very big teeth, but he can lift my weights any time he likes.”
The Mole raised an eyebrow.
“You know I think I am wasting my time being a secret agent,” she went on. “I think I am going to find myself a theatrical agent and do a reality TV show. I mean, Tamara Ecclestone is not very interesting. She likes shoe shops and is worth several billion dollars. So what? I am far more exciting. I am trained killer, an undercover agent, James Bond in a frock. I have many talents.”
The Mole raised his eyebrow even higher.
“Indeed,” he said. “One of which was that you signed the Official Secrets Act and are not allowed to talk about what you do.”
“It’s not fair,” Penelope said. “They let those ghastly people at MI5 have a TV show for years. Spooks. Indeed! I don’t think they are very spooky at all. It should have been called “Boring”. The Secret Intelligence Service is much more fun.”
The Mole smiled.
“Yes, perhaps it is,” he said. “But, you know, we don’t do that sort of thing. We leave that to the amateur theatricals.”
“Yes, but the thing that really annoys me is that TV stations all over the world are now buying the rights to Tamara’s silly Billion $$ Girl TV show. Whatever will they make of her in Norway, Finland and Estonia? It is shocking. Really it is. I am beginning to think that anyone can sell TV rights, if someone is able to sell that show.”
“Are you looking for a pay rise?” asked The Mole, rather cautiously. “The thing is: there is a lot of time available on television these days, what with the digital revolution and all. And there is only so much talent to go around and that means that sometimes the talent is spread thinner than a proper crêpe suzette.”
“You’re not kidding,” said Penelope ignoring the question, having dropped her bomb on target.
The Mole considered his deputy for a moment. He needed something interesting for her. To take her mind off the blessed Tamara.
“I think we need you to take a look at what is happening at Group Lotus,” he said. “It is all going pear-shaped.”
“Really?” said Penelope. “I thought that rather chic little Dany Bahar was going to take over the world by turning Group Lotus into a high performance vehicle.”
“Ye-e-s,” said The Mole, with just enough extra ‘e’ to make the point. “Bahar is still there.”
“And still lovely,” said Penelope.
“And still talking.” said The Mole. “But we will have to see what happens next. Group Lotus is owned by Proton. Proton was owned by the Malaysian government, but it was not a very successful car company. So they have flogged it off, pretending that it is a good idea for the state to get rid of nationalised industries. They could not really sell it to foreigners, so they have sold it to some local hero called Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, who is a friend of the government and he will keep Proton going, while using the factories to build flashy Mercedes models. The last thing he needs is a loss-making British sports car business, run by a bloke who actually seems to believe that he can win market share from Ferrari and Porsche with some dry ice and loud music.’
“Yes,” said Penelope. “Dany is a bit of an optimist.”
“Anyway,” said The Mole, “the business is on the market and if you have £1 you can probably buy it, if you are willing to take on the debt.”
“Half of that deal I can manage,” she said.
“The problem is that Dany’s F1 dream means that he owes the Lotus F1 Team about $16 million in sponsorship this year,” said The Mole.
“Oh dear,” said Penelope. “That is Pastor kind of money. What happens if a new owner thinks that F1 is a bad idea?”
“That is not good,” said The Mole. “Gerard Lopez, the owner of the team, wants to buy the car company, but he seems to be having trouble finding money to do that. Perhaps because the idea of challenging Ferrari and Porsche is, what did you say? Optimistic?”
Penelope smiled and nodded.
“Still,” she said. “The Group Lotus strategy has opened up the old Lotus market for others. Caterham is revving up to roar into that sector.”
“And I don’t know if you have noticed but the other day the Morgan Motor Company announced that it is going to go racing at Le Mans,” said The Mole.
“Morgan?” said Penelope. “You mean, like the Morgan Plus 8?”
The Mole nodded.
“They are jumping into bed with the French,” he said.
“Been there, done that,” said Penelope.
“Apparently they are going into partnership with the bloke who owns the old Pescarolo company,” said The Mole. “Cannot remember his name. He is building LMP2 sports cars and wanted a good brand name. Morgan is just that. My feeling is that this is just the beginning. Morgan needs new technology to build road cars for the future and this bloke in France has what is needed. The problem is that the French chap – Nico something – is likely to eat up the Morgan company as they develop of the next generation of road cars. To grab the Lotus niche market.”
“Some competition for Caterham?” said Penelope.
“That is the niche, ma biche!” said The Mole, trying to be amusing.
“Bloody foreigners,” said Penelope, as she went in search of a Yorkie bar.