The Mole takes a boat tripMarch 27, 2012
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning. Spring was moving in the air and he felt the need to get away from the dusty old office, and escape to a bright world without any secret files to be read.
It was a beautiful sunny day on the river bank and, leaving his coat behind him, he informed Miss Pringle-Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys), his personal assistant, that he was “just going outside and may be some time”.
As he said it, The Mole thought of Captain Lawrence Oates’s last words on Scott’s Expedition to the South Pole in 1910, when he had walked out of the explorers’ tent to certain death in an Antarctic storm, aware that his poor physical state was compromising the chances of survival of his three colleagues.
The Mole left the SIS building and turned right. He walked down to the corner at Bridgefoot and turned right again, on to the approach to Vauxhall Bridge. A little further along the road he ducked to the right, into a stairwell that leads down to the river bank and at the bottom, turned briskly left into the tunnel under the road, to emerge in the sunshine on St George’s Wharf. As he walked he was thinking about Captain Oates and how that sacrificial death had made Oates a hero and an inspiration for the generations that followed, an important thing given that there were two World Wars in which stiff upper lips had often been required.
Oates had been an Eton boy and had learned how a gentleman should behave. The Mole smiled. Oates and Adam Parr had both known the right moment to depart. Chaps from Eton know these things. They are not the type to cling on and hope to survive when they know that all is lost. That is left for politicians from ghastly grammar schools and other such riff-raff.
The Mole decided when he saw the Tate-to-Tate Clipper getting ready to depart that he would take a trip up the river to Bankside Pier, by way of the jetties at Millbank, Embankment and Blackfriars. The 11.44 he would get him to Bankside by midday and he could have a quick nibble in the bar at The Swan at the Globe and then catch the 12.44 back. He would be back in the office just after one.
He hurried aboard and chose a seat by the window, in order to enjoy the riverside views. It was an agreeable environment and the catamaran moved surprisingly quickly.
So Parr is gone from Williams, The Mole said to himself. A sudden and dramatic development. And utterly unexpected. There was clearly more to it than met the eye, for Parr had given no hint of any intended change. He wanted to be judged on what the Williams team could achieve this year, for it was the structure that he had put together that is now under the microscope. But this was not about performance on the track. The team has done well this year, held back perhaps by two drivers who came with cash and have yet to prove their abilities as true F1 stars. They were good enough, but the car clearly needs an Alonso, a Hamilton, a Vettel or a Button to show its true worth.
Sir Frank Williams had no desire to see Parr depart, indeed just a few weeks ago he said that Parr was his natural successor, an odd statement given that his chairman was never really a racing person, but rather a businessman. Parr himself was happy in the role, even if some of those around him wished that he had more racing passion, like his predecessors in the team.
So what happened, thought The Mole. If both parties were happy with one another and Sir Frank was fiercely protective of Parr, what could have caused a resignation? What changed the relationship so fundamentally that Parr would have resigned in just a matter of days?
The Mole looked out at the Houses of Parliament. That was the kind of place where one found people like Adam Parr, rather than in a Formula 1 garage. Parr has a ferocious intellect, which dazzled Williams. Yet in Formula 1, being clever is not always a bonus, and one can be a victim of one’s background. Parr came across as man from Eton and Cambridge, even if his background was not that privileged. He had made it through on intellect alone, as a scholar, not as one of the hunting, shooting and fishing crowd. He had arrived at Williams with no track record in racing, but he soon crossed swords with Bernie Ecclestone over the way the sport should be going.
Ecclestone has run the sport, very successfully in many ways, for a very long time and perhaps he felt that he did not need some floppy-haired smart-arse telling him what was wrong with it. That was the story that was whispered in the F1 paddock and to The Mole it sounded entirely plausible. The irony, of course, is that Max Mosley – another fearsome intellect – had worked closely with Ecclestone for many years, to the benefit of both men. But timing was everything, thought The Mole. Parr was perhaps too smart and too much of a sign of the future, to have become close to Mr E, a man who is an expert at dealing with (and exploiting) those who think that they are super-smart, rather than the ones who really are. The really smart people keep their distance and play their cards close to their chests.
The Mole had little doubt that somewhere in the Parr-Williams story the presence of Ecclestone has been felt. Not long ago Bernie whispered to some hack or other that he did not think Williams was doing things in the right way. He felt that change was needed at the top, rather than in the middle management. The message was clear. Parr was not the man he thought would be good for the job. That was before the team began to perform well, of course. And before Sir Frank Williams took a further step back by leaving the board of directors of Williams.
The Mole considered the environment in F1 at the moment. Ecclestone is trying to convince teams, by any means possible, to sign up to a new Concorde Agreement that will give him carte blanche to do as he pleases with regard to the future. He does not want loose ends that will stop a sale or cloud a flotation and so, as a ruthless businessman, he will use whatever weapons he has at his disposal. Red Bull and Ferrari were easy. There are some people in F1 who can be bought. They say that these are pragmatic business decisions, but they do not help the sport.
The news that McLaren had agreed was a shock. In fact, it was such a shock that The Mole did not believe it. But then McLaren is not as independent as once it was. The team is 50 percent owned by a Bahrain government investment firm. Bahrain needs a Grand Prix more than anything to help to restore confidence in its economy and Ecclestone has the power to take away the Grand Prix. Thus The Mole could see a way in which McLaren could be convinced by its own shareholders to accept something previously unacceptable. The fact that an announcement was made, even though no deal was actually signed, was out of character for Ecclestone and the conclusion to be drawn was that he wanted that information in the public domain before the Bahrain GP happens this year, lest the McLaren management attempt a U-turn after the race is done. This way, McLaren risks facing public scrutiny for welshing on a deal. Such a move might be possible if McLaren could find someone to buy out the Bahrainis, but that is not going to happen quickly.
In the overall scheme of things, only Ferrari, Williams and McLaren really matter. Sauber does what Ferrari wants. Red Bull and Scuderia Toro Rosso obey the rules of Dietrich Mateschitz. Ferrari’s Luca di Montezemolo is a pragmatist who has proved before that Ferrari always comes first and the other F1 teams are only there to be used in his negotiations with Ecclestone. Williams is the only other brand with value. To Ecclestone the Lotuses, Force Indias, Caterhams, Marussias and HRTs are all cannon-fodder. Lotus was smart enough to jump ship and agree to a deal. The others were probably not even asked.
Mercedes may go on fighting but the German manufacturer cannot do much beyond disrupting and delaying Ecclestone’s plans. The board of directors want better results because it is embarrassing to see the factory team being beaten by two of its customers. In the end the Stuttgart folk are unlikely to get involved in a big fight over F1 money, they are more likely to cut their losses and depart. F1 is not their core business.
And Williams? Traditionally, Frank Williams has always been a Bernie man. He has done what Ecclestone wants and has prospered from doing that. There was a point at which he sided with McLaren in a previous negotiation but that did not bring the benefits that he had hoped. And it had disrupted his business. What FW wants is stability and to be able to race without politics. Bernie has given him that, even if Frank thinks that there should be a different division of revenues. Williams is still vulnerable, despite the good figures announced recently. The difference between success and failure is a sponsorship deal of monstrous proportions with the Venezuelan government. That is already fairly tenuous because President Hugo Chaves has cancer and is facing re-election this year. If Chaves dies or the opposition wins the election, Williams’s fortunes will take a tumble.
The hope is that the team will do well enough this year to attract big sponsorship and so be able to use talented youngsters such as Valtteri Bottas, rather than having to take drivers who come with cash. A fight with Ecclestone would not be good for stability.
The Mole pondered further. Perhaps, he thought, Bernie had convinced Frank to agree to his terms and Parr did not agree. That was the kind of thing that would lead to a resignation. Frank might have the utmost respect for Parr, but he and Ecclestone go back far longer and he knows that having Bernie as an enemy is not a good idea, even if you are strong. With FOTA a spent force, the individual teams are on their own.
Yes, said The Mole. That is what happened. It has to be.