Archive for the ‘The Mole’ Category

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Invading America

May 2, 2012

The Mole and Penelope (Roedean) were in the Gallery Restaurant at the Hotel Holt in Reykjavik. It was lunchtime and, in need of a little “hair of the dog”, the pair had decided to try a bottle of Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand to accompany their “Gender Menu”. The chef at the Holt believes that the taste buds of the two sexes are entirely different and so Penelope was trying to revive herself with some lemongrass soup, accompanied by roasted coconut flakes and pineapple salsa, while The Mole was having his palate tickled by mushroom soup in the style of cappuccino.

They were both feeling decidedly fragile. The flight from Heathrow had arrived in Keflavik late at night and they had made the mistake of spending too long in the bar, which is famous for its whisky collection.

They were in Iceland for the annual meeting of a body called NAMSAP. The Mole could not remember why it is called NAMSAP, but he is sure that the acronym has something to do with “North America” and “Motor Sport”.

The one thing that they both remembered, as professional agents, was that the cover story for the meeting was that they were banana retailers, meeting banana retailers from the United States. This daft story was chosen because someone in MI6 mistakenly thought that Iceland was the largest European banana producer. In fact that honour belongs to the Canary Islands, which are part of Spain.

Penelope yawned.

“What time are the Septics coming?” she said.

“Septics?” said The Mole.

“Oh, sorry,” said Penelope. “It’s Australian rhyming slang. Septec Tank. Yank. American.”

“Ah,” said The Mole. “The Cousins are here already. They got in from Dulles at about six this morning. But they want to stay on their own time zone. So I agreed that we would meet them at teatime.”

“I might still be alive by then,” Penelope grumbled. “But I may shoot myself if I don’t feel better soon.”

“What are we talking about this year,” she went on, looking at her nails. Pistols are very useful, but they wreak havoc with a girl’s manicure.

“They want to discuss the forthcoming F1 invasion of the United States,” said The Mole. “They are worried about the implications of this on the IndyCar Series. They are also not very happy about the idea of the DTM having a US series, but I have explained that I am unable to control the Germans and that they need to speak to the Bundesnachrichtendienst.”

“That is a very long word,” said Penelope.

“It took some practice to learn,” said The Mole proudly. “But it is not up there with Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänswitwe, or, for that matter, hoechsgeschwindigkeitsbegrenzung.”

Penelope groaned.

“Waiter, I need two teaspoons of paraquat, please,” she said as blond man with a badge saying Jón Jónsson strode past.

“We have no paraquat on the menu,” he said, looking a little bemused.

The Mole waved him away, with a nonchalant smile.

“Come on,” he said. “Perk up. We need to be in tip top condition.”

Penelope downed her glass in one.

“That’s the spirit,” said The Mole. “Now, I have reminded The Cousins that NASCAR is welcome to try to invade Europe and that there should be a free market economy between allies,” The Mole went on. “I also mentioned that back in 2003 CART proposed merging with Formula One. As I recall Bernie Ecclestone turned it down, concluding that there were not sufficient benefits for a partnership between the two championships. Besides, Bernard does not like having partners who interfere. He does not mind rich city types who leave him in charge, but he has never liked having to discuss his management with anyone. At the time CART’s principal value was a number of established races, plus the potential for US teams, sponsors and drivers to expand internationally. It never happened. CART went bankrupt at the end of the 2003 season and the assets were used to create a thing called Champ Car but that was swallowed up in 2008 in a merger with the Indy Racing League. The current series became IndyCar in January 2011. It is owned by Hulman and Co, the company that owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and half of Indiana.”

“It is not very strong,” said Penelope.

“Not really,” said The Mole. “It is supposed to be an all-American thing but the cars come from Italy and the top 10 drivers include two Australians, a New Zealander, a Canadian, a Scotsman, a Brazilian, a Japanese, a Frenchman and two Americans.”

“And they lost their primary asset, Danica Patrick, to NASCAR at the start of this season,” said Penelope.

The Mole nodded.

“I had Penelope (Benenden) do some analysis for me and she thinks that now is a great time for F1 to invade the US, starting off with Austin and New Jersey and adding a bunch of races in the US time zone,” he said. “This means that there is good case to convince a network to pick up coverage. It is new. It is different. It’s international and it’s not NASCAR.”

Penelope grunted.

“What we are trying to get out of them is whether or not they think there is a third US venue in the pipeline,” said The Mole. “I keep hearing suggestions that there is, but no-one is saying where it is. There was a plan for a street race in Chicago. That involved a bloke called Dennis Hastert, a Republican politician and a former speaker in the House of Representatives, who popped up in F1 a couple of times. I am not sure if that project is still around or not.”

“Could it be Long Beach?” said Penelope. “It is the obvious thing for F1 to do.”

“True,” said The Mole, “but where is the money coming from? The race this year drew a crowd on race day of 60,000. That is slightly less than watched the first F1 race there is 1977. The numbers went up to about 80,000 while F1 was there and then dropped back to 56,000 when it switched to CART. Anyway, the time zones are all wrong for Europe. Besides it is owned by folk who are still involved in IndyCar.”

Penelope drained another glass and refilled it, as The Mole ferreted around in his notes.

“Ah yes, here it is,” he said. “In June 2005, Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe bought the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach using a company called Aquarium Asset Management. They then signed a deal with the City of Long Beach to continue running races in the city until 2015 with an additional five-year option. And in May 2008 they agreed a five year deal with IndyCar, so that deal is in place until after the 2013 race.

“But IndyCar TV ratings are horrible at the moment,” said Penelope, with a quiet hiccough.

“Come to think of it,” said The Mole. “I’m sure someone told me that they saw Long Beach’s Jim Michaelian at an F1 race not that long ago. Was it Abu Dhabi?”

“Yes, but no-one is going to pay,” said Penelope. “We need to look at places where the real estate values are lower than they should be.”

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Back from the holidays

April 27, 2012

“Did you have a nice school holiday?” said Penelope (Roedean), with just the right hint of irony, as The Mole strode into the office on Monday morning. He looked tanned. He had been down on the Cote d’Azur for a fortnight with his ghastly grandchildren, who had thus far completely failed to develop into young gentlemen, despite very large sums of money being spent on their education.

“Not really,” he said. “Mrs Mole was so worn out that she has gone off to see her sister for a holiday to get over the holiday.”

Mrs Mole’s sister had married a Scotsman and had banished herself to Mallaig, a small fishing town where her husband Duncan does “something with kippers”.

“I guess it was rather better than going to the Bahrain Grand Prix,” he added.

“Given a choice between Bahrain and the Cote d’Azur,” said Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies College), “I think I would probably go for the latter. You meet fewer Hezbollah in the bars on the Cote d’Azur.”

Her grey eyes sparkled with laughter and for a moment the icy Athena seemed about to melt.

“True,” said The Mole. “These fellows do not seem much given to bougainvillea-scented terraces and gentle cocktail parties.”

“Hmmm,” said Penelope (Roedean), with a look that suggested butter WOULD melt in her mouth. “I am not so sure. They are definitely into Fuzzy Navels. Old Fashioneds, occasional Kamikazes and lots of Molotovs.”

“And no Americanos,” she added, with the kind of chuckle that causes cavalrymen to fall off their horses.

“There was nothing much we could do about Bahrain,” Penelope (Wycombe Abbey) said, changing the subject. The Mole turned to her, smiled and, for a brief second, thought with sadness of the inevitable day when she would find a man who was not frightened by her and would be whisked off to a church and, rapidly thereafter, a maternity ward.

“We did consider trying to get the all the F1 freight Jumbos from China to Bahrain to ‘go technical’ in Shanghai…” she added, “but you know it is not easy being MI6 and operating in China these days.”

“Never has been,” said The Mole. “But good thinking. Calling off the Grand Prix because the freight failed to arrive. Force majeure. A good excuse. Still, one got the impression that Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt were really rather keen for the race to go ahead. I have no idea why. Formula 1 got a hammering in the newspapers. Even the French ones. It was not hard to predict.”

“Perhaps they are trying to bring down the value of F1?” said Penelope (Benenden), peering across her desk through her glasses. “Perhaps they don’t want this wildly optimistic flotation that is being planned by the CVC suits. They seem awfully gung-ho. They are aiming for July.”

“I cannot imagine that it will happen,” said The Mole. “It is by no means certain that they will find the investors they need. I guess that is why they have a real bus-load of book runners.”

“If you hire enough people to look for the big gamblers then I suppose you might find enough of them,” said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey), “but I cannot see anyone buying into the idea if there is no Concorde Agreement in place. They are trying to give the impression that they are addressing the succession issue with these leaks about the Nestlé fellow, but the fact remains that it would still be Bernie Ecclestone in charge, wouldn’t it?”

“And you know how long negotiations for the Concorde Agreement take,” said Penelope (Benenden). “All these teams have lawyers and they all raise questions. It will take months and months, and that is if there are no disputes. I cannot see the whole thing being done by July. I don’t see Mercedes-Benz being in any hurry to help CVC out.”

“There is also the FIA,” said The Mole. “They have to sign the Concorde Agreement as well, and nothing moves very quickly in the Place de la Concorde. The FIA also has a right to veto any change of ownership in the Formula One group and that could hold things up, if someone wanted it to. I don’t suppose that the flotation would change the ownership, but the FIA might not wish to make any rapid decisions on that question. The federation does not get much from the Concorde Agreement these days. Perhaps that might be an opportunity to squeeze a few more pennies from the financiers. If they are in such a hurry maybe they would pay up.”

“But why are they in such a hurry?” said Penelope (Roedean). “Do they need the cash? Are they worried that the value will go down? I don’t get it.”

“Maybe they think if they make the flotation fast and exciting people will be drawn into it and invest with less caution,” said The Mole.

They paused for a moment.

“Let’s have a sit down and think this one through,” said The Mole. “Over some coffee and biscuits. Chocolate biscuits.”

Miss Pringle-Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys) reached down to the bottom drawer of her desk and pulled out a packet of McVitie’s Chocolate Digestives.

“Remind me to recommend her for an MBE,” said The Mole. “For services to the intelligence community.”

A few minutes later they were gathered in The Mole’s office, with mugs of steaming Nescafe and lots of biscuit crumbs.

“Right,” he said. “Let’s go through this.”

Penelope (Benenden) drew a strand of dark hair away from her glasses and began talking. She was the one who knew all the answers when it came to background.

“The different funds of CVC Capital Partners own 63.3 percent of the shares,” she said, with a flash of her dark eyes. “There is some speculation that they will use the loan being raised at the moment to buy the 15.3 percent of the company that is owned by Lehmann Brothers. These shares must be sold soon because Lehmann Brothers is being liquidated. Thus, in theory, CVC might own 78.6 percent by July. Thus selling 20 percent would leave them with 58.6 percent and still firmly in control. The rest of the shares are pretty spread out. Bambino Holdings own 8.5 percent and Bernie Ecclestone 5.3 percent, while his staff have 3.6 percent. The rest are irrelevant.”

“So CVC can sell their shares in they want to?” said The Mole. “They own the company.

“As far as we know,” said Penelope (Benenden). “Short of breaking in and reading contracts, it is hard to know more than that.”

“OK,” said The Mole. “Let us assume they can sell and cannot be stopped from doing that. What might stop the flotation?”

“Mercedes-Benz,” said four Penelopes at the same time.

The Mole noted the unanimity.

“I am not an expert on all this,” said Penelope (Benenden), “Not legally, anyway. But I am sure that if a party to a previous deal is excluded from a future contract, there would be questions of constraint of trade, or something like that. There are stories floating about that Ferrari, Red Bull and even McLaren may have been granted seats on the board and you can bet that Mercedes wants similar status. The Formula One group can argue against that, but that could take months and months and that would torpedo any flotation. The other teams may not be big enough to stand up to the Formula One group, but Mercedes certainly is. Whatever the case, even if there was no value in a lawsuit, there could be one and if that happens then nothing is not going to get sorted out by July.”

The Mole nodded.

“You also have to consider the fact that Mercedes supplies engines to three of the 12 teams,” he said. “Thus an aggressive approach towards Mercedes is unlikely make them back down. They can do more damage to F1 than F1 can do to them.”

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A question of dough

April 3, 2012

The Mole had decided that afternoon that it would be a good moment to do some Spring gardening and he was happily forking away behind the shed when The Colonel stuck his head over the hedge.

“Hello old boy,” he said. “What are you up to?”

“I’m digging,” said The Mole. “…and stating the obvious.”

The remark flew so high over The Colonel’s head that it would have gone for six if they had been playing cricket.

“I was wondering if Mrs Batty has made any of those lovely scone-things,” said The Colonel. “They go down awfully well with a cup of tea.”

The Mole paused. The Colonel was rarely right about very much, but on this occasion he felt that there might be just a hint of wisdom in the remark. He stared at the dirt for a moment. A worm looked up at him, hoping that he would take The Colonel’s advice and stop upsetting the annelid urban planning that had been going on quietly for months.

The Mole looked up.

“You know,” he said. “I think you are right. Those scone-things are really rather good and I believe we even have some clotted cream. And as I recall Mrs Batty still has a pot of that spectacular strawberry jam, which she sweetened with a hint of honey. Yes, it is time for tea. A quintessential part of the Britain way of life. An afternoon in the garden without tea is like pomp without circumstance; a bowler hat without an umbrella.”

“Yorkshire without pudding,” said The Colonel.

“Such traditions need to be preserved,” The Mole went on. “When I was a lad a visit to the bakery was an adventure. There were sticky buns, Eccles cakes, custard tarts, gingerbread men, Bakewell tarts, jam tarts, treacle tarts, rock cakes, tea cakes, lardy cakes, marble cakes, Battenburg cakes, sponges, Bath buns, sticky buns, cream puffs, doughnuts, apple turnovers, jam rolls, shortbread, malt loaf… and so much more.

“And now what? Nasty American brownies and cup cakes, Mr Kipling, great puffy eclairs and those gaudy little macaroons that have been parachuted in from France. Britain has been invaded by foreign baked goods. Only the scone remains to repel the alien forces. The problem with a scone is that it must be fresh from the oven, so you just cannot buy a good one in a supermarket. It’s impossible. Mrs Batty says that the secret is to treat the dough like you would a little baby. Don’t roll it, don’t twist the cutting device.”

“You have to look after the dough?” said The Colonel. “Mr Ecclestone would be good at making scones.”

The Mole chortled and the pair walked up towards Mole Manor, The Colonel having popped through the hole in the hedge that the two had been using, like naughty schoolboys, for many happy years.

“Tea!” shouted The Mole, as he opened the French windows. There was a rustling in the kitchen, and perhaps the subtle sound of a sherry bottle being shoved behind a porridge box. Mrs Batty replied “Coming up.”

Mrs Mole appeared from her lair in the library.

“Jolly good,” she said, “But if you don’t mind I have to save some donkeys from evil foreign people. I’m in the middle of a letter to our MP.”

“Right-ho,” said The Mole. “Splendid idea. The world needs more donkeys.”

He winked at The Colonel, who was rolling his eyes. The Mole popped his head into the kitchen and said something to Mrs Batty about scones and jam and then the two men settled into chairs in the conservatory and waited gleefully for their treat.

“What’s this I hear about those ghastly people at CVC borrowing more money,” said The Colonel.

“Yes,” said The Mole. “They are. They loaded up the Formula One business with $2.92 billion of debt back in 2006 when they bought the whole shebang. That meant they pocketed a pile of cash up front and made an instant profit. Since then F1 has been a cash cow, paying the interest on the loans and pouring any and all available money into reducing the debt. They were due to be paid off fully in 2013 or 2014.”

“And that is why F1 has been off in Asia,” said The Colonel. “To pay all the bills?”

“In essence,” said The Mole. “The folks out east will pay more for F1 because it makes them feel like world powers and the Europeans have not been able to compete. There’s this thing called democracy that gets in the way.”

“So why are CVC borrowing more money?” said The Colonel.

The Mole paused for a second and Mrs Batty arrived with a tray of delights. It took a while for plates to be loaded and cups filled.

“CVC now wants to raise another $2.27 billion, which will mature in 2017-2018,” said The Mole, eyeing a scone. The Colonel could not say anything as he already had a mouthful of glorious things.

“They are saying that the new loans will provide the business with a secure, long term capital structure and insist that they are not simply going to pay themselves some more money,” The Mole explained. “They will keep all extra money for, what was the term, ah yes, general corporate purposes.”

The Mole bit into his scone.

“What the hell does that mean?” said The Colonel. “Bigger lunches? Flashier company cars? Jets?”

There was a moment of silence as The Mole finished his mouthful and took a large swig of tea and sighed with contentment.

“I think they will use the extra money to buy the 15.3 percent of the group that is owned by Lehman Brothers,” he said. “This is up for sale as Lehmans is liquidating all its assets. By doing this CVC will push up the valuation of Formula One to around $10 billion, on paper at least. That would raise the CVC holding to 78.6 percent. I think that they would also use some of the new cash to give the teams signing bonuses to get them to agree to a new five-year Concorde Agreement. And I’m pretty sure it is also to do with the lower interest rates at the moment. The whole operation will also CVC some time to sort out other problems that are holding down the value of the business. There is the problem of a succession to Bernie. He’s 81 and cannot go on forever. His legal problems will also have gone away in a few years, one way or another. That would then clear the way for CVC to flog the business, or go to the stock market for an IPO.”

“So F1 remains a cash cow?” said The Colonel.

“It does,” said The Mole. “A shame, but that is what happens when you sell things to finance people. The only downside of all this for CVC is that it gives the teams another opportunity to be clever. In five years from now they might have learned from their mistakes and can work together more, perhaps even supporting one another financially to reduce the reliance on money from the Formula One group. If they could really work together they could drive down the value of the sport as a business and could then buy it. Or find someone more sensible to buy it. If CVC Capital Partners can buy a business with borrowed money then it seems to me that other people can as well.”

“A white knight,” said The Colonel.

“Indeed,” said The Mole, as he reached for his scone.

Yes, he thought, it is all down to the dough.

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The Mole takes a boat trip

March 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.

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No beef with Argentina

March 21, 2012

There was a hush in The Mole’s office as the girls filed in for the meeting. They settled decoratively in their seats and The Mole said: “Mar del Plata” and looked at Peneleope (Roedean).

For 72 hours his four secret agents had been digging hard to get to the bottom of the story of a new Formula 1 race in Argentina in 2013. This had taken Formula 1, and the Motor Racing and Trade Development of the Secret Intelligence Serice, by surprise. There had been vague talk of a Grand Prix in Argentina, but there were always question marks about the money, although a planned new track to the west of Buenos Aires had appeared to be well-funded.

What was clear with the Mar del Plata announcement was that it was serious. The country’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner had been the person leaking the news, and given the political tensions between Britain and Argentina in recent weeks over the Falkland Islands, there were lots of implications that had the policy penguins at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office all in a twitter. The Argentines have claimed the islands for many years, but the British have always said that it will only agree to handing over sovereignty if the islanders ask for it. They are happy to cooperate with the Argentines, but do not wish to be ruled by them.

“It is all very sensitive at the moment,” said The Mole.

“The race is a really good idea,” said Penelope (Roedean), glancing through her notes. “If the authorities will pay Bernie the fees he wants then it is perfect for him. He wants more action in the American time zones. The race can be twinned with the Brazilian GP at the end of the year, which makes the championship more cost-effective and Argentina is a really great place to schedule a race to hit prime time audiences in Europe. It will give the Argentines the publicity they want for their city, it will give F1 people an end of year event in a sunny place, with great steaks and nice beaches – an all in the run-up to Christmas. If they are smart they will all fly out their wives and go straight off on holiday.”

“They also have a ton of hotel rooms,” said Penelope (Benenden) with a flash of her dark wild eyes from behind her glasses. “It’s amazing. They have 56,000 registered rooms in Mar del Plata, which is more than Buenos Aires. Yet the city has a population of 615,000 compared to the 13 million in Buenos Aires. This is because Mar del Plata is Argentina’s primary tourist destination, attracting seven million tourists a year. So it has all the infrastructure that you need for a Grand Prix: hotels, restaurants, casinos and so on. The summer season is from December to February and half of Buenos Aires treks down there for the holidays. I guess that a race in early December would help fill the hotels at the start of the season. It is a pretty glamorous place. It has its own international film festival and even its own marathon.”

“Inter-resting,” said The Mole.

“Oh,” added Penelope (Benenden), “it is also just 25 miles from Balcarce, the home of Juan Manuel Fangio, which means that there is some heritage.

“What’s in it for La Presidente?” said The Mole. “These people never do anything without a motive.”

Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies College) had been given the job of working that out. She raised her cool grey eyes slowly towards The Mole and remarked.

“Panem et circenses,” she said. “Bread and circuses. It is still a very basic political strategy to keep the people happy. Feed them and amuse them and they will cause you no trouble. She is an expert in this sort of thing. In recent years she has maintained her popularity by nationalising the television coverage of soccer and of the local motor racing. It was all pay-per-view, but now it is free-to-air and the government is paying for it. It’s clever, using public money to make yourself more popular. The Grand Prix will be the same thing. Argentina is a proud country and having an F1 race is good for that. I think there is an emotional element as well because it was her late husband who originally proposed the idea. I don’t know what you know about Argentine politics but Nestor Kirchner was President from 2003 until 2007. He then stood down because he wanted to build a new party to get rid of some troublesome supporters and so he stood down and got his wife elected instead. He became the First Gentleman and was elected a deputy for the Buenos Aires Province, where Mar del Plata is located. He suggested an F1 race there back in 2009, but there was no money to do it. He was going to stand in the 2011 presidential election but in October 2010 he had a heart attack and died. He was only 60. His widow therefore decided to stand for election again and won. That was last October.”

“Hmmmm,” said The Mole. “It is a bit Bill and Hillary, isn’t it?”

“More like Vladmir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev ” said Penelope (Roedean). “Although I don’t suppose they are sleeping together.”

The Mole raised an eyebrow, considered a remark about the Clintons and then thought better of it.

“So where will this race actually happen?” he asked, turning to Penelope (Wycombe Abbey). She was peeking out at the world from beneath the fringe of her honey-coloured bob as usual and, as ever, was prepared for instant action.

“To the south of the main beaches in Mar del Plata there is a sort of corniche,” she said. “And south of that there is a harbour area. It is all a bit run down. I guess it used to be one long beach because it is called Playa Grande, but they built vast sea walls back whenever and created a harbour. There is an old naval station there and an old grass airstrip from the 1920s. So they is plenty of land. The plan is to run the track up the northern breakwater to a hairpin, next to where they are building a cruise ship terminal, and then back to the mainland on to the military land. It is open there, with the quayside and lots of grass. I don’t know exactly where it would go but there is a yacht marina too, so I guess it would touch on that and then come back up the main highway. Slightly above this at the top of the highway is a sort of roundabout thing where they always have the Argentine flag flying. So the F1 cars would climb the hill to this on some quite curly roads, and then they would loop around the flagpole and then head off to the north, where there would be a hairpin. Then it would be south again and through a fast left-hander onto the breakwater. I guess they would build some permanent pit buildings on the breakwater. It is a big old thing. If they did it right it would look pretty good because there would be beaches, marinas, a quayside, parkland and the flag thing. Oh, and a golf course which is next to the highway section. And the traffic would not be too bad either, because there are a whole bunch of parallel roads to deal with it. I reckon it would be a pretty good venue. Cheap, quick to build and not too disruptive for the city as a whole.”

“The interesting thing is that it is only a three-year deal,” said Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies College). “If it starts in 2013, it will go until 2015. La Presidente is up for re-election at the same time – if she wants to go on. So that is quite convenient as well.”

“A three-year deal?” said The Mole. “That’s not very Bernie.”

“Bernie wants America,” said Penelope (Roedean). “And in this case it is a good compromise. Besides, he has dealt with Argentina before and the money can be a bit uncertain, so that limits the possible damage, doesn’t it? Keeps them hungry. If you had a longer deal all the local officials would be asking for bribes. That was what killed the last race in Buenos Aires. There were so many people asking for brown envelopes that there was no money left in the pot.”

“Really?” said The Mole. “How disgraceful.”

“They have done simulations of the track,” said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey), deciding to move swiftly on, “and they reckon there will be 18 corners and a lap time of around 90 seconds, which will not be very quick, and they will have about 80,000 spectators. All in all, I think it is a great project, which will really help them with their plan to redevelop the harbour. It would be a bit like Albert Park-on-Sea.”

“One last question,” said The Mole. “Which race is going to go to make room for Argentina? We have a new race in New Jersey in 2013 and 20 existing venues, all of which seem to have contracts – although I am not sure about Japan – so how are we going to get two more events on to the calendar?”

The girls shrugged.

“I guess Bernie wants 22 races,” said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey).

h1

Alpine frolics

February 28, 2012

“I must be off to save the nation,” said The Mole, with a piece of toast in one hand, and his briefcase in the other.

“Good luck,” said Mrs Mole airily. “I’m not sure anyone is going to be very frightened of a balding middle-aged man, armed only with a piece of toast, even if the marmalade is horrid.”

“Gandhi was very successful,” said The Mole. “And he did not even have a toaster.”

The two chuckled like an old couple and The Mole climbed into his car, while Mrs Mole went back to planning a campaign to hold a jumble sale for The Red Squirrel Survival Trust. As he drove down the lane The Mole remembered, wistfully, the days before Oswald the chauffeur was posted to “The Pool”, in one of the many rounds of government cuts. In those days he could work all the way to the office, but these days he had to drive himself up the A3 or, worse still, catch a train from Horsley, which was a ghastly business. In either case, the only work possible en route was exercising the grey matter and he spent the drive mulling over the news that DreamWorks Animation is going to create a motor racing movie about a snail called Turbo, who has ambitions to win the Indianapolis 500.

It was daft idea, he concluded, yet strangely brilliant and a very smart piece of work by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who seems to have grasped that the movie industry can be a very good way to promote motor racing, and to make money for the sport.

Bernie Ecclestone is not exactly out of date, he mused, as he was on the Kingston Bypass. Well, not in a Hollywood where a silent black and white film can win five Oscars.

Movie-making these days, he concluded, is about selling cuddly toys and Turbo the Snail might have the potential to become the next Lightning McQueen. But who would buy a speedy snail? Would that appeal to the kids of tomorrow? He giggled. Well, perhaps the French ones. They would take cute little Turbo and after two weeks feeding him up would lob him live into a pot of boiling water and serve the corpse with butter, parsley and garlic.

Or in a feuilleté.

He was still chortling to himself when he arrived at Vauxhall Cross, but before he had even finished a cup of coffee and a ginger nut biscuit, the phone rang. It was Isabelle, his undercover agent inside the Renault empire in Boulogne-Billancourt. The Mole had often tried to find the right words to describe her, but “waif” did not have enough style and panache; “Gamine” did not quite capture her beauty and “Elfish” lacked any hint of her predatory nature. She was all of them, and yet none of them, at the same time.

“Darling,” she said.”Could you be a darling and come and visit me in Paris today? We should meet at the Plaza. You could jump on the Victoria Line and catch the 10.24. You would be here by two. Then we can ravish the patisseries in the Galerie des Gobelins. And they do have a very nice lunch on the train these days.”

Isabelle had used their codeword “darling” twice in the same sentence, and that meant something big.

“I’ll be there,” he said. “You figure out the time that will be.”

“Can you get me on the 10.24 Eurostar?” he said to Miss Pringle-Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys) and closed his briefcase again.

Four hours later they met in the lobby. She sashayed up to him and stuck out a pair of glossy lips. He offered her a cheek and caught a whiff of Arpège. She hooked her arm through his and they walked to the Galerie des Gobelins.

“I love expensive hotels,” she said. “They are so sexy. So romantique. Do you know that right now lots of important Frenchmen and their mistresses are making sweet music together upstairs. It is so very naughty.”

“Well, I suppose after eating all those snails they need a lie down,” The Mole said. “And with the 35-hour week they have time for that sort of thing.”

Isabelle smiled, twiddling with one of her rings.

“There is always time for that sort of thing,” he said.

“It’s a such shame that I am on the 16.13 back to London,” The Mole said, with a wink.

“You are such a flirt,” said Isabelle, with a flutter of her eyelashes.

“We must get down to business,” said The Mole.

“I take a little more romancing than that,” said Isabelle, with a flash of her eyes. The Mole blushed.

“You know what I mean,” he said. She shrugged.

“There is big news. We are getting into something quite exciting with Alpine,” she said. “You know after that dreadful business in Singapore with Flavio and that pretty Piquet boy, Monsieur Ghosn wanted nothing to do with F1. He felt that going green was the best thing. But now we have this new COO called Carlos Tavares. He is one of Ghosn’s men, but he is a real, how do you say, motorhead? He has raced a lot himself. Even in a big Dallara thing. The Renault World Series, I think. Anyway, they want a new Automobiles Alpine because it is a nice sporty brand and Renault wants more high-end products, because the cars at the moment are all mid-range and vraiment dull. Alpine fits nicely. Tavares did the Williams-Renault deal last year and now he has appointed Alain Prost as a Renault ambassador. These are the moves of a racing person.”

The Mole nodded.

“Now he is going to revive Alpine. With all these young Frenchmen in F1 and a chance for a new French GP, we have to watch out for a new Renault push into F1. I think it could come with Alpine. I don’t think they want to own a team again, but it would be the perfect way to promote a new range of sports cars.”

“You mean like a Red Bull-Alpine kind of deal?” said The Mole.

“They are with Infiniti,” she said. “I am not sure what they will do, but I think it will probably use one of our platforms. You know. You design what you need and then use it to build different cars for different markets. They use the same platform to build the Renault Clio, the Nissan Cube and the Dacia Logan as well. That way they cut down on development costs and save money on spare parts.”

“Yes, yes,” said The Mole. “Car industry stuff.”

“I think that the new Alpine story will be rather like the original,” Isabelle went on. “This guy called Jean Rédélé from Dieppe, who took a small Renault after the war and turned it into a rally car. Renault did not want to go racing at the time, but they were happy for him to do it. Well, that became a business when Alpine began building road cars, with Renault engines in them. In the end Renault took him over. The original Alpines were great cars and the company won Monte Carlo Rally and I think maybe the World Rally Championship as well. Later on, in the Renault era, they won Le Mans and built the prototype Renault F1 car. There is a good heritage.”

“So who is going to start building cars on a Renault platform?” said The Mole.

Isabelle shook her head.

“I have no idea who will be the next Jean Rédélé,” she said. “But I doubt he will come from Dieppe.”

h1

Toot Baldon, here we come!

February 22, 2012

Mrs Mole had disappeared to see a distant nonagenarian relative for the weekend and Mrs Batty had seized the opportunity to go off to visit her sister Beryl in Brighton. This meant that The Mole was by himself, and rather than stay at home and do nothing in particular, he decided that it would be fun to go for a day out in the country in his Alvis TF21, on an old-fashioned motoring tour. He wondered if any of the Penelopes might be interested, as driving around with beautiful young women is good for the ego of an older gentleman. In the end, however, he decided that the girls were probably not old-fashioned enough and so he asked The Colonel, his next door neighbour and a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party.

“Only if there are no motorways,” said The Colonel. “Dashed uncivilised things.”

“Shall we go to have lunch at The Mole in Toot Baldon?” said The Mole.

“Is that the place with the skinny chips and fat chips,” said The Colonel. “And with fabulous stodgy puddings? “

The Mole nodded.

“Fine idea,” said The Colonel. “You know my passion for a good stodgy pudding.”

They rooted around and found a copy of an old Times Atlas of Britain and, hunched over it like a pair of schoolboys looking for towns with rude names in Africa, they sketched out a route from Surrey to Toot Baldon, which for the uninitiated is a small village not far from Oxford.

“We’ll go to Egham and Windsor,” said The Mole. “A nice regal route. Fit for an Alvis.”

“And then we should go to Maidenhead and Henley,” said The Colonel. “So very English.”

“And Nettlebed,” declared The Mole. “Oh, I love this part of the world. Such splendid names: Brighton Baldwin, Berrick Salome, Preston Crowmarsh, Stoke Talmage. It’s just perfect. God’s own country.”

“All that and stodgy puddings as well,” said The Colonel. “Isn’t it great to be English!”

Saturday was cold, but sunny. A beautiful winter day. They had buttery bacon sandwiches and steaming mugs of tea in the kitchen, and then fired up the grumbling Alvis and set off through the country lanes. There was plenty to discuss.

“I hear there is a right old Charlie Foxtrot going on with HRT,” said The Colonel.

“A what?|” said The Mole.

“A Charlie Foxtrot,” said The Colonel. “You know. Phonetic alphabet for C and F, which stands for Cluster and F…

“…Ah yes,” said The Mole. “I get it. Very droll. Yes, I suppose so. They are making a bit of a pig’s ear of getting the new car out. Still, we do not complain. My job is to promote the British motorsport industry so when other nations make a mess of things, they are really doing our job for us. We applaud that. You know the British, always a very sporting nation!”

He winked.

The Colonel knew that The Mole’s job was to promote the motorsport industry, but he was under the mistaken impression that his pal worked in a dull office somewhere off Whitehall. He had no idea that the Motor Racing and Trade Development Department was part of the Secret Intelligence Service and that The Mole was really the head of a clandestine network.

“We’re really rather lucky at the moment,” said The Mole. “We have a fantastic Formula 1 factory in Germany that is being completely wasted by Toyota. Colin Kolles has the makings of an F1 team down Ingolstadt way, but he does not have an F1 entry, nor the money. We have the Epsilon Euskadi factory in Spain sitting unused and the old Prost factory, near Paris, has been sold off to an electricity company, so that is no longer a threat. This is all splendid news for the British motorsport industry. There was also that idea to use the NASCAR cluster in North Carolina to build F1 cars. Thankfully that was headed off at the pass. We cannot do much about Ferrari, apart from taking it over from the inside, and Sauber and Toro Rosso are not really very worrying in the overall scheme of things. We don’t like all these foreign chaps buying up our F1 teams, but at least they keep them in England. In any case, the owners come and go.”

The Colonel nodded sagely.

“Well, there is Williams,” he said. “That’s British.”

“Not as British as it used to be,” said The Mole. “Remember there is an ambitious Austrian fellow called Wolff who wants to gobble it up, and some Dutchmen have bought shares as well. We had Brawn for a while, between the team being known as Honda and Mercedes, but Ross and his chums took the money and ran.”

“And you cannot blame them,” said The Colonel. “You would have done the same.”

The Mole hrmphed, but did not dispute the point.

“McLaren is owned by various Arabs,” he went on. “The Austrians have Red Bull. The Malaysians own Caterham and they will soon have the old Arrows place in Leafield as well. And the Russians have Marussia in Banbury.”

“What are people from Luxembourg called?” said The Colonel. “Luxemburgers? Luxembourgeois?”

“I believe the term is Lëtzebürgers,” said The Mole. “But I am not quite sure. Perhaps it is one of those places where the call themselves different things in different villages.”

“Letsy-burger sounds like a fast food restaurant,” said The Colonel. ”Anyway, you know what I mean. That lot have the Lotus name and the Enstone factory.”

“For the moment,” said The Mole. “We are watching that one quiet closely. We think there is potential for Britian to reclaim the team, although to be quite honest it was only British back in the days of Ted Toleman.”

“And what about the Forced Indians,” said The Colonel, trying to be funny.

The Mole smiled weakly.

“Yes, well we’re not quite sure what is going on there,” he said. “This Mallya chap is all very showy, what with his bling and his big boats, but he is sailing around in a sea of debt back home in India. It is a real mess, actually. And then there is this Sahara fellow who controls a chunk of the team. I think it has disaster written all over it, but we will have to wait and see. They chaps in Silverstone are doing a very good job. I mean it is still an English team, despite the name. We are a little bit worried in the long term. We will have to see how things develop. Remember the mess they got into after the Jordan days, with that funny Russian lot and then the Dutch. We will have to see how that develops in the future.

“We reckon that there currently two ways in which we can get another team under British ownership: there is Team Lotus and there is Force India,” The Mole went on. “I suppose that one day Red Bull will get bored with F1 and that will give Christian Horner the chance to take over the team with Arden, or whatever. Times are hard outside F1 as well. We‘ve lost Super Nova Racing in GP2 now, so the only British teams left there are iSport and Carlin.”

“Don’t these chaps have ambitions,” said The Colonel. “You know like Prodrive used to have. Lola, and folk like that.”

“Yes, said The Mole. “They have the ambitions, but they need money.”

“And there is that Larry Drayson chap, isn’t there?” said The Colonel.

“Baron Drayson?” said The Mole. “He’s not called Larry.”

“He’s not called Baron either,” said The Colonel. “Besides he’s a Labourite, isn’t he?”

“I think his name is Paul,” said The Mole. “He used to be a government minister and he’s done politics. He is still pretty young and he is very well–connected and, most importantly, his big thing is environmentalism, so the new F1 rules in 2014 might suit him well. I don’t really know his agenda. Maybe he wants to become an electric car manufacturer. He’s doing Le Mans at the moment with some hybrid thing. He seems like a clever chap, made a fortune in pharmaceuticals, played around in politics and is now heavily into racing. I can see him having ambition. He’s worth watching.”

They were silent for a while.

“Yes,” The Mole thought. “I’d better send one of the Penelopes down there to Gloucestershire to check out Lord Larry.”

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