No beef with ArgentinaMarch 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 Malvinas 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. 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).