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Lunch with The Mandarin

February 16, 2012

That morning The Mole received a telephone call from his friend The Mandarin, at the Old Admiralty Building.

“Usual time,” The Mandarin said. “Usual place.”

The Mole said: “Right ho!” And that was it.

They met at the Travellers Club at 1pm. It is the right sort of place for spooks to be unseen. The Coffee Room was busy with hushed voices and scurrying waiters. The two men shared a common mistrust for the political classes, agreeing that modern politicians were morally bankrupt, and interested only in winning and staying in office.

“I dare say that you recognise the concept of moral bankruptcy,” smiled The Mandarin. “What with your links in Formula 1.”

The Mole sighed.

“It is the bane of my life,” he said. “My job is to defend an industry that spends most of its time undermining itself, and allowing the Bible-bashing NASCAR folks to lead the race to the moral high ground.

“Praise the Lord,” said The Mandarin, with such disinterest that The Mole almost yawned. “It seems like they are making a bit of a mess of this Bahrain business. I read that this Ecclestone chap has said that there is nothing wrong with going and it is all being caused by kids. I know he is 80-something years old and does not care, but there are times when he really ought to keep his mouth shut.”

“He’s rather good at that,” said The Mole. “When he’s in court.”

The Mandarin smiled.

“I wonder if he’s after a knighthood?” The Mandarin said. “This is a convoluted way to do it, but…”

The Mole looked puzzled.

“It’s simple,” said The Mandarin. “I know it has all been a bit messy in Bahrain but, you see, they are our friends.”

“My enemy’s enemy is my friend?” said The Mole.

The Mandarin nodded.

“Basically, but it is a teensy bit more complicated than that. We invite them to royal weddings and things. Did you know that despite all the troubles there have been there, the Earl and Countess of Wessex – Prince Edward to you and me – visited Royal Navy personnel in Bahrain over Christmas? Everyone talks about the Yanks having a big military base there, but we are there too, flying under the radar. The royals visited some submarine, a dull support ship and then something called the UK Maritime Component Command, which sounds like some DIY parts supplier to yacht clubs, but is, in fact, the hub of the Royal Navy’s operations east of Suez. There are a bunch of minehunters based there. And guess what? The Crown Prince of Bahrain toured the same submarine as well and made some speech about Britain and Bahrain enjoying strong and secure relations in order to promote the continued peace and stability in the region. Blah, blah, blah. His son, Sheikh Mohammed is currently on an exchange programme with the British Army.”

The Mole raised an eyebrow.

“Then,” The Mandarin went on, ignoring the smoked salmon that has arrived in front of him. “The Defence Secretary Philip Hammond made a speech in Washington, pledging the Royal Navy’s continued presence east of Suez. I believe he said that it was in the interests of all nations to ensure that “the arteries of global trade are kept free, open and running”. I have the quote written down somewhere. He said that disruption of the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz would threaten regional and global economic growth and that Britain would suck up to America and fight to keep it open.”

The Mole nodded.

“And, of course, we send them weapons,” The Mandarin went on. “The Business Secretary Vince Cable admitted as much recently, when he told a parliamentary committee that we do trade with governments that are not democratic and have bad human rights records. I also spotted a quote from Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey, who admitted in a written report to parliament that it might be possible that some members of the Saudi Arabian National Guard in Bahrain may have undertaken some training provided by the British military mission.”

“And the Bahrainis too?” said The Mole.

The Mandarin shrugged, as if to say yes, without actually saying it. A gesture marinated in deniability.

“The thing is that we have to give the appearance that we disapprove of what they are doing to their people,” he said. “One has to be realistic in foreign policy. If we are not nice to them then the Russians or the Chinese will be. The one thing that we do not want is the Iranians getting in there. I think we have some fairly robust individuals out there. Officially they are chasing pirates, but I suspect that they are making sure that Iranians don’t send dhows full of mullahs to Manama. Anyway, Russia will not criticize and condemn Syria because that sad and sorry government buys arms from Brother Russky, and allows the Russian Navy access to a warm water port. Our Foreign Secretary is happy to criticize Syria, but he has been quieter than a Trappist mouse on the subject of Bahrain, beyond saying that Britain supports reform and dialogue blah, blah, blah. Double standards of Olympic proportions, old boy. The British and the Americans are supporting the Bahrainis and are whistling loudly when people say that these folk are torturing and killing people. Human rights are only important if it is our enemies who are doing the bad things.

“So our Bahrain policy is based on the idea that it best serves the democratic world to keep the oil flowing, rather than allowing the people of Bahrain proper democracy. And all this disruption is causing money to leave Bahrain and so it is important for things to appear to be normal, which is why they are all so keen on the Grand Prix going ahead, to send out the message that it is business as usual.”

“Business as usual,” said The Mole, with a hint of sadness in his voice.

“At the same time the politicians over here have to protect themselves and so the Foreign Office warns punters that there is a general threat from terrorism in Bahrain. That attacks could be indiscriminate, and against Western, including British, interests, as well as against civilian targets, including places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers. They even say that terrorists continue to issue statements threatening to carry out attacks in the Gulf regions. These include references to attacks on Western interests.”

“And Formula 1 is a Western interest,” said The Mole. “The job of my department is to protect the F1 industry in Britain and so we want the teams not to go because no good will come of it for F1 and the motorsport industry. Yes, Bernie will get the money, but remember that these days he is really only a servant to CVC and the teams. They get the money. I am very suspicious about the teams because they are all singing from the same songsheet, saying that they have faith in the FIA and Bernie. They never agree on anything, unless there is a reason to, so I guess that they are setting up Bernie and Jean Todt for a fall. And because it pays them well. Most of them are short of cash this year. People forget that Bernie makes the calendar, not the FIA. It simply agrees what he wants. When they cancelled last year Bernie did an impressive volte-face and the custard pie landed on Todt’s head, because he ducked too late. I expect the same charade will happen again. They are all trying to lay the blame on someone else because no-one wants to upset their friends in Bahrain. Everyone knows that McLaren is heavily loaded with Bahrain money and, of course, Todt’s son Nicolas is a part-owner of what is now called Lotus Grand Prix, in partnership with the Crown Prince of Bahrain, so the obvious conclusion if there is trouble is that Jean is doing this to help his kid. But that makes no sense at all because his main goal at the FIA is international advocacy, aiming to give the FIA credibility in the world of governments. And why would any government listen to someone going on about road safety when they overtly support a regime that runs people over with police cars?”

The Mandarin smiled.

“You have a point?” he said. “The human rights people are not making this stuff up. You certainly cannot trust the Bahrain government because they denied everything last year until the independent report confirmed that everything that the opposition, foreign media and human rights people had said was true. Are we supposed to believe that they really will reform things as the report recommended? The whole thing is a mess, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said The Mole. “It is a PR disaster waiting to happen. I have to try to stop them going. “

“And some of the other ministries want them there,” said The Mandarin. “To be quite honest, I don’t see why the naval people could not ship out to Dubai. The Grand Prix too, come to that. I am sure that the Dubai people would love to get a Grand Prix at the expense of the Bahrainis.”

“Politics, politics,” said The Mole. “And to think that Bernie is claiming it is not political when MPs are trading letters in the Times.”

“Who reads the Times these days?” said The Mandarin.

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Penelope (Benenden) shows her genius

February 7, 2012

Penelope (Benenden) is not the prettiest of The Mole’s four assistants. She is tall, has long dark hair and dark passionate eyes, which flash when she is excited. These are sometimes hidden behind reading glasses which make her seem a little bookish and serious, but she is far less intimidating that her three gorgeous colleagues. That trio will turn heads wherever they go, but Penelope (Benenden) is the one who has men falling over each other to win her. The Mole long ago concluded that there must be some naughty little pheromone lurking around her, suggesting to males of the species that she would be a fireball if she took off her glasses, let down her hair and tore off her blue stockings. This, and a very good brain, gained her the respect of her fellow agents. She was not a good shot, but as an intelligence analyst, she was brilliant. The Mole used to worry about her because the poor girl had had a terrible crush on Max Mosley, but she had got over it, although The Mole suspects that there is now a certain warmness of spirit when the name Whitmarsh is mentioned.

Penelope (Benenden) and Penelope (Roedean) were deep in conversation when The Mole arrived in the office on Tuesday morning. He was not really listening, because he was stuck with 23 Across, a rare problem for a man who rattles off a cryptic crossword in eight minutes every day. His attention was piqued when he heard Penelope (Roedean) say: “I just shag them or shoot them. Or maybe a little torture. Or maybe a combination of all of the above.”

He laughed, looked across the office and said “Steady on. You’ll be getting calls from retired gentlemen in blazers if you’re not careful.”

Penelope (Roedean) smiled.

“I like a good brain,” she said. “I almost fancy Penelope here. She is awfully clever, isn’t she? A great lateral thinker.”

“As opposed to a great horizontal thinker like you?,” said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey), without looking up from her copy of Foreign Affairs, which is a learned journal about the intelligence community, rather than a pot-boiler romantic novel.

“Goodness,” said The Mole, leaning on the doorway to his office. “This sort of talk is bad for a chap’s heart.”

“Oh I don’t know,” said Penelope (Roedean). “I would have thought all that blood pumping about would force open the arteries.”

Miss Pringle-Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys), The Mole’s personal assistant, was nibbling on the edge of a croissant, like the mouse she is. She blushed, as often happened when Penelope (Roedean) talked about subjects that were not prim and proper.

“Anyway, enough small talk,” said The Mole. “What have you got? It is a busy week, what with all these F1 car launches.”

“It’s all a bit la-di-da,” said Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies College) from her desk, where she was leafing through a brochure for the latest version of the Walther P22, featuring an integrated laser sight. “It is the usual launch talk. The one thing that stood out was a very definitive statement from Martin Whitmarsh about engines.

“You mean the yummy Martin Whitmarsh,” said Penelope (Roedean), flashing a glance at Penelope (Benenden).

“He was very clear,” Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies College) went on. “They are not building their own engines. Not in the short-term, medium-term or long-term, he said. That was pretty emphatic.”

“So what are they going to do?” said The Mole. “I am not sure about Honda. They just committed themselves to the World Touring Car Championship, which may not prove anything, but it is there nonetheless. I don’t really see McLaren doing a deal with Craig Pollock. Porsche might be an idea, but that would not be for years. What do you think?”

“Mercedes,” said Penelope (Benenden), removing her glasses. “I reckon McLaren has a devious plan to drive Mercedes out of team ownership. The Mercedes team is going into its third season and it has not achieved a whole lot up to now. Old Norbert might say that the team is new, but that’s rubbish because anyone with a brain knows that they won the World Championship in 2009 as Brawn GP and were around for years before that in various guises: BAR, Honda and so on.

“Look at Force India,” she went on. “They just announced the new VJM05 featuring Mercedes engines and all manner of technological help from McLaren. OK, it is a nice little earner for McLaren, so long as Vijay Mallya pays his bills, but I think it is more than that. That deal is the primary reason why Force India has done so well in recent years. I think that McLaren are hoping that the management in Stuttgart will get disheartened and stop listening to Norbert if the team continues to be beaten by Mercedes engine customers. McLaren has always been ahead of Mercedes but last year Force India got close on occasion and now the cowboys from India are saying that their goal in 2012 is to challenge Mercedes for fourth place in the World Championship!”

“Cowboys from India,” chuckled The Mole. “Very droll.”

“At the moment Norbert is still arguing that Force India provides Mercedes with a place to train its young drivers to be ready to replace Barney the dinosaur, and Adrian Sutil’s ridiculous behaviour in Shanghai conveniently removed him from the equation, making room for Mercedes favourites Paul di Resta and a rising German star Nico Hulkenberg. So Norbert has an heir and a spare.”

“Barney the dinosaur,” said The Mole. “I like that.”

“Well, you’ll like this one too,” said Penelope (Benenden). “Don’t you think it is strange that Unilever has signed a deal with Lotus F1 Team, when there are other better choices.”

“Lotus has black and gold and Unilever sells something smelly in gold and black,” said Penelope (Roedean).

“True,” said Penelope (Beneden), “but Unilever has stayed out of F1 forever. They are not a natural fit. So why now? Don’t you think that there might be a connection between Jerome d’Ambrosio and Unilever? The Clear brand was on his car at Virgin. He moves to Lotus and the same sponsorship pops up again. Think about it. If there was a lot of Unilever money then d’Ambrosio would not be a test driver. You have to conclude that the Unilever deal is not a lot of money, but is being given a lot of space by Lotus as a way to make the team look as though it has solid commercial partnerships with global giants that no other F1 teams has ever been able to attract. Unilever may see the sport as a way to get to Asian consumers and black and gold may be good for Rexona, but I think that the most likely reason that they have suddenly popped up in F1 is because the space was cheap and it was a deal that they could not refuse.”

“And Gerard Lopez thinks that if you give the image of having money, you are likely to get more money?” said The Mole.

“Precisely,” said Penelope (Benenden). “And let us not forget that Lopez needs money to be able to hang on to his investment in F1. We all think that the Lotus versus Lotus battle ended when Tony Fernandes bought Caterham, but I think a new Lotus-Lotus fight is developing. What would Group Lotus’s Dany Bahar think about Lopez’s attempt last autumn to buy Proton, in order to get control of Group Lotus? And what do you think Lopez makes of the announcement a few weeks ago that ART Grand Prix is being rebranded as Lotus GP? OK, it is running cars in GP2 and GP3 but ART has F1 ambitions and I cannot help but think that the plan is for Bahar and ART to buy Lotus F1 Team when it runs out of cash and Lopez has no choice but to sell. That would explain why Bahar says he is looking for investment to buy Group Lotus. Ever since the Malaysian government sold Proton to DRB-Hicom, Lotus Cars has been on the market. I reckon that Lopez and Bahar both want it, and they don’t want each other.”

“So you think we are in for another Lotus versus Lotus battle?” said The Mole.

Penelope (Benenden) nodded.

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The Mole goes out to lunch

January 31, 2012

A cold and wintry day at Vauxhall Cross is usually a good excuse to go to the SIS canteen, but with mobile phones not allowed inside the building, the younger generation (who are dependent on these devices) like to go out in order to exchange SMS messages with their nearest and dearest.

It was bone-shudderingly cold morning when Penelope (Roedean) wandered into The Mole’s office and said: “So you are buying me lunch then.” It was not a question, but rather a statement.

“Let’s go to the Riverside,” she said. “You can have something healthy like salmon and haddock fishcakes on wilted spinach. Followed by a sticky toffee pudding with cream.”

She winked.

The Mole nodded in agreement. It was impossible to say no to such a gorgeous creature which, of course, she knew. She had learned on her father’s knee how to deal with men, and The Mole was no exception. The idea of being spotted by young alpha males escorting this gazelle of a girl tweaked something in his deep sub-conscious, and he knew that she would play her role perfectly, with a naughty giggle from time to time to catch the attention of the young blades in the restaurant, while at the same time tickling his ego.

“Jolly good,” she smiled. “Now I must get on and save British motorsport from the beastly Germans and Italians.”

“And Americans,” said The Mole.

An hour later, the war had been put on hold and they had found themselves one of those rather nice booths at the Riverside, from where they could look out over the Thames, and not be overheard by tables nearby.

“We do need to start worrying about another lot of Germans,” said Penelope, toying with her smoked paprika crispy squid. “I mean the Mercedes F1 lot have not been much to worry about so far. Old Norbert seems to live a charmed life in Stuttgart, forever telling his bosses over there that next year will be the big year. No-one really knows if their car is quick, or whether it could be faster with better drivers. Michael Schumacher has never seemed to be on a par with Nico Rosberg, and we still don’t really know whether Rosberg is a winner, because he has not had a team mate who can really test him. At least not in F1. I guess next year they will put Paul di Resta in with Rosberg and we will find out. Before that happens they need to find a gracious way to finding a parking place for Michael.”

She paused for a breath.

“Did you just use the words ‘gracious’ and ‘Norbert’ in the same sentence?” The Mole asked.

Penelope giggled naughtily, and heads all around the restaurant popped up.

“Anyway,” she went on. “Forget about Mercedes. I am more interested in Volkswagen at the moment.”

“AutoUnion, you mean,” said The Mole. “Let’s face it. The dominant German Grand Prix teams of the 1930s came from Mercedes and AutoUnion, and when you look at the history, they were in fact Mercedes and what is now known as Volkswagen.”

“In essence, yes,” she replied.

“And you think that Formula 1 will one day end up back in the 1930s with Mercedes and AutoUnion battling it out with Alfa Romeo (known today as Ferrari). Is that it?”

“Basically,” said Penelope. “British motorsport’s success was really founded on things that SIS purloined from the old Mercedes and AutoUnion factories after World War II.”

The Mole nodded.

“So,” Penelope went on, “if we are to continue that domination we need to make sure that the Germans are kept under control.”

“Theoretically,” said The Mole. “But you forget that Mercedes Benz in Brackley is about as German as cricket.”

“I read somewhere the other day that the German cricket team is ranked 37th in the world,” Penelope said. “They are about as good as Mozambique and Japan. The funny thing is that I saw a list of their national players and it was all Khans, Hassans, Rajudeens and some really funny combinations such as Kashif Haider and a bloke called James Eggleston. I noticed that because it was the German pronounciation for old you-know-who. Bernard Eggleston.”

“I don’t suppose he’ll be buying the TV rights for German cricket any time soon,” said The Mole.

There was a pause. The Mole had an eye-to-eye moment with a roasted sardine, while Penelope nailed another piece of squid.

“This Dürheimer chap at Volkswagen is talking about the company coming to Formula 1 in 2018,” she said.

The Mole nodded.

“I can see that happening,” she said. “He is on his way to the top and by 2018 Martin Winterkorn, Ulrich Hackenberg, Jochem Heizmann, Werner Neubauer and all that generation will be gone. The younger guys like Michael Macht, Rupert Stadler, Francisco Javier Garcia Sanz and Winfried Vahland will be taking over. We reckon Dürheimer could go to the top, although Stadler is a bit of a rival. Either way, Dürheimer is going to be an important player. We did a little research on him a while back and it is very interesting. You know he is really into racing?”

The Mole raised an eyebrow.

“It is not well known, but before he joined Porsche Dürheimer was working at BMW, mainly in motorcycle development. We discovered that in 1985 he was a member of the Marlboro BMW motorcycle team on the Paris-Dakar Rally, working with Gaston Rahier, and racing from service point to service point in a Puch. In those days the service crews were actually in the rally as well.”

“Really?” said The Mole. “That’s interesting.”

“Yes,” said Penelope, “and guess what? He then went on to work closely with a young BMW motorcycle engineer called Willy Rampf.”

“You mean Sauber’s Willy Rampf?” asked The Mole.

“Yes,” Penelope said. “Willy started out a motorcycle development engineer before joining Sauber in 1994. After three years he went back to BMW and ran the next BMW Dakar Rally team, which won with a guy called Richard Sainct in 1999 and 2000, but then he went back to Sauber as technical director and stayed right through the BMW period and left in the middle of 2010. Guess where he is working now?”

“Willy?” said The Mole. “No idea.”

“He is now the technical director of Volkswagen Motorsport, he is the man in charge of the Volkswagen Polo R WRC project.”

“Is he?” said The Mole.

“Yes,” Penelope said. “He and Durheimer go back a long way. The other thing to remember about Durheimer is that he was the man behind the Porsche RS Spyder sports car in 2005, the first official Porsche in top level prototype racing since the late 1990s.”

“So he’s a fan of racing and has someone on his staff who really knows the ins and outs of F1,” said The Mole. Interesting.”

“That is not all,” said Penelope. “You know that Proton is now owned by these people called DRB-Hicom. They are assembling Volkswagen Passats in a place called Pekan in Malaysia, for the non-Chinese Asian market. Well everyone is saying that DRB will now sell Group Lotus, but I am not so sure. Lotus has some good technology that DRB-Hicom could probably use. Group Lotus also has a five year sponsorship deal with the F1 team, and I think there is also an option to buy the team. Maybe DRB-Hicom will hold on to the whole thing for a while and see if VW decides to go down the F1 path.”

“And they could transform the team into a Volkswagen factory operation?” said The Mole.

He thought for a moment.

“No,” he said. “That’s too far-fetched.”

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Niche markets

January 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.

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Miss Pringle-Featherby announces

January 16, 2012

There was a pattering of tiny feet in the corridor outside the Motor Racing and Trade Development Department of the Secret Intelligent Service. Usually these throroughfares are without noise as sleek civil servants glide from department to department, their effortless control speaking far louder than their feet.

The Mole knew at once that this must be an important message. Miss Pringle-Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys) only ever moved rapidly when she had important news to impart.

She was all a-twitter when she arrived at the door of The Mole’s office, breathless with excitement.

“Transcept!” she said, before gulping for air.

“Something to do with architecture in a church?” said The Mole, who was already at his door to greet her.

“Transcript,” she said, having a second go.

The Mole looked puzzled. He concluded that she must be talking about something from Government Communications Headquarters on Hubble Road in Cheltenham, from where the government acquires most of its Signal Intelligence (otherwise known as SIGINT by those in the business).

“Transcript of an intercept,” she said, finally. Her cheeks were glowing quite pink, as if she had drunk two and a half glasses of Pimms (without much lemonade).

By that point the four Penelopes had gathered around her, waiting to hear the important news.

“Spit it out girl,” said Penelope (Roedean), sounding (but not looking) like a headmistress. For a fleeting second The Mole had the image of a headgirl of St Trinians in his head, but then he looked back at Miss Pringle-Featherby and all passionate thoughts evaporated.

She took a long, slow, deep breath.

“Senna,” she said. “Bruno Senna is joining Williams. They are going to announce it shortly. Down in Cheltenham they picked up some mobile phone call from Brazil talking about the deal.”

The Mole said “thank you”, rather curtly, and retreated into his office. Penelope (Roedean) followed.

“Oh dear,” said The Mole. “Williams getting two pay-drivers is just a bit too much. I suppose we will have to get in there and organise a bit of coup d’état. The time for change is clearly upon us.”

“Can I shoot Adam Parr?” said Penelope, almost wistfully.

The Mole smiled.

“There is a queue, I believe,” he said.

“I can be very subtle,” she smiled. “You know. Belts, handcuffs, stockings, oranges. You name it.”

“No, I think not,” said The Mole. “He is British, after all. If he was a foreign chap, we might be able to use Boston Brakes, or a fishing accident, or something like that, but he’s Eton and Oxford. And we don’t do that sort of thing to chaps like him.”

“Eton and Cambridge,” said Penelope, realising as she said it, that it was ‘too much information’.

The Mole raised an eyebrow.

“I suppose we will have to see if Bruno can do the job,” he said, changing the subject, to save Penelope’s blushes. “There are lots of people who think he’s got what it takes. I’m not so sure. I must admit I find it rather hard to see the name Senna in a Williams again. Bad memories, I suppose. No, it’s not that. It is more to do with the driver choice. I mean, Senna’s is a good lad, but Williams needs a proper proven number one driver. A charger with no question marks. The team really does not need someone who is supposed to be bringing $15 million in sponsorship.”

“Where on earth would Senna get that kind of cash from?” asked Penelope.

The Mole shrugged.

“I can see that it might be possible to raise that kind of money in Brazil at the moment. It’s booming after all. And Senna is a big name. Who knows, maybe he has not got it all, but reckons he can get it. Maybe the delay has been because Williams wanted guarantees.”

He paused for a moment.

“The thing is that Williams is not going to get back to the front in F1 until they get results,” he said. “The old management knew that. They were an engineering company. They knew that all that mattered was to win. If you got results, you got money. If you got results and money you got the best drivers, and the best engineers. They all used to know that results are all that matter. And if the team does not deliver them, it will continue down the slippery slope to oblivion. The only way to stop the current slide is to build great cars.”

“Sounds logical,” said Penelope.

“If Williams is no longer aiming for that and making decisions based on survival,” The Mole went on, “then I am worried. Williams is an important F1 brand. The sport needs it. OK, it’s not Ferrari nor McLaren, these days, but Williams is still a very valuable F1 brand. It’s better than Red Bull Racing, Mercedes or Sauber. It is part of Britain’s F1 heritage. If only because it is really the only British team left.

“McLaren is largely owned by chaps in the Middle East,” he went on. “Red Bull pretends to be Austrian. Mercedes is officially German, although there is a fair bit of collaboration going on down in Brackley these days. Force India is more roast beef than chicken tikka masala.”

“Isn’t chicken tikka masala the British national dish these days?” asked Penelope. “I am sure I read that somewhere.”

“Not as long as there is beef to roast,” said The Mole. “Or lamb, come to that. No-one roasts lamb like the British.”

There was a pause as both of them savoured the idea.

“Lotus is now owned by some types from Luxembourg. Caterham is Malaysian. Virgin is Russian. Britain is being swamped. Williams is the last stand of true British team ownership in F1. And what chance do they have against the foreign invader if they have to take money from that strange fellow in Venezuela and from booming Brazilians.”

“Yes, but half of England is owned by foreigners these days,” said Penelope. “H A Rods is owned by the Qataris.”

“I know,” said The Mole. “Thank goodness that Mr Ecclestone still owns half of London. And thank goodness that we have the Duke of Westminster.”

“And the Queen,” said Penelope.

h1

Sins on Sunday

January 10, 2012

Sunday is a sacred day at Mole Manor, The Mole’s residence in a leafy (but secret) corner of Surrey. It comes with the job (which is good reason not to retire) and features a rather exotic bunker at the end of the garden, which one enters through the garden shed. This has an aerial disguised as a tree. It was all built back in the day when Englishmen all thought that the Russians would soon be shopping at Harrods, without realizing that this would all be achieved without the need for all the guns, planes and missiles that existed in the days of The Arms Race.

These days The Mole rarely goes into “The Hole” and it is left to spiders of grand ambition to fill the facility with webs of outrageous proportions. As the spiders do their business, above ground, Sunday is a sacred day at The Manor. It is a day of rest (unless there are any coups d’état going on) and everyone except Mrs Batty, the cook, enjoys a little down time. Mrs Batty spends her morning creating the traditional roast lunch – with all the relevant trimmings. She is an artist in the kitchen, and like many artists has her weaknesses, notably the haft-empty bottle of sherry that hides silently behind the box of Scott’s Porage Oats. She swigs from this now and then as she works.

The local vicar – the Reverend O – is also at work, tending his flock at St Christopher’s, like the good shepherd that he is. The Mole is a man of some standing in the local community, although most people think he is a tax inspector, and so he goes to church on Sundays and occasionally discusses morality with the Reverend O.

“One must always try to battle sin,” O said one day, in discussion with The Mole.

“But what is the definition of sin?” said The Mole. “If one does bad things to beat the bad guys, is that really bad? Is it, for example, bad to pay someone money to sweeten a deal and make it happen more efficiently? People call that a bribe and it is illegal, but it gets a deal done more quickly. It is efficient.”

“Yes, but it is wrong,” said The Reverend. “If it says so in the law – then it is wrong.”

“So if the law in a country bans women from driving then that is OK, is it?” said The Mole.

“Oh dear,” said The Reverend. “Why do you always make things so complicated?”

“You see,” said The Mole. “One man’s bribe is another man’s incentive. I’m not sure how you tell the difference. I guess it is about who knows what. If an incentive is involved I guess all parties involved should know about it. A bribe is, by definition, a hidden payment.”

The Reverend looked bemused.

It is arguments like this that have gradually convinced The Reverend to keep his sermons short when The Mole is around. The Mole helped this process by adopting the cunning plan of inviting The Reverend to join them for lunch each Sunday, but warning him that if the sermon dragged on too long Mrs Batty’s famous lunches would be ruined.

“Religion is all well and good, but causing Yorkshire Pudding to go soggy is definitely a sin,” The Mole said. “A swift sermon, a sherry or two and then Mrs Batty’s fabulous roast beef, Yorkshire Pudding and all the trimmings, followed by a big stodgy pudding with lots of custard. That is heaven.”

The Reverend nodded.

“We all have our different concepts,” he said, rather weakly.

Last Sunday The Mole, Mrs Mole, the Reverend O and The Colonel (The Mole’s next door neighbour and a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party) headed back to the Manor, where Mrs Mole’s friend, the venerable dowager from down the road (with a rather impressive moustache) was awaiting them. She had fallen out with the Parochial Church Council many years earlier and no longer graced St Christopher’s with her presence, despite the very best efforts of Reverend O, who continued to try to round up his flock, like a young sheep dog.

Afterward a splendid lunch, The Mole, The Colonel and The Reverend took coffee in the drawing room, leaving the girls to chit-chat.

“So what’s happening in the motor racing world, Mole old boy?” said The Colonel.

The Mole shrugged.

“Oh, the usual stuff,” he said. “Nothing very exciting. I am sure you have been following the Williams business. They need to figure out a driver, and I have a nasty suspicion that all the talking Qatar is not going to produce a deal. It has been going on for too long now, and the Qataris are famously difficult to get an answer from. I also hear that a lot of the other teams have been sending people down there and offering them the world.”

“Let’s face it,” said The Colonel. “Williams can only offer maybes these days.”

“Maybes and history,” said The Mole. “And infrastructure. They have all the right stuff. They should be able to do it, and with Renault engines it should be better.”

“I guess it has to be that,” The Colonel mused. “Just the wrong people in recent year.”

“I don’t see how you can see it any other way,” said The Mole.

“What about that Ecclestone fellow,” said The Colonel. “What’s happening with the German court thing?”

“I believe they are still listening to all the witnesses,” The Mole said. “Then I guess they will decide whether the banker fellow is guilty of receiving a bribe and once they have done that then I suppose the dominoes will start to fall. It is really all about the definition of ‘a bribe’.”

The Reverend looked up, remembering an earlier conversation.

The Colonel hrumphed. To him things are always black and white, without fifty shades of grey.

“I see there was some talk about a new French Grand Prix,” said The Reverend, deciding to change the subject.

The Mole nodded.

“But it would mean losing Spa every second year,” he said, “which would be a crime.”

“A sin,” said The Reverend.

“Bloody right,” The Colonel chimed in. “Belgium may be a dysfunctional country, but Spa is a magnificent place for racing cars. And Paul Ricard is useless.”

“But what is the answer?” said The Mole. “Neither country wants to pay enough for a race each year.”

“If you ask me,” said The Colonel, who had not actually been asked, “I think that the best solution is really very simple. Belgium ran without a government for 541 days, which shows that they really don’t need one. I think they should just break Belgium up and then Wallonia can become part of France and the French GP could be held every year at Spa.”

“That is a bit like saying that Canada should become the 51st State of the United States,” said The Mole.

“Hm, I hadn’t thought of that one,” said The Colonel. “Not a bad idea.”

The Reverend O looked to heaven and said a silent prayer.

h1

The Mole returns to action

January 2, 2012

The Mole stood by the window of his office, looking out over the River Thames, towards the horridly-named Millbank Millennium Pier. A sleek Tate to Tate river bus was heading off towards the Houses of Parliament, but the sight of the Victoria Tower and Big Ben in the distance made him wince. Mrs Mole was rather keen to become Lady Mole, and there had been nothing in the New Years Honours List. Having a CMG was all very well, but a chap needs to end his career with a KCMG if he is to hold his head up at The Travellers.

The Motor Racing and Trade Development Department, of the Secret Intelligence Service, formerly known as The Motor Racing and Tinpot Dictator Department (MRTDD), exists to ensure that Britain’s motor racing industry continues to lead the world, even if it means sticking a spanner in the works of foreign teams. The government has nothing against foreigners buying teams and leaving them in England, but silly ideas such as starting a team in Spain or the United States of America have been “actively discouraged”. Fortunately, such efforts thus far have been about as successful as the Spanish Armada and the Alamo.

The Mole and his agents are also tasked to try to keep “the bad guys” out of the sport, to ensure that the sport stays solid so that Britain can continue to rules its waves. The Mole himself defines what constitutes “a bad guy”.

For the last couple of years, he has been very happy with the state of Formula 1. British-based teams have won the last three Constructors’ titles and all is well. There is a certain irony in that Jean Todt, who led the Ferrari challenge to British domination, has now become very useful for The Mole, as his handling of the Formula 1 world has been rather more satisfactory than the latter days of Max Mosley, when things were rather more frenetic. The Formula One Teams’ Association has helped, although The Mole never trusted Ferrari to play fair.

“Italians don’t play cricket,” he said, when questioned on the subject.

But, for whatever reason, F1 has had a couple of years of compromise and serenity. This coincided with the arrival of a new “C” at the end of 2009, which meant a change in priorities, and there was further realignment when the coalition government arrived in the Spring of 2010.

The Mole and his operatives were directed to pay a little more attention to Trade Development and spend less time on Motor Racing. The German Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV) was even asked to look after the Gribkowsky Affair.

The new SIS boss – Sir John Sawers – was a few years younger than The Mole, but he was a proper spook. He had served his apprenticeship in such places as Yemen and Syria before moving up the ladder to Pretoria, an ambassadorship in Cairo and then a period as Britain’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. The Mole had done similar work in North Vietnam early in his career before embassy postings in Moscow, Berlin, Geneva, Prague, Paris and Nairobi before moving into a “softer” role with MRTDD. He rather missed the F1 involvement, but the department had done much to develop trade in places where it is easy to get a suntan.

Penelope (Roedean), The Mole’s gorgeous deputy, had taken the opportunity to get what she called some “marital bliss”, by marrying a chap from the Grenadier Guards. He seemed to be made of the right stuff until she discovered that he had been “shagging some bint in Aldershot”, after which Penelope (Wycombe Abbey) had had to talk the far-from-blushing bride out of shooting her husband in the gonads.

Since then she had given up on romance and was focussed 100 percent on her work, which (secretly) delighted The Mole as he lived in fear of losing his girls to the breeding classes. Penelope’s moment of glory had come when she suggested that they use her recipe for cupcakes, when the techies attacked an al-Qaida website which was trying to teach radical types how to make bombs in their kitchens at home. A great deal of sugar was subsequently wasted.

Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies College) was still climbing mountains and flattening her men in karate sessions, but she remained as lovely as Athena, and as asexual as ever.

Penelope (Wycombe Abbey) still looked as though butter would not melt in her mouth, but could still shoot like sniper, fence liked a champion and continued to have the most outrageous expense claims. Her air of innocence and her natural blondeness still made her a devastating agent, particularly when her steely grey eyes were at full power. Since her return from Libya – with a terrific suntan – she had caused any many a young SIS officer to walk into pillars at Vauxhall Cross.

Penelope (Benenden), the bookish one, was still smouldering away behind her glasses… quiet and forever angry that her real name was Jane and she was not as pretty as the others.

The weekly meeting began with The Mole’s Personal Assistant Miss Pringle-Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys) rounding up the agents. Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies College) and Penelope (Wycombe Abbey) steamed into The Mole’s office like a pair of battleships in search of a convoy, while Penelope (Benenden) arrived, her head in a report about Venezuela’s President Hugo Chaves. There was a suitable pause and then Penelope (Roedean) made her entrance, reading a copy of Guns & Ammo.

“What’s up Doc?” she said, with her customary twinkle.

“Well,” said The Mole. “The powers-that-be are officially worried about Williams. This is one of the cornerstones of the industry and it has all gone horribly wrong. Ninth in the Constructors’ last year and now Patrick Head is departing. Something needs to be done.”

“I could shoot a couple of them,” said Penelope (Roedean). “It is a fairly obvious case of a team that has lost its focus. It needs a leader and FW seems to have become more of a figurehead these days. These young chaps don’t seem to have much idea.”

The Mole winced.

Penelope was on a roll.

“Did you hear how it was that Sam Michael was able to get out of contract early and start working for McLaren at the end of last year?” she said. “Apparently, after he was axed by Williams, he went out to lunch one day and, as luck would have it, went to the same restaurant as Williams chairman Adam Parr, who just happened to be having lunch with Kimi Raikkonen. They found themselves in an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” situation. Most amusing!”

The Mole smiled.

“The team has everything it needs to be successful,” he said. “What is missing?”

“Easy,” said Penelope (Benenden), without even looking up. “The team needs Adrian Newey. It is obvious, isn’t it? Newey made his name with Williams in the 1990s. It went downhill after he left. He has since made a success of McLaren and Red Bull Racing. He left McLaren a little later than he ought to have done, but it would be absolutely right for him to quit Red Bull after three consecutive titles. The Austrians are not going to give him a share in the team, are they? He may say that he doesn’t want another challenge, but he’s still only in his early fifties and he’s going to get bored doing nothing. If Williams offered him some shares, a pile of money and a chance to do it all again, it could be the crowning achievement of his glittering career in three to five years from now. Remember, he left the last time because they would not give him shares in the team. Hell, they are handing them out these days. If Patrick Head is gone and his shares are up for grabs, then I am sure that the partners could muster 10 percent between them to give Adrian a reason to join.

The Mole paused.

“Utterly logical,” he said. “Good thinking. I must call FW.”

“Oh,” said Penelope (Roedean), with a naughty grin. “Can’t I have a crack at Adam Parr. I just love those floppy locks.”