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Our American cousins

June 11, 2009

That morning, as The Mole was savouring a cup of tea and three chocolate-topped Digestive biscuits, he received a phone call from his friend The Mandarin, at the Old Admiralty Building, overlooking Horse Guards Parade.

“They must be Trooping the Colour soon,” said The Mole.

“Yes,” said The Mandarin. “This weekend. I am sure it will be all very splendid for the tourists, but they do make an frightful racket, putting up all the grandstands.”

The Mole smiled.

“I believe they will be holding the beach volleyball there in 2012,” he said. “I am sure all those healthy American, Australian and Brazilian girls in very small bikinis will be worth watching.”

“Probably better than a bunch of guardsmen is silly bearskins,” said The Mandarin. “I suppose I might postpone my retirement until after that.”

They chatted for a while about the expenses scandals and how the British political classes are now morally bankrupt and how MPs are nothing more than professional sycophants, interested only in winning office.

“Whatever happened to respected members of the community chosen to represent their peers,” said The Mandarin.

“Damned shame,” said The Mole.

The point of the call was to organise a meeting. The Mandarin had news from the Joint Intelligence Committee. It was agreed that lunch at The Travellers was the best solution.

Three hours later the pair were were dining in the Coffee Room.

“Now look,” said The Mandarin, in a low whisper. “The JIC wants to encourage Americans to enter Formula 1. They thinks that it would be a splendid idea to take away some of the best people from over there. They are not worried about NASCAR expanding, because who cares abou that. But they really don’t want IRL recovering from the split with Champ Car. They want more US interest in Formula 1. It all helps drive business to Britain.”

The Mole nodded wisely, wondering whether the potted shrimp was a good choice for the starter.

“Do we have any indications that anyone is interested?” said The Mandarin.

“Not really,” said The Mole. “Just whispers. There is the USF1 thing, of course. Lots of people seem to think the cash is coming from Google, but my chap undercover in the San Francisco Consulate says that there is a chap called Hurley, one of the founders of Youtube, who is the money behind the team. They are also working with a big US advertising agency to get into the boardrooms of corporate America.”

“Yes,” said The Mandarin. “That’s all very well, but we need someone who is going to use British technology, rather than flying it over.”

The Mole pondered a moment.

“Well, I did hear the name Penske,” he said.

“One alway does when people talk of US people in F1,” said The Mandarin, intent on spreading a small piece of butter on a rather delicious-looking bread roll.

“No,” said The Mole. I don’t mean Roger. I mean the son.”

“The son?”

“Yes, Roger has four sons,” The Mole went on. “The youngest is called Jay. He was a bit of an athlete in his day. Wharton Business School, has dated a few actresses – as you do when you are the son of a billionaire.”

“Sounds like Gatsby,” said The Mandarin.

“Well,” The Mole went on. “It seems that he wants to make his own empire. He has a few technology companies but these days is spending more time on an IRL team with a guy called Steve Luczo, who owns Seagate, a company that makes hard drives. It has revenues of $12 billion, so he has a few tens of millions to spare. I did hear that he has been sniffing around F1. If you are trying to do something your dad has never achieved and your name is Penske, you have to aim for the F1 World Championship. Roger’s done pretty much everything else.”

The Mandarin nodded.

“The other one that I heard a whisper about is Bobby Rahal,” The Mole went on, having quietly decided that the potted shrimp was the right idea. “You know he has always been rather more international in his outlook than some of the other Americans. He was in charge of Jaguar Racing for a while but since then he’s been running Rahal Letterman Racing. They have done OK, but money for IRL is hard to find and this year Rahal Letterman is concentrating on the American Le Mans Series with a factory BMW team. They are also running the Formula BMW Americas series for Munich, so they are pretty well-connected if they want some engines.”

“Why F1?” said The Mandarin.

“Three things,” said The Mole. “I think there is a lot of potential to raise US money for international racing, I think that Bobby sees F1 as unfinished business, and I think that they need need find a way to get his son Graham into F1 without having to waste time in GP2. Graham is 20 and he’s in his third season with Newman Haas Racing. He’s the youngest guy ever to win a major open-wheeler race in the US. He wants to be an F1 driver. After Sebastien Bourdais no-one in F1 is going to take a guy from IRL unless he has won at least one championship. Graham could hang around and do that, but that would use up available time. It might be better to launch Graham into F1 with an all-American team.”

“Like USF1,” said The Mandarin.

“Could be,” said The Mole. “Could be a Rahal team. Could be a combination of the two. Who knows? But I sense that something is happening. I don’t know if either of them has put in an entry, but I think they are out there if there is major cost-cutting in F1. IRL is not really going anywhere at the moment. The viewing figures are down, even after the merger. They might have had a full field at Indianapolis but the entry is down to 24 now and about half of them are pay-drivers. NASCAR has the money pretty much sewn up these days. The open-wheeler people really messed up fighting that stupid civil war.”

“I trust that you have mentioned this to the F1 team bosses.” said The Mandarin.

The Mole nodded.

“I am not sure they are all listening,” he said.

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Accentuating the negative

May 18, 2009

The Mole has been unable to keep up with his duties as chronicler of the slightly demented world of Formula 1 motor racing because of the government’s lack of interest in the subject. The Mole was so upset that he even suggested to his friend The Mandarin that he should become the SIS chief in charge of the Olympic Games. He would thus be showered with as much money as he could possibly want. As the government’s leading (one might argue) only defender of the British motorsport industry, the last weeks have been depressing as the industry has had to deal with the onset of the global recession. The Mole’s main task has been to try to safeguard the British Grand Prix, which has been looking decidedly shaky ever since Bernie Ecclestone did his deal with Donington Park.

To make matters worse The Mole has discovered that “the Commies down at the BBC” (as The Colonel calls them) have tried to usurp his position by inventing their own F1 Mole.

“It’s a bloody disgrace!” said The Colonel, when he and The Mole found themselves together the other day in the local pub.

“Well,” said The Mole. “They are all going to make it to Broadway in the end.”

“Broadway?” said The Colonel.

“Yes,” smiled The Mole. “It’s a road in Salford. They are sending most of the BBC up there in a couple of years from now. Flogging off the TV Centre and sending the luvvies to regenerate the industrial north.”

“Oh good show!” said The Colonel. “Splendid.”

The Mole’s biggest problem is one that he could not discuss with The Colonel.

At Mole Manor life goes on much as always with Mrs Mole doing good deeds and Mrs Batty the cook producing wonderful food, while also helping to single-handedly solve the problem of the European Gin Lake. Alas, government cutbacks have finally deprived The Mole of the services of Oswald, his chauffeur.

He was recently transferred to “The Pool” and now drives a variety of SIS officers about London, collects their dry cleaning and so on. The Mole either has to drive himself to work, which means that he wastes three or four hours every day (depending on the traffic) or he must brave the trains, which is not much good from where he lives, as it involves several changes or a drive through the woods by way of Colekitchen Lane and Honeysuckle Bottom to Horsley and then a rattling train ride through Cobham, Oxshott, Claygate, Hinchley Wood and other such places until he finally arrives at SIS headquarters in Vauxhall.

Of course, he cannot pull out his secret papers on the train, for fear of foreign agents, and so he does the crossword and the sudoku and wastes available working time.

“I think you should get a motorcycle,” said Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies College), with her usual ethereal coolness.. “That would get your here quickly enough.”

“Yes,” said The Mole, “but I still would not be working on the journey. How can one promote and defend the national security and economic well-being of the United Kingdom when one is stuck in traffic?”

The four Penelopes were much as ever. Beautiful, one and all, and busy making sure that all goes well for the British in global motorsport.

They were all in their weekly meeting, deciding what to do in Monaco, but the conversation had drifted to more general matters.

“I thought it was a great idea to get rid of Honda,” said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey), from beneath her honey-coloured bob. “Now our chaps at Brawn GP can take all the credit, using the money the Japanese spent. Wonderful! And maybe we will get a small British team winning the World Championship with a British driver. That would be brilliant publicity.”

“And a hunky World Champion at that,” said Penny (Roedean), who remains in search of a soul-mate. “I think Jenson is gorgeous.”

The Mole ignored the banter. He was pondering whether or not it was good for Britain to have Ferrari in F1. In the end he concluded that the team is so popular that it is a good thing for them to remain, as it reflects well on all the other teams, particularly if Ferrari is losing. Max Mosley would be foolish to let them leave.

“What about the British GP?” said Penelope (Benenden), looking over the top of her glasses. “What can we do to save that?”

That was the question.

“Perhaps the answer is to try to get rid of as many of the European races as possible,” said Penelope (Roedean). “As each one disappears there will be more pressure to keep the traditional races. And the British GP is top of the traditional list. So we want to wipe out at least one of the Spanish races and we need to make sure that Hungary drops out too. We don’t want the French back in either. I think the Germans are going to run out of cash on their own, so really we have to work on the Spanish. They should not have two races.”

“I would not worry too much,” said The Mole. “That race will take care of itself. I understand that Francisco Camps, the leader of the Valencia regional government, has been indicted by the Valencia High Court in the last few days. It is all part of that big corruption scandal. He must present himself to the court tomorrow to answer charges that he received backhanders in exchange for government contracts. They keep hinting that the America’s Cup and the Grand Prix in Valencia could both be a part of the scandal. Well, of course, he says he has nothing to hide and the best that judge Baltasar Garzon can come up with was that he got a load of fancy suits for free. Garzon claims that Camps received these suits from Alvaro Perez, an event promoter, in order for him to gain lucrative contracts to stage special events for the regional government.

“And, to make matters worse, they say that the race in Valencia last year lost several million dollars and there are serious worries about tickets sales this year as well. Spain is in a big recession and you saw what happened in Barcelona the other week. The crowd was way down on normal.”

Things did not sound very good.

“Perhaps,” said Penelope (Roedean). “We need to look at trying to stop the USF1 team. We don’t want them coming over and advertising the fact that there is a strong motorsport cluster in the US that can compete with the UK.”

“We will have to see,” said The Mole. “I am not sure many of these new teams will ever appear. I don’t think there is enough money about.”

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When vice is the spice of life

March 10, 2009

You could have heard a pin drop at Mole Manor. The only sound was the gentle rustle of The Mole’s FT as he turned the pages. Mrs Mole was sitting at the breakfast table, nibbling on a piece of toast without making a sound. One needed very good ears to have heard a low chuntering noise emanating from the kitchen, where Mrs Batty, the somewhat eccentric cook, was fussing over some sauteed kidneys. She took an occasional swig from a gin bottle that was hidden behind the cornflakes and smiled with rather unfocussed eyes. The sherry bottle behind the porridge box was almost empty.

The Mole bit into a piece of toast and the crunching noise seemed to echo through the house.

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” he said. “I mean look at all this disastrous news. The Dow is at 6.6, the FTSE at three and a half, the DAX is much the same and the CAC 40 lives up to its name.”

“Yes dear,” said Mrs Mole, who was thinking about jam jars that were needed for one of her charity activities. The financial world was far too difficult to even consider and she was happy that The Mole seemed to understand what was going on.

“It is all just terrible news,” The Mole said, as Mrs Batty swaggered in with the kidneys.
“They should hang the lot of them,” she said, to no-one in particular.

The Mole looked rather surprised.

“Bankers!” said Mrs Batty. “They are the ones that have caused all this. With all their dubious schemes and their never-ending credit facilities.”

The Mole concluded that it was best to agree with her and then she might go away.

He nodded sagely.

Mrs Mole did the same.

“Maybe they should be hanged, drawn and quartered,” Mrs Batty mused. “That would make good TV. And I bet they’d sell lots of ads. People like a bit of violence, don’t they? I mean, you’re not allowed to say it, but that’s what’s wrong with motor racing these these days. Not enough crashes!”

The Mole winced.

“Oh, how lovely,” he said, hoping to change the subject. “Sauteed kidneys, my favourite.”

“And jolly good marmalade,” said Mrs Mole, joining in.

Mrs Batty looked at the pair of them with a look that said “you’re mad!” and felt a sudden urge for a swig of gin and so retreated with a smile towards the kitchen.

When they felt it was safe The Mole and Mrs Mole looked at one another and rolled their eyes.

“I think she may be on the sauce a little bit,” hissed Mrs Mole.

“It’s eight o’clock in the morning!” said The Mole. “That’s a bit radical, isn’t it?”

“Not in the current financial climate,” said Mrs Mole. “Someone said to me the other day that one should always head for the drinks companies when times are hard. They make more money. That and gambling.”

The Mole nodded.

The kidneys were very good indeed and after a final cup of coffee and another piece of toast The Mole wearily headed out to the driveway, where Oswald the chauffeur was standing next to the Toyota Prius, stamping out a cigarette on the gravel.

“Mornin’. Bleedin’ horrible, innit?” he said, with his usual poetic touch.

The Mole nodded and thought back to the days when important government servants had Jaguars rather than environmentally-friendly Japanese devices.

As he settled into the back seat, he reminded himself that actually he was very lucky and that Oswald might one day he laid off and the car sent to a crusher and he would then have to either drive himself to work or face the horror of public transport. Like most motor racing people, the idea of a train was almost as appalling as a war crime.

“We’ll be havin’ trouble in Tooting,” Oswald grunted.

“C’est la vie,” said The Mole.

Normally The Mole worked in the car, but today he was not in the mood. He was thinking.
Motorsport has to change. Things are really bad. Yes, Honda has been saved by Brawn, but is there going to be money to support Renault when ING departs. And will Williams find the cash to replace RBS in 2011? How much longer will Dietrich Mateschitz go on with two Red Bull teams? Will BMW and Mercedes and Toyota go on if they keep getting beaten?

And what will Ferrari do when Marlboro finally admits that there is no more to be gained from sponsorship. Even the tobacco stocks are dropping.

Booze and gambling, he thought, that is the future. And perhaps some more of those cross border currency exchange people, who are making loads of cash as currencies go up and down. BMW Sauber has a deal with one of them. Money-changers and debt-collectors, they are the boom industries at the moment. Maybe credit card companies. They are desperate for people to take on more debts.

He looked out the window at the passing suburbs and felt rather depressed. These are hard times.

Brawn GP is rumoured to have money coming in from online gambling, he thought.

Human vices are always good earners in troubled times. Booze and gambling. Things that offer either escape or hope, but don’t cost too much. Casinos maybe. Alcohol.

Yes, he thought, alcohol is a good fit. Booze may not be a perfect fit with F1 but Johnnie Walker seems to be doing all right in F1 and there are a load more booze companies involved in NASCAR. Casinos are good too, he thought. The big chains have new places opening in Asia, in Singapore and places like Macau. They want the world to go there and dump their cash on the tables.

And maybe President Sarkozy could stop loaning taxpayers’ money to Renault and instead tell the lottery company to sponsor Renault. The state runs the whole business, takes around a third of the cash generated, which is about three billion Euros and pays out less than 10 percent of that to support French sport. There is even a good reason to do it because the French are not really into sports betting, and half of those that are, do not gamble with the state company. And there is the question of European expansion. Thus there are opportunities to expand. And at the moment the company is supporting a cycle racing team which is not going to do much for the French economy.

“Not a bad idea,” said The Mole to himself.

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Hope springs eternal

February 17, 2009

Miss Pringle-Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys) was all in a twitter, as the members of the Motor Racing and Trade Development Department of the Secret Intelligence Service drifted into work at Vauxhall Cross. It was a dull overcast day, but she was excited..

“Did you see the news?” she said, with the kind of breathless voice made famous by Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. “Danica is coming to Formula 1.”

The Mole had raised an eyebrow, but smiled a kindly smile and said nothing. He wandered over to his desk, pondering whether coffee or tea was required.

Moments later Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies College) and Penelope (Wycombe Abbey) sailed into the office like a pair of sleek battleships that had lost their escort of destroyers. Miss Pringle-Featherby repeated the news. Penelope (Wycombe Abbey) smiled, gave the secretary (although she preferred the title “Personal Assistant”) a wink and said: “Splendid. These men need to experience a bit of Girl Power!” The former ignored the remark and settled at her desk, carefully tidying her hair as a swan would smooth stray feathers.

Penelope (Benenden) was next to appear. Her head was down and she was reading. She grunted something that sounded like “Really” when she heard the news, but Miss Pringle-Featherby could not be quite sure.

The last to arrive was Penelope (Roedean), who strode into the office, a briefcase in one hand and a copy of “Guns & Ammo” in the other. Miss Pringle-Featherby mentioned Danica again.

“Total poppycock,” she said. “Danica’s only good on the ovals. She’s rubbish on the road circuits. She’d be lost in F1.”

Miss Pringle-Featherby looked rather crestfallen.

Penelope (Wycombe Abbey) looked up from her desk and, from beneath the fringe of her honey-coloured bob, muttered: “That’s completely untrue, Danica is better on the road courses than on the ovals.”

Penelope (Roedean) decided that she would not go on the attack, because Penelope (Wycombe Abbey) rarely made such an emphatic statement unless she really knew the answer.

“Well, that is the impression one gets,” she said, opting for a less confrontational approach.

“I analysed the last three years and on average Danica finishes around ninth or 10th on the ovals,” said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey). “On road courses she was usually sixth or seventh. She had a poor year on the road courses in 2008 and averaged 12th and won on an oval, so I guess that’s why people think she’s no good on road courses.”

“Marvellous,” said Penelope (Roedean).

She paused for effect.

“So tell me,” she said. “How many F1 drivers break into the sport after a career finishing eighth and ninth in the United States?”

It was a point well made.

“Danica is a decent driver, looks good in a swimsuit, but she’d would never be more than a Pedro Diniz,” she went on.

It was a touch unkind, but F1 is for the very best of the best. It is a world of ultimate realism.

“Danica is very good,” she went on. “But is she really good enough for the top level of F1? And does she really want it? Better to be the queen bee in a lesser series.”

It was a good point.

“It strikes me that the whole idea of Danica driving for a notional American team is just a big publicity stunt,” said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey). “Do you remember a few years back when Bernie described Danica as a domestic appliance? It was in the week before the US Grand Prix. It made a lot of headlines. I don’t suppose Bernie meant that Danica was like a toaster or a washing machine. He was just trying to get F1 into the papers. And the Americans were suitably outraged.”

“You are such a cynic?” said Penelope (Roedean).

“Well, come on,” said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey). “This USF1 project has a lot of serious elements in the plan. The Spanish end of the operation is entirely logical. Epsilon Euskadi is an ambitious operation, with some very experienced F1 people involved. Joan Villadelprat and Sergio Rinland are both good people. They have a lot of experience. They know how F1 works. Villadelprat has been keen to run an F1 team for quite a long time and has been working towards that quietly for years.

“The American end of the operation is potentially pretty sensible too. They have the technology and the people to build F1 cars. They have the fancy Windshear wind tunnel, they have composite facilities all over the place and they have the University of North Carolina at Charlotte which churns out new racing engineers as they have a special course there.”

“That is all very true,” said The Mole, who had decided to join in. “But where is the money going to come from? It is all possible. It is desirable for Formula 1, which is why the sport is being so positive about the idea. They all want it to happen. If Max Mosley can get the teams to agree to accept budgets of $65m a year then it would be great to have a US team in one of the available slots. And an American driver would be wonderful for the sport. But, to be quite honest, having Scott Speed in F1 made no effect at all.”

“He wasn’t winning,” said Penelope (Roedean). “Countries only get excited about winners. Look at Mark Webber and Australia. If he won a race the place would adopt him as a long lost son. Until he does, no-one gives a damn.”

The Mole nodded.

“It is true, isn’t it?” he said. “Until Lewis Hamilton came along Britain had to make do with David Coulthard, Jenson Button and Eddie Irvine. None of them were ever in the right place at the right time, or had the chance and did not make the most of it. People like winners. We will probably have to wait for another generation of drivers to see if there is a good American out there. The best guys tend to stay at home and race on ovals rather than heading off to Europe to struggle. They don’t need to do it, NASCAR is big enough to give them a comfortable life, plenty of nice looking women and all the rest of it.”

There are lot of Americans who have tried to do Europe,” Penelope (Wycombe Abbey) said. “Including Danica but the only one to get to get to GP2 was Speed. The others all ran out of money and headed for home. Red Bull now has a NASCAR team and has given given up using Americans in F1. In any case, they have a very dodgy record with drivers. They keep wasting the good ones and promoting the wrong people.”

“I still think Danica would be brilliant for F1,” said Miss Pringle-Featherby. “I really do!”

The Mole smiled.

Hope springs eternal.

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Choosing the right battlefield

February 12, 2009

The Colonel had got bored with seducing little old ladies in Surrey and had abandoned his blazer, his medals and his tall tales and had decided to expand his horizons. He took a train from Dorking to London, to take The Mole out to lunch at the In and Out Club in St James’s Square. Its real name is the Naval & Military Club, but it is dubbed the In & Out because some unwise soul had these words painted on the pillars at the entrance.

The weather was miserable but The Goat bar was full of men re-fighting battles they had lost and won years before.

The Colonal settled down with a beer and a bag of pork scratchings. That was perfect.

There had been many times in far-flung spot when he had dreamed of such fabulous Epicurean delights: hedgerows in Northern Ireland and places he dared not talk about in Oman.

The Mole arrived and The Colonel launched into a speech about General Douglas Haig. he had been reading an article on the train.

“Everyone says he was a terrible commander and sacrificed his men,” he postulated. “It was terrible. But what was he supposed to do. They had invented weapons that stopped armies moving quickly: trenches, barbed wire, machine guns and so on, but they had not yet invented ways to get around them. They had to wait for the tank and the parachute. You could not ride cavalry across enemy lines and attack them at the rear. You could not ride horses at machine guns. So what option did Haig have? He was a victim of circumstances.”

The Mole looked bemused and wished that the barman would arrive.

For once The Colonel understood and they paused for a moment. The Mole pondered. It was true that strategy must be based on the armaments available. Sometimes you are just stuck. There is nothing you can do. Except dig under the enemy and hope that you can blow him up.

“That’s happening in F1 at the moment,” The Mole said. “The drivers and this Super licence thing. They are not happy about paying the bills, but Max Mosley does not care. The drivers were trapped and having decided to make a fuss. They are now going to suffer for it. They either have to back down or they will get shot down by Mosley. They did not think this thing through very well.”

“I don’t see why drivers should pay,” said The Colonel. “Safety is the job of the FIA. The federation should pay. They do not have the money because they did not do a good deal with Bernie Ecclestone and so Mosley is taxing the drivers because they are wealthy and because he can get away with it. It is logical and cynical.”

The Mole agreed.

“The Formula One group needs every penny it has to pay off the loans that it took out when it bought control of the sport,” he said. “That money has gone and is being used elsewhere by the suited wunderkinds at CVC Capital Partners.”

“No such thing as a suited wunderkind these days,” said The Colonel. “There are just bankers who have been found out and those that are going to get found out.”

“Everyone wants more than they have,” said The Mole, ignoring the remark.

“Turning this into a battle with the FIA is the wrong strategy for the drivers,” he went on. “Their only way forward from their current position is to either hold a strike or back down. Any strike will fail and backing down will have achieved nothing apart from making them look silly. One must question the strategy. Clearly it has not been thought through. It is best to pay the fees and make representations to FOTA to try to get this changed in the future, along with all the other things that need to be changed when the current regime comes to an end.”

“It is a bit like the media having to pay for Internet access,” said The Mole. “Sometimes to an excessive degree. It is nuts to make the press pay to promote the sport. But the media is too disparate to strike, just like the drivers. To give them some credit the FIA has been leaning on the promoters, but they scream that Formula One Management takes too much.”

“Do you see a pattern here?” said The Colonel.

The Mole ignored the remark.

“In any case, there is not likely to be much sympathy for the drivers. They are the wrong people to claim poverty. They don’t give a great deal back to the sport. I hear that this is going to change because the FIA is going to insist on them doing more to promote the World Championship.”

“Really?” said The Colonel. “Not before time.”

“You see,” said The Mole. “Mosley is good at choosing his battlefields.”

“Hrmph,” said The Colonel.

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Saving private Honda

January 19, 2009

“I am a bit worried about Honda becoming a private team,” said The Mole. “The last thing they need right now is people inside the team going off and complaining to Members of Parliament and obscure government departments getting involved.”

“Oh,” said Penelope (Roedean). “Have they asked us to get involved?”

The Mole ignored her.

“The team needs to focus on finding the money to run this year – and building cars so that they can. If there are people on the inside playing politics it is really not very helpful. The team needs to be stable. It is not an easy time to find money.”

“That’s an understatement,” said Penelope (Roedean), with a flash of her wicked eyes. “Right,” she said “I’m off to The Morgue, where I shall have wild passionate sex with Schmutzli.”

“Very good,” said The Mole, not rising to the bait. “I am sure he will be very grateful.”

Penelope gave a little giggle and disappeared towards the lift.

For a few minutes The Mole perused the latest reports: Button to Toro Rosso. Alonso to Ferrari. All the usual dross.

Penelope (Benenden), The Mole’s chief researcher, strolled over. She looked rather bookish when she wore glasses, but she seemed to attract more suitors than all the other Penelopes put together.

“I ran some numbers,” she said, “I reckon that Honda is looking at a bill of at least $150m to shut down the team.”

The Mole raised an eyebrow.

“The money is not the problem,” she addded. “Don’t forget that even with all the economic disasters going on, Honda will still make a profit in this financial year in the region of $2bn. That’s down from the planned $5bn, but it is still a considerable amount of money.”

The Mole nodded, pausing for a moment to consider what he might do with $2bn in the bank.

“A decent sum,” he said.

“Anyway,” Penelope went on, “the most important things for the people at Honda Motor in Japan is to avoid losing face. Honda is a highly-respected company. It does not want to damage that reputation. The humiliation of closing down the F1 needs to be avoided. Saving face is crucial in Japan and they will do anything to avoid it. Leaving F1 is bad enough. When Takeo Fukui announced the news he apologised over and over to the staff, the drivers, the F1 world and even to the fans. The poor man nearly cried.”

The Mole nodded.

“Well,” Penelope went on. “That’s the whole point. They will do anything to avoid the added shame of putting 700 people out of work. And if they have to spend $150m to close down the team, they might as well spend the same amount to have it run by someone else. In other words, it makes sense for Honda to give the team away for a Pound and then pay Ross Brawn and Nick Fry to run it. Normally, a management buyout would be funded with loans or private equity deals, but there is not much of either about. The team can expect some money from the Formula One group so there is probably enough to get it running this year, particularly as the budgets will come down with the ban on testing. And there are more cuts coming in 2010, so Brawn and Fry need to worry more about the longer-term than about today.”

“I am sure that Mercedes-Benz will want a multi-year deal and financial guarantees before agreeing to an engine deal,” said The Mole. “However, Honda could ask for the money invested in Brawn and Fry to be paid back over time, and they could even have an option to buy the F1 team back in, say, five years. That would be sensible. The car markets of the world should improve eventually and then Honda might want to get back to F1 again.”

“So the main thing is to find investors for the end of 2009,” said Penelope.

“Or sponsors,” said The Mole. “The car is going to have a lot of available space on it and that can be sold off cheap to sponsors. Someone will pick it up if it is available. And it would be well under the market price. Really smart companies know that now is the best time to invest, if you can afford to.”

“Either that or we need an automotive superhero,” Penelope said, looking across the room to Miss Pringle-Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys), who was reading Cosmopolitan with a rather disinterested air.

“Maybe The Stig can save the day,” she said, looking up and putting the magazine to one side.

The Mole and Penelope (Benenden) looked at Miss Pringle-Featherby very oddly.

“Well, The Stig is the big racing hero these days, isn’t he?” she said. “If there is a job to be done, they call in The Stig. It’s on that TV show, you know, Top Gear.”

“There is only one Stig as far as I am concerned,” said The Mole. “Stig Blomqvist. Fabulous rally driver. Won the World Championship in an Audi in 1984. He was quick in anything, even on the race track. I think he even won a touring car championship. Do you know he was born in the same town as Ronnie Peterson. What is the chance of a small town called Orebro, which is about the same size as Chesterfield, producing two of the world’s finest drivers? There is nothing of interest in the place apart from a water tower.”

“Must be something in the water tower,” said Penelope (Benenden) with rather more wit than normal.

“The Stig used to be Perry McCarthy,” she added. “He used to be dressed all in black.”

“It was ghastly,” said Miss Pringle-Featherby. “The poor man tried to match the acceleration of a jet plane and drove a Jaguar XJS off the flight deck of HMS Invincible.”

She looked rather sad. “All they ever found was a glove,” she added.

“I’m sure I have seen Perry McCarthy around somewhere,” said The Mole. “It is hard to miss him!”

“Anyway,” said Penelope (Benenden). “They got this new Stig, with white overall and a white helmet.”

At that moment Penelope (Roedean) walked in, carrying some files.

“That was quick,” said The Mole, with a smile.

“It happens to some men when I am around,” Penelope replied with a grin.

“Who’s The Stig?” said Penelope (Benenden), deciding to change the subject.

“Oh, that’s easy” said Penelope (Roedean). “There isn’t one.”

“Of course there’s one,” said Miss Pringle-Featherby. “He’s on the TV all the time.”

“No, there isn’t ONE,” said Penelope. “There are more than one. Some newspaper – maybe that one that broke the Max story – recently gave lots of details about Ben Collins, without actually naming him. I am sure that is true some of the time. But I reckon there are other Stigs as well. That way you can keep his identity a mystery. Everyone likes a bit of mystery, don’t they? Who would care about Jack the Ripper if we knew who he was? I heard it was Julian Bailey sometimes.”

“What Jack the Ripper?” said The Mole.

Everyone ignored him.

“I even heard that Damon Hill has been known to do it.”

“Is this important?” said The Mole. “All the best columns have more than one author.”

And he left the thought hanging in the air…

h1

As the world winds down for Christmas

December 22, 2008

“Oh my God!” said Penelope (Roedean). “Do you realise Mole that you have not written a column for several months.”

The Mole looked rather sheepish and pretended that he was busy with a dull file marked: “Russian Grands Prix – Defunct”.

“Well, they don’t pay much,” he grumbled. “And I am a busy chap. I cannot tell you how busy things have been since the credit crunch began. Formula 1 has been in a complete blue funk. You couldn’t knock something up, could you?”

“I fear that I lack your wit and charm,” said Penelope, with a sweet smile that had “No” written all over it. “Besides,” she added. “What could I write about? What is the big secret at the moment?”

“Who’s going to buy Honda?” said The Mole.

Penelope snorted,

“I can buy Honda,” she said. “I just cannot afford to run it! It’s like me, very high maintenance.”

“But a good investment,” said The Mole, flashing a sweet smile in the direction of his deputy.

Penelope raised an eyebrow, but tried not to look too severe.

“Lots of people have ambitions,” she said. “But I am not as desperate as Honda.”

The Mole laughed.

“Yes, you are,” he said. “You just won’t admit it.”

There was a pause.

“In any case, having ambition does not put Marmite on your toast,” The Mole said, suddenly feeling rather hungry and remembering the joys of Marmite on cold winter days.
He looked out across a grey and miserable Pimlico and yearned for some toast and Marmite. Comfort food.

“David Richards talks the talk and may be out in the Middle East knocking down doors,” said Penelope, “but how many of the folk out there are going to share the dream – and the business model? The team is a bargain, but the return on investment is slow. The only real value would be if you have a consumer product that needs exposure around the world and has the revenues necessary to pay the bills.”

“A new Red Bull,” said The Mole.

Penelope nodded.

“Anyway,” she said. “No-one is saying it out loud but the Middle East is suffering from the credit crunch as well. They are all exposed to the debts of the western banks. They just don’t want people getting in a panic. The Chinese too. What about the Koreans? I have not been following them.”

She stopped and nibbled on the edge of a Digestive biscuit, as a gerbil nibbles a piece of cheese.

“The Koreans are interesting,” said The Mole. “I can see why they would want to be involved and it makes sense with a Korean Grand Prix coming in 2010, but if you think Honda and Toyota are doing badly in America you need to take a look at Hyundai. They were down 40% last month. They have been cutting production, bringing in shorter working hours and freezing wages for their executives. Now is not the time for them to buy an F1 team.”

“Oh,” said Penelope.

“And don’t even ask about India,” The Mole said. “Tata owns Jaguar. It’s a good brand for F1, but they have been around at Mandy Mandelson’s Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform holding out their hands and asking for public money to keep things going at Castle Bromwich, Halewood and Browns Lane.”

“I believe we are supposed to call him Baron Mandelson these days,” said Penelope. ”

“And forget Aston Martin,” said The Mole. “They just laid off a whole bunch of people.”

“I know,” said Penelope, glumly. “It is really rather depressing, isn’t it?”

The Mole nodded.

“If people don’t buy cars, then car companies don’t have money. There may be a buyer out there. But I cannot see it being a car company.”

“About as likely as a Grand Prix in Bulgaria.” said Penelope.

“About that.” said The Mole.

The conversation paused again. Away in the distance somewhere, a phone rang unanswered. The office was already running down for the Christmas break.

“I tell you what is facinating,” said The Mole. “Michael Schumacher appears on the list of mega-donors to the William J. Clinton Foundation. He’s given Clinton between $5m and $10m. That is a huge donation. Right up there with the Government of Norway and other folk like that. Why do you think he has done that?”

Penelope raised an eyebrow.

“I wish I was a charitable institution,” she sighed.

The Mole laughed.

“Well, I am sure that it is a tax write-off,” said The Mole. “Michael probably needs to lose x amount of money each year, even in Switzerland. The interesting thing is not that the money exists and needs to be lost, but why he spent it on Clinton. What does Clinton stand for?”

“Energetic ex-president with a taste for dubious office activities,” said Penelope, thinking aloud. “Not my type at all.”

“Well, the William J. Clinton Foundation focuses on global climate change, HIV/AIDS in the developing world, childhood obesity, economic development in Africa and Latin America.” said The Mole.

“So Michael wants to stop the world being overrun by fat kids,” said Penelope. “Don’t we all?”

“I guess that maybe Michael wants to transcend the tawdry world of motorsport,” said The Mole. “Maybe he wants to turn himself into some kind of Gandhi on wheels. A donation like that will get him access to the Clinton Global Initiative, which is trying to establish itself as a forum to making the world a better place. It is not a bad place to be if you want to be seen as a serious mover and shaker in the world.

“Maybe it’s the climate change thing?” said Penelope. “That would be a good career for Michael.”

“Maybe,” said Penelope.

They both sighed.

“I wish the climate here would change,” said The Mole. “England is so grey.”

“Oh, cheer up!” said Penelope. “Think of turkeys and stuffing. Presents and Christmas trees, crackers and paper crowns, carols and mulled wine. And mince pies!”

“Yes,” said The Mole, perking up. “You’re right. A merry Christmas! Good idea.”