Grubby details

A few years ago some bright researcher in the Pentagon unearthed a CIA memo which asked a very simple question: "Have we gone beyond the bounds of reasonable dishonesty?"

It is a question I ask myself every year when F1 enters its "Silly Season" phase. Some years this period of uncertainty is short and sweet, sometimes it drags on for months as Formula 1 team bosses get out their Monopoly money and try to ensnare the best package for next year. Money dominates. Forget all that stuff about being in a winning situation. Everyone has a price and it is just a matter of who is willing to pay for what. A million dollars is nothing in this absurd game. As billionaire John Jacob Astor used to say, "a man who has a million dollars is as well off as if he were rich".

But there is something about money and F1 people which is extraordinary. They want more and more and more. Ordinary greed does not even begin the cover it. Perhaps it is because there are so many self-made men who have fought their way up from selling secondhand white socks. You have to have something bigger and costlier than everyone else. If you don't have a British Aerospace HS125 private jet - complete with gold taps and other "classy" accoutrements - you are barely worth talking to...

And when it comes to making money, there should be no obstacles. The truth lasts as long in an F1 paddock as it does in time of war. It is the first casualty: knifed and buried before the F1 boys even open their briefcases in the morning. Almost everyone tells tall stories. Once upon a time, when there was no money in F1, people just signed or shook hands on a deal and they got on with the game. Now, with skipfuls of greenbacks on offer, the contracts are thicker than Sunday newspapers in the United States.

As a journalist one is supposed to be a chaser of the truth. In F1 too many of the media are on the money-making carousel and don't want to rock the boat. It is only a sport, after all. It is not as if it is important. My major failing is that I cannot accept that the rubbish some people tell me is actually the truth and experience has taught me that I am not always wrong and as a result this time of year is very frustrating. The paddock bustles with a charivari of confused whispers, a serenade of lies and half-truths. And all the journalists are supposed to do is daringly waltz our way through, pick up the gems from the horse manure and publish the truth. When we get it wrong the teams give us a hard time but then do everything in their power to make sure we get it wrong again.

F1 bosses do not like being asked difficult questions. They either became vague, incoherent or baffle you with marketing gibberish. If they actually address the question they either mislead you shockingly or quite simply tell a lie.

The only way to establish the truth is to deal only with people who you know you can trust. Everyone else will just confuse you and listening to too many other journalists will leave you completely baffled.

And even then you have to ask the right questions.

If you bound up to Fast Fred the driver and say: "Hello Fred, do you have a contract with Dodgy Racing?"

He will probably reply "No" although he does indeed have a deal. How can one justify this? It is simple he does not have the contract himself. His lawyer has it in his briefcase.

If you try to ask him if he has signed for Dodgy Racing he will say "No" once again. Because the deal has been done between Dodgy Racing and his management company Fast Fred & Associates - of which he is "a consultant". He might say "No" because there is not just one contract, there are two: one with Fast Fred & Associates - and another with Fast Fred (Cayman Islands Inc.). This second one will never actually be lodged with the contract recognition board but it enables all kind of interesting tax developments.

You can forget talking about money. If you say: "I heard you have signed for Dodgy Racing for $20million you will get another denial. There are you see two questions. Have you signed? And how much are you going to be paid? The driver can say that he hasn't signed for Dodgy Racing for $20m because he's only going to get $16 million because his manager is on 20% of anything he earns.

The replies are not strictly lies, but they are not the truth.

So what do you ask? I have tried saying things like: "Have you or anyone of your representatives or affiliates entered into any form of agreement - written or otherwise - with any representatives, affiliates, partners or sponsors of Dodgy Racing?"

This is greeted with a sad look and a question back. "Don't you believe what I say? I thought we were mates."

Even if you apologize and press on with the attack the answer will still be "No" because the name of the company is Dodgy Racing Ltd.

Anyone who is vaguely bright - and there are some dullards in F1 - can slip out of any question.

This sort of thing reaches ludicrous proportions when they say things like: "At this moment in time I have not signed for Dodgy Racing?" This means that they can always say later that the signing was not done. Who is to know? The press are not usually invited to contract-signings.

When people say "As far as I am concerned" or "to the best of my knowledge" you know there are not being honest. It is just giving them what Washington bureaucrats call "deniability".

Team bosses will tell you things like "We decided our driver line-up a long time ago and it will be a big surprise." This causes confusion. In the words of Winnie the Pooh: "Once upon a time, a very long time ago now... about last Friday". What is a long time? How long is a pice of string? And what is "a big surprise"? I expect any signing would be a surprise to a bushman from the Kalahari who has never heard of F1 racing.

Words mean everything and nothing but I have found body language tells you a lot more. In the case of some team managers you can tell they are not being honest because their mouths are moving.

I have often asked team bosses who owns the team and it is like asking for the meaning of life. They look into the middle distance, vague and whimsical and mutter about "complicated business" and "one or two small investors". I have even been told by one that he was "not quite sure". Afterwards I could not help but think that I was not quite sure if he was an idiot nor not.

In this atmosphere the whole business slides into a downward spiral because journalists become so cynical that they do not believe the truth when they are told it and things are not helped when folk put out stories which are deliberately intended to screw up the deals of others.

Sometimes silly stories are made up just for fun. In Hungary a top man from a top team decided to wind up the Fleet Street boys and so arranged with Willi Weber, Schumacher's wealthy manager, to pull a stunt as the Brits were lunching at the Rothmans motorhome. It was agreed that they would pass a brown envelope between them and mutter a few words, loud enough for the hacks to hear the words "Ralf Schumacher" and "testing contract". This worked beautifully and before long the sharper pressmen - some missed it completed because the goose liver was very good - were wondering how Williams would allow his test driver to be related to a Ferrari star.

At the end of the lunch - the gag forgotten the top man left the brown envelope sitting on the floor. This caused one or two pressmen to drool and cast sidelong glances in its direction, as they wondered if it would be worth nicking to read.

Rather than ruin the fun I picked up the envelope and handed it back to Weber, telling him to be more careful with his contracts in the future...

This may seem like an illogical act but I have tried applying logic to the Silly Season and it does not work. Logic and money rarely share the same bed. Everyone has his price, so they say, and it seems that Ferrari has found Michael Schumacher's.

No-one has ever found my price - although there have been one or two oblique attempts to bribe me over the years. I did once try to promote a humourous scheme in which each F1 team would throw in $100,000 so I would retire and stop being a troublesome journalist. Hell team's spend tens of thousands trying to improve their images, nobbling journalists is not that expensive! Funnily enough this scheme never did work and today it is not worth trying because there are only 12 teams left and a chap cannot retire in style for $1.2m - hell that isn't even the upkeep bill on an HS-125 jet (with gold taps) - for a year.

Long ago - a little longer than "last Friday" - I realized that you cannot get the team managers to agree to anything in F1 - even the day of the week. I have often imagined what it is like to sit in a FOCA meeting and hear the boys arguing whether it is Thursday or Friday. You may think I exaggerate but years ago a magazine did actually succeed in convincing an F1 team owner to go to a meeting wearing a wire and listened to the tape with absolute dumb-struck awe.

The only man who knows how to get everyone to agree is Bernard Charles Ecclestone Esq. and so I pondered whether to ask him to organize my retirement fund. The problem is that Mr. E would ask for a service charge and after he has had his slice of the pie there isn't enough money left with which to retire.

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