The South Sea Bubble, Young Blue Eyes and cat burglary

Let me tell you the story of the South Sea Bubble and then I will tell you why I am doing it. Transport yourself back in time to the year 1711. Britain and Spain were at war but discussing peace and so it was not a bad idea to establish a company with the aim of promoting trade between Britain and its burgeoning empire and Spanish America. It was called the South Sea company and was modelled on the remarkably successful East India Company. The sale of shares was slow but speeded up when the company guaranteed investors a six percent interest rate. Some money was raised and plans were laid. These were delayed somewhat by the Anglo-Spanish peace treaty which restricted trade between the two countries but the company wheeled and dealed and by appointing the King as its chairman, paying out 100% interest to the original shareholders and agreeing to take over a large part of the British national debt was able to inspire confidence that the business was sound. Ships began to transport slaves and guano (cormorant droppings used as fertilizer) to Latin America.

Investors were impressed. The company clearly had plenty money and some well-connected people who knew what they were doing. For seven months the value of the shares rose at 50% a month (Eat your heart out, Bill Gates) and there was a frenzy of South Sea share buying. And then someone noticed that the company was not doing much in the way of trade and the South Sea Bubble burst. The price of the shares collapsed and thousands of people lost their shirts. Even the government stumbled.

It is a remarkable story which has, for the most part, been condemned to the dusty folder of history. Every so often there is an extraordinary case of someone or something creating ludicrous expectations and the story of the South Sea Bubble is wheeled out or retirement of the dangers of such things.

It strikes me that it is time for Formula 1 to get out the dusters and clean off the story for the benefit of the folks at British American Racing who are currently riding a wax rocket towards the sun, leaving a trail of dollar bills fluttering in the air.

It is not very often in F1 that someone is given $350m to spend over a five year period and so perhaps it is inevitable that those involved will become a little over-confident and let things get a little of control.

Anyone who has been around F1 for more than 10 minutes will tell you that to build a winning team takes a lot more than money. You can buy everything and everybody in F1 with that kind of money but you can also buy the best ingredients for a cake and still not produce an edible result. There is a little bit of magic - and a lot of time - needed.

Thus it is surprising that BAR has adopted such a high profile in its formative stages and is creating expectations which are way beyond where they should be. I am not questioning the ability of Reynard Racing Cars to produce a good car. I am sure it will be a capable machine and the Supertec V10 engine will probably be a half-sensible engine. Money can you buy you good drivers but it is daft to think that you will immediately be challenging Ferrari, Williams, Benetton and McLaren. These are massive industrial combines which have been built over a long period of time with careful planning and pruning as they have grown. It is fairly easy to get into the F1 midfield but to break into the top club is something else...

I apologize if readers think I have it in for BAR but I have to say that I am simply amazed at what the team is doing and I cannot find anyone in the paddock who thinks differently to me. Expectations are going to be so high that no matter what happens the team is going to fall short of them and there will be a period in which those who know nothing of the sport and have supplied the money are going to ask why BAR is not winning. I just hope the team has not made rash promises.

Logic would say that it would be better for the team to adopt a quiet and rather humble approach right now and then start blowing the trumpets and squeezing the bagpipes when there is a more stable base on which to build.

I do not remember much about what I was taught at Sunday School when I was a kid but I do recall a biblical tale which points out that a wise man builds his house upon a rock so that when the rains come down and the floods come up the house will stay standing up, while the house built on sand will be swept away.

The cynic in me says the massive PR shenanigans only makes sense if you consider that the team knows the policy is daft and is doing it because the sponsor wants it and knows that it will all go horribly wrong. The consolation, of course, is that those left standing after the inevitable bloodbath will end up owning a very nice racing team. The best policy for staff in these circumstances is to keep a low profile so that when the bullets start to fly, one will not be hit.

And that is why I fail to understand the Cult of Pollock. Clearly there has been a strategic decision to turn Jacques Villeneuve's old school teacher into an international celebrity. In some circumstances this would not be dumb. People relate to people and, presumably, BAR logic says that people will see Pollock on TV and will sub-consciously associate him with a rush of nicotine and immediately go out and buy hundreds of packets of British American cigarettes.

As one cannot turn on a television or open a magazine without seeing pictures of Pollock at the moment it has been fairly simple to study whether or not he looks like a large Lucky Strike. He's perfectly presentable. He looks neat and tidy and one suspects could figure in housewifely day-dreaming because his nice blue eyes always match his nice blue shirt. The only time my eyes ever match my shirt is when I wear the red and white check shirts my mother-in-law sends me when she goes to visit cowboy towns in Arizona...

The Pollock uniform is completed by cream colored chinos which look lovely in shop windows but not so nice at the end of a long day after you have slopped gravy over them or leant up again the oily machinery of a pit garage door.

When he speaks you find yourself listening to British American, a curious transatlantic melange of sounds, punctuated by the odd Scottish vowel.

Pollock obviously loves the role in which he is cast but does have a tendency to be rather too smart-arsed with his replies. It is all part of the policy of making BAR seem like a "fun" racing team but it comes across as glib and lightweight.

Just before Silverstone BAR decided to host a "bolting" ceremony at its impressive new factory in Brackley. Most of the journalists invited decided to bolt and so a handful of hacks joined was joined by 200 suits and assorted hangers-on. The ceremony consisted of the promotable Pollock being raised in a BAR-branded cherry picker with a worthy building type to tighten up a bolt with a big spanner. I am not an architect but I can tell that no bolt was necessary for the location except as a means of creating "a photo opportunity".

As we wondered what on earth we were doing there we mused over how it was that the BAR spin doctors had not realized that you do not open a new factory with a spanner unless you want someone like me to write "a spanner in the works".

There followed a half-hearted question and answer session which was so dull that the Mayor of Brackley asked a question. What, he said, can he do for BAR and what can BAR do for Brackley. Pollock dived headfirst into a glib response about cheaper this and cheaper that, but then Adrian Reynard managed to wrestle the microphone from his fingers and produced a quite brilliant piece of political flannel, talking about job-creation schemes, engineering scholarships and zebra-crossings for little old ladies. It was a masterful performance.

I am not sure it was worth the 75,000 the event cost to stage but after buying Tyrrell, throwing away seventy-five grand is small potatoes for the BAR boys.

Still, F1 is full of eccentricity these days, not least in the McLaren garage where the team had decided to lay a mock-marble floor. It is actually not as crazy an idea as it might seem. The sponsors and VIPs loved it and it meant that the garage was easier to clean.

McLaren is always the team which introduces such new ideas and it is inevitable that the rest of the field will follow suit. Before you know it the mock-marble-layers of Europe will be abandoning Italians villas and crisscrossing the Continent, rushing from Grand Prix circuit to Grand Prix circuit to tart up the garages. I would not be surprised if Bernie Ecclestone buys a mock-marble-laying business to cash in on the new industry or Flavio Briatore corners the market in mock-marble production facilities and hikes the price by 30%.

In an age when technical innovation in F1 is so limited because of the regulations, it is gloriously ironic that the man who has taken over the mantle of being the great innovator in F1 is Ron Dennis. A Colin Chapman of commercial ideas. It was Ron who invented mechanics with names, theatrical staging in the garages, life-support machinery for racing cars and, of course, THE motorhome. There are many other clever ideas which the team has developed but which they refuse to discuss for fear that others will copy them.

The arrival of the mock-marble floor set me wondering what on earth the magician Ronzo will come up with next. Stone cladding on the outside of the garage? Grey flock wallpaper? Mechanics dressed in silk dressing gowns being served canapes by girls in French maid uniforms? Probably not. I reached the conclusion that the next step will probably be to hang Old Masters on the wall of the pit garages. This will keep the chief executives happy as they glide through the mock-marble halls (literally if anyone spills any oil on the surface). Perhaps there will be a string quartet as well, playing between practice sessions.

And that was when I decided I was going to become a cat burglar...

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