Extracting the truth and other forms of torture

This is the time of year when you really want to be able to look into the briefcases of the Formula 1 team bosses - or at least those who are concentrating on the business and not spending their time on their flashy motor cruisers moored on the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia. This is the time when contracts are being signed and negotiations taking place - presumably using semaphore and flag signals between the floating gin palaces.

In the end, however, it all has to go down on paper and that is happening about now so it is a good time to have access to the files of the rich and famous.

The only time I ever succeeded in getting into such a briefcase was when a driver manager was dumb enough to hand his case to me and say that he was off to the loo.

"But what if I open this briefcase and read everything inside?" I asked.

"Well, if you are that clever you deserve to read it," he said and skipped away.

For about 20 seconds I did nothing. Most people use their birth date as a code number: January 1 1955 becomes 010 155 - that sort of thing. The only problem was that I did not know my target's date of birth. And then it struck me that a lot of people who own briefcases have either never bothered or never been able to work out how to set a combination. They are not all engineers...

And then I remembered reading somewhere that about 40% of briefcases can be opened by simply turning the combination locks round to the original factory settings, which are usually 000 and 000.

I did it and the case opened.

Oh joy! Oh rapture!

But what should I do? I was brought up to behave in a fair and gentlemanly manner. Reading private files would not be considered cricket. That was for those nasty spy types... and other cads and bounders. And so I sat there like a lemon with the briefcase open until my target returned, at which point I showed him the open briefcase and watched him go very pale.

I tried the same trick the other day in Hungary on Ron Dennis's briefcase but it did not open.

"You'd probably enjoy reading what is in there," said Ron with a smug look.

I probably would.

Still, there are other ways of finding things out. And I am a great believer in interrogation techniques. While there are some F1 team bosses I would quite enjoy torturing - nothing nasty, you understand, just a few electric cattle prods, red hot pokers, racks, that sort of stuff - it is much more of an intellectual challenge to indulge in the psychological battle which goes on between an interrogator and his victim. It is a fascinating game of hide and seek with the truth. There are the crude forms whereby "hard" interrogators alternate with "soft" reassuring questioners. Guile is often more successful than full frontal assault.

But this is just the beginning of the game. A victim can be made to feel weak and be put onto the defensive because he believes that the interrogator knows more than he does. Planting the seeds of doubt is such fun and often the victims give away more than they think because they assume you know the answers already. You can make them feel that it doesn't matter what they say because their friends have spilled the beans already. Books could be written on the games that can be played and no doubt there are schools for such things in remote country estates in Britain...

Unfortunately F1 team bosses are not actual prisoners and so they tend to run away, talk absolute rubbish, or deliberately plant false stories to confuse the chasers. This means that in the F1 "Silly Season" good information is hard to come by. There is no shortage of rumor but one has to know what is true and that is hard when a lot of F1 people tell lies. I know it is a terrible thing to suggest but what can one do? Blame the parents, I suppose, for not beating them enough when they were obnoxious children. Those who were brought up not to lie - or at least who were taught never to be caught telling a lie - try to avoid telling the truth by other means.

Let me explain. There is, let us say, a rumor in the paddock that Subaru is talking to Blue Wombat Racing and that a deal has been done for Blue Wombat to use Subaru V10 engines in 2001.

What does a good journalist do? He goes to ask the team if the stories are true.

Oh look, here comes Mr. Talking Head, the team's blue-eyed front man.

Hello, you say. Can I have a word?

No, he replies, and sweeps by, disappearing into a motorhome.

Grrr... An hour later he re-emerges.

Can I have a word? You say politely.

No, he says and sweeps by, mumbling some excuse about Bernie...

Oh, you say loudly, that's such a shame. I just wanted to know if you still have a job.

This usually works when the talking head is a mere employee or a minority shareholder. If he is a team owner it is more complicated but any mention of the tax man usually results in a screech of soft leather as his handmade Italian shoes come to a sudden stop. He returns in a hurry.

I hear you have a deal with Subaru, you say.

You cannot honestly expect me to answer that question, he says, trying to dodge the issue.

Why not? It is an easy question. Do you have a deal with Subaru?

No, he says, I do not.

And there you have it. A novice F1 journalist will at this point rush off to the press room and file a "Blue Wombat Racing chief denies Subaru deal" story.

But what did Mr. Talking Head really say?

I-DO-NOT. When you think about it, why would HE have a deal with Subaru?

The question should have been: "Does the team have a deal with Subaru?"

The answer would, of course, have been "No".

But is that the truth? What is a Subaru? It is a brand. A brand owned by a big anonymous company called Fuji Heavy Industries. Any deal would be between Blue Wombat Racing and Fuji Heavy Industries.

So you ask the question differently.

Have you spoken to Fuji Heavy Industries?

No, he replies. What does that mean? You could argue that it is impossible to talk to an organization. One can talk to members of an organization but not to the company itself.

And so one has to ask a different question.

Have you talked to any person employed by Fuji Heavy Industries?

No, he replies (just for a change).

So that is that. Or is it?

Teams have agents, lawyers, acquisition managers and other assorted fixers to do all that rubbish. It is quite possible that Mr. Talking Head has not spoken directly with anyone from Fuji Heavy Industries.

Do you have a contract with Fuji Heavy Industries? You might try.

No (...well not on me. It is in my briefcase).

Does Blue Wombat Racing have a deal with Fuji Heavy Industries?

No (... the contract is between Blue Wombat Racing Cayman Islands Inc. and Fuji Heavy Industries)

If you ask whether there is a contract between Blue Wombat Racing Cayman Islands Inc. and Fuji Heavy Industries, you will run into all kinds of trouble.

No, will come the answer. (...what is a contract? Is it not merely a document which is the basis for a future negotiation rather than a binding legal entity?)

Or worse than that.

Don't you trust my word? He will say.

This is an old trick in the F1 paddock. Most journalists are far too polite to admit that they do not trust the person with whom they are speaking. It's rude to suggest such a thing and Mr. Talking Head is bargaining that the journalist will not be as uncouth as to accuse him of being untrustworthy.

And so, you have to mumble that it is not a question of trust or a discussion about honesty. It is simply a question which requires an answer.

Well, he will say, as far as I know there is no deal with Fuji Heavy Industries at the moment.

That seems pretty clear, doesn't it?

But what did he really say? "As far as I know" means that he can deny knowing the information if later challenged on the subject. In American politics they call this concept "deniability".

Just to make sure he has added "at the moment" so that he can later claim that when he denied the deal it had not been done...

You can go on all day. Dreaming up questions and then thinking of ways in which the slippery fish of the paddock will slide out of them. And, of course, you cannot really accuse them of lying later on because technically-speaking no lies have been told. The questions have been avoided or there is sufficient vagueness to render the answer deniable at a later date. Either that or the meaning of the words is being debated. It is a bit like having sex in the White House... I didn't have sex with her, said the President, but she had sex with me...

What this means is that in the end asking questions is a pointless exercise - unless one knows the answer already and so you can challenge the target at the right moment and get the truth as they scramble to get out of trouble. If you catch them out, they often break down - and then the truth is out... and they cannot do anything to stop it.

One leaves with a sense of victory. The information itself may not be that exciting but it is game and as everyone in F1 will tell you, winning is everything.

Mind you, I still fancy using the cattle prod on one or two of them...

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