My friend "Lisa" and undercover work in F1

Start, Canadian GP 2001

Start, Canadian GP 2001 

 © The Cahier Archive

When I go to parties away from Formula 1 - which is not very often - I try to avoid talking about motor racing. It is nice to get away. But sometimes the subject just comes up. It is amazing how often people ask me how I gather information from such secretive organizations as Formula 1 teams. It happened the other night when I was having a soiree with an old schoolfriend of mine - we shall call her "Lisa" (although this may or may not be her real name). Over the third or perhaps fourth bottle of Gigondas, Lisa became very excited by the idea of becoming a spy on my behalf at a Grand Prix.

"But you don't know anything about F1 racing," I argued.

In reply, all I got was a very grumpy look, a sort of squint with a flat smile. The one-eyed frog look. Very persuasive.

"I can sit around in the paddock and listen to all the important conversations," she said. "No-one knows who I am and they will think I'm just a dumb blonde."

But you have dark hair! I tried.

"That's not the point," she said. "I could be the Mata Hari of the paddock. And then I can tell you everything I hear. You can work out what it all means."

The problem was that I could not argue with her because she was right. She could sit around, filing her nails, and pick up all kinds of scoops and scandals. When I walk through the paddock, alarm bells tend to ring and lights begin to flash.

My only defence was that she would get bored and lonely. The paddock is my office and I would have things to do. It was, I argued, like going to her office and sitting around while she was working, I would probably end up getting really bored. But she would have none of that argument.

"I don't mind," she said. "I will work underground. I will do the dangerous stuff. I'll be like Daniel in the Lion's Den. Or maybe Daniella..."

And then she hiccoughed.

" I think it will be very exciting. I won't get bored at all."

I was beginning to run out of arguments.

"We could not be seen to know each other," I said. "We would have to have a secret rendezvous at the end of each day somewhere away from the race track."

"OK," she chirped. "No problem. I can wear dark glasses too."

So, unable to fight any more, I was forced to promise that before the first anniversary of our conversation, Lisa would come spying for me. It will be interesting to see how she does. I can see her now, swanning up to the mechanics and saying things like: "And what is that round metal thingy?" And they will tell her all about their very latest traction-mangler.

If it all sounds impossibly silly, it is not. Formula 1 is awash with people spying at the moment. But it is not new.

Over the years there has been all manner of spying in F1, ranging from the banal to the outrageous. Team personnel have regularly been caught snooping in places where they should not be. Not long ago McLaren caught a BAR designer and locked him inside one of the McLaren trucks. On several occasions there have been entire teams of engineers who have broken into rival garages overnight and measured all aspects of rival cars. More often than not, when designers go from team to team, they take with them all the necessary computer discs that give their new team the benefit of the knowledge of the designer's previous employer.

Even in the early days of the sport espionage was normal. In 1912 Peugeot (which had stolen the entire design team of the Hispano-Suiza Grand Prix project) was upset when it discovered that one of its hugely successful 1912 Grand Prix machines had been "borrowed" for an evening by the engineers of the Sunbeam company, who stripped the car down, measured and sketched every secret and then reassembled it and returned it to its owner. The same car was later stripped down in the United States and the engine was "the inspiration" for the racing Miller units of the 1920s.

Because a lot of team bosses think that motor racing history began the day they started to be involved, they do not realize that there has been industrial espionage in racing for as long as there has been racing. If one car travels more quickly than another the people who built the slower car want to know why. The rapid spread of information has been the main reason for the strength of the British motor racing industry and its predominance over rival areas. All they see is investment money being wasted because any new tweaks that their engineers find are soon handed to their rivals by engineers moving from team or team or by photographers.

Eddie Jordan, in particular, has accused the F1 photographic corps of profiting from these activities. At the same time Jordan admits that his team has "probably" bought shots of rival cars. Jordan confuses things further by saying that teams should not hide their cars away behind screens because the public deserve to be able to see the machinery.

These conflicting views are not uncommon in the F1 paddock.

Is there an answer to the problem? No way. The idea of a gentlemens' agreement between team bosses is absurd as there are not enough gentlemen involved and there are too many pressures on the teams to perform to allow for such old world charms.

The problem is not so much the fact that there is espionage. It is that information is now moving so quickly that the advantages that were once gained from innovation have been reduced and it takes almost no time for rivals to catch up. And that means that team bosses feel that they must buy spy photos to keep on the pace of development.

There are no answers because even if photographers were banned from the paddock, the team bosses would then be hiring people to patch into the design computers of rival organizations so they could see what was going on.

We just have to accept that espionage is a part of the sport and will remain so.

And, if you ask, me I would rather have more pretty girls wandering around the paddock pretending to be dumb than a lot more sweaty photographers lugging their heavy bags and lenses from one "shoot" to the next.

And if you are called Lisa and you get thrown out of the paddock in the next few months as a result of this column, I do apologize... It is all her fault!

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