The secret about secrets

Paddock, European GP 2001

Paddock, European GP 2001 

 © The Cahier Archive

If you are a double-glazing salesman and you want to make a dollar, come and see me. I have an idea. I can tell you how to land huge deals from each and every one of the Formula 1 teams. And I am not just talking about those big glassy factories, I am talking about motorhomes as well.

All you have to do is convince the Formula 1 team bosses that no room is safe against the laser bug and they will come running with their checkbooks flying in the breeze.

The concept is really very simple. When people talk, their voiceboxes produce sound waves. These bounce around rooms. When these invisible waves hit a window they cause it to vibrate, if only in the tiniest possible way. But, as any aerodynamicist with a decent windtunnel will tell you, laser measuring is the thing to have. The different sounds produce different vibrations and when these are measured and run through some fancy computer software, they can be turned back into voices. And the only thing that gives away a laser bug is a tiny red dot on a window.

When I am feeling particularly naughty I mention this stuff to F1 team bosses, adding that a red dot could also indicate a laser gunsight or perhaps even an advanced triangulation device which will tell smart bombs where to go to get them.

It keeps me amused.

It always amazes me that people in Formula 1 feel such a need to keep secrets. Formula 1 has long been based on a system in which secrecy is considered to be important. But they forget that the majority of people watching just want to see a good race. Not many really cares very much if a Ferrari runs a sprockle-grunger or not. But, as a specialist I understand, technical secrets. They are performance-related and that can (but not very often) make the difference between winning or losing.

The need for secrecy in these matters comes from the early days of the sport when winning meant surviving and losing meant going out of business. Nowadays everyone running a team is a fat cat. So while you cannot argue that the ruthlessly competitive side of the sport is what laid the foundations on which the sport grew it is no longer necessary o behave like that. Desperation bred innovation and that meant winning. And so everything had to be a secret. If you came with a better idea than someone else you could go into business and make some money. Nowadays you have to be stinking rich to even get into the game.

There is a new book out about Formula 1 called "The Piranha Club". I have seen the publicity but I haven't read it. The cover struck me as weird. There was Bernie Ecclestone, Eddie Jordan, Ron Dennis and Frank Williams. I must admit that after a few years in F1 this is not the combination of people I would use if I was picking out the piranhas. Sustained success in Formula 1 as I see it is down to how much individuals are trusted. The people who are pretty straight are pretty successful. They did not get where there are by slashing throats and eating livers. All the top people can be ruthless if they have to be but their word is their bond. That is why they are successful.

It is those who are running behind them and the hangers-on who cling to their shirt-tails that are the real piranhas. They cannot be trusted one inch.

For a lot of these folk secrecy is just a power kick. What does it matter if a deal is decided whether it is announced tomorrow or in three week's time? What does it matter if someone is going to leave a team and go to work somewhere else? What does it matter if the Ruritanian Grand Prix is to be cancelled and we are all going to Merthyr Tydfil instead?

Having spent some time studying the phenomenon, it is possible to say that there is a point at which secrecy becomes an affectation. Secrecy is badge of honor. Secrets are kept because that is what happens. Spies and spooks love secrets. They get a special pride out of not telling what has happened, whether it is relevant or not. And they despise those who spill the beans.

What I discovered over the years of investigating secret services and such things is that most secrecy exists simply to avoid embarrassment. Very often people who do not deserve to be rewarded are rewarded and they are keen that their honors should not be exposed. In Formula 1 people screw up all the time and this is why they do not want everyone else to know about it. It would ruin their image.

The hardest thing about being a journalist in F1 is that one cannot write all one knows. One cannot write what people want to read because the laws of libel are such that one must prove every word. There can be no room for doubt and that means that journalists always have to hedge their bets lest some rich twerp with a big lawyer really wants to push the issue.

Last year, for example, I would happily tell you if I could about one team which decided to run traction-control in Malaysia (it was still banned at the time but there was a high deniability factor as if caught they could say that the system was there because it would be needed soon but that it had not been used). The law is such that one can't write things unless you can prove them 100%. And that is not easy to do so the press are gagged unless they want to take risks that they will be sued. The only way to prove something like traction-control is to have the launch codes for the systems and they are about as likely to fall into my hands as you are to win the National Lottery in Burundi.

And that is about as likely as me getting a laser bug...

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