Asset management in Zurich
JUNE 28, 2002
Mrs Mole is a great believer in gold bars. Recently she has been glumly reading the newspapers at breakfast time and muttering about the world's economy and how the only place to be these days is "in gold". It is hard to argue with her logic. Gold may have gone out of fashion amongst the paper millionaires of the late 1990s when the price bottomed out at around $255 an ounce but it has risen gently to $340 in the last couple of months and Mrs Mole says that she read somewhere ("I think it was Good Housekeeping") that it could go to $1500 or even more.
When The Mole sat down to have a think about it, it seemed to make sense. Banks and governments have made an awful mess of things since gold ceased to be the measure of true value. The current intensifying financial crisis will push people to finding investment which is underpinned by real value.
So The Mole took off to Zurich-Kloten the other day to have a chat with gnomes so discrete that they do not even venture out into the garden. The bank in question was so untraceable that The Mole had difficulty finding it on a sidestreet off the Bahnhofstrasse but once it had been found and admittance gained The Mole quickly negotiated for a little stash of gold bars, which Mrs Mole suggests will be useful "on a rainy day".
"You don't have to worry about dodgy accountants when you have gold bars," she said.
The Mole had some hours to kill and so drove out Hinwil to quietly inspect how the work is going on the new Sauber windtunnel. It is beginning to look very impressive.
The Mole likes Sauber because it is a team which speaks openly about its problems. It is not intended to be this way but as the Swiss assume that no Englishman speaks Swiss-German they have the tendency to chat away to each other "en clair" without fear that someone might be listening. Those who know the espionage world will know that the US Marines used the same principle in World War II by employing Navajo Indians to talk to one another by radio on the principle that there were no Navajo-speakers in Japan. It was the only US code system that the Japanese never broke.
Swiss German is a language which has no obvious connection to German and sounds to most people rather more like Welsh. Unfortunately for Sauber The Mole acquired more than a spattering of Swiss-German during his days doing undercover work, keeping tabs on the O.D.E.S.S.A organisation (which was also keen on gold).
Consequently he can sit quietly in the Sauber motorhome over breakfast, munching on muesli (which Mrs Mole insists is good for one) calmy listening to all the gossip. And how interesting it has been of late. The team has not been very happy with its drivers this year but recently Nick Heidfeld has fallen back into favour. It looks like the team will keep the quiet German but the boisterous Felipe Massa is another matter.
Sauber goes through phases. At the start the team had youngsters like Karl Wendlinger, JJ Lehto and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Then came Jean-Christophe Boullion and the decision that a little experience was a good idea and so Johnny Herbert was hired in 1996.. This was followed by a phase of Nicola Larini and Gianni Morbidelli and then back to youth with Norberto Fontana. That was not a great idea and so experience came into fashion again with Herbert, Jean Alesi, Pedro Diniz and Mika Salo before youth returned to favour in 2001 with Nick Heidfeld and Kimi Raikkonen. When Raikkonen was lured away to McLaren the team went for Massa. The logic of hiring a young driver is that he is cheap and motivated. Money can be spent on engineering. The downside is that he is inexperienced and makes mistakes.
Massa is undoubtedly very quick but this year he has been wild and ill-disciplined. Sauber is the most successful of the teams which have to pay for engines and in, not unnaturally, worried that one day the Petronas money will dry up and he will be in trouble. So he needs to score as many points as possible. His technical team is good, his facilities are good and will soon be excellent. The team is well-run but this year the drivers have let the side down on several occasions. Heidfeld should know better as he has been racing in F1 for three seasons and was a test driver at McLaren before that. Massa needs focus and there seems to be a feeling inside the team that the little Brazilian came to F1 a little too quickly and needs more time to mature.
But what is the future? Holding on to Massa makes sense because when he stops making mistakes he will be an asset. The options are to go back to Frentzen, which would not be stupid except that Heinz-Harald would be expensive. Jos Verstappen would be an option. Mark Webber is also looking like a man who is wise beyond his years and is ready to step up into a midfield drive as he edges towards the top. Jenson Button went to visit Sauber, saw the facilities, but his management asked for a deal which The Mole hears was so unrealistic that Mr Sauber raised an eyebrow. Apparently he felt that $12m over two years and a Ferrari option (which, of course Sauber has no control over) was a little unrealistic.
Another man who was talked about but will not be going to Sauber is Alexander Wurz. He might have been tempted to sit around and wait and see what was going to happen on the driver market in the months ahead but this did not suit McLaren boss Ron Dennis, who is happy to keep Wurz as a test driver. The Mole hears that Dennis came up with a suitable deal to focus the Austrian driver on the job. Ron is a clever fellow (The Mole has even heard people call him devious) but his deal to Wurz was by all accounts a masterpiece.
Alexander was offered $1m for next year, on the understanding that he signed immediately for McLaren. Dennis said he was willing to wait but as each week passed the value of the deal would reduce. Wurz looked at the driver market, realised that gambling is a vice best left to others and took the cash.
The Austrian's logic is sensible because if the top teams are required (as they could be) to run three cars in the future, he will suddenly be in a very enviable position.
In some ways The Mole feels sad that Massa is facing the chop because he is still a baby and the youngest F1 driver by more than a year. Jenson Button is next and then Kimi Raikkonen.
At the German Grand Prix Felipe was asked by the team to make for Heidfeld. He did so because the German was lapping faster at the time. Towards the end of the race, however, the roles were reversed but he was not given the opportunity by the team to take the position back. The Mole hears that Massa was rather aggrieved at that and felt it was a sign for the future.
The Mole hopes that during the summer break Massa gets his head together and Sauber realises that this charismatic and rapid young man is an asset which will increase in value.
Click here to read previous Mole columns: The Mole Archive