Paying for Jacques
JULY 12, 2002
For some years now The Mole has been visiting St Tropez every August. It is not the place to be unless you really crave publicity and wish to be photographed with the latest top bimbo on your arm. This is not The Mole's aim. The reason for the visit is that August is a good time to chat to the Boyer de Fonscolombe family about the possible purchase of the Chateau de la Mole, which is located in the hills a few miles behind St Tropez. It is an elegant pile of stones and The Mole, for obvious reasons, thinks it would be a nice place to own. The Boyer de Fonscolombes have a rather different view, even though the family has a number of other chateaux dotted about. The problem is that Chateau de La Mole was where the family's most famous member, Antoine de St Exupery, spent his childhood summers, chasing butterflies.
The Mole is tenacious by nature and in between visits to the chateau enjoys the slow pace of rural life in Provence. There is lunch to be had and as evening comes on one can always drop down to the aerodrome for a glass of pastis with the airport manager. When Formula 1 people started getting so rich they could afford executive jets, The Mole quickly realised that the best way to keep up was to know the right people in the aviation business. That way one can find out who is meeting whom and where. All the best meetings in Formula 1 happen when executive jets meet at quiet corners of aerodromes. One party hops from one plane to the other and talks take place while the pilots wander around kicking stones. One learns to keep an eye on such places as Brize Norton, Cannes-Mandelieu, Teeterboro and La Mole.
La Mole happens to be the aerodrome to which the bright and the beautiful (the two do not always go together) fly when they head for the beaches and night spots of St Tropez. In normal circumstances any Grand Prix driver in his right mind would take his holiday at home, sitting in the garden and chasing butterflies but one or two of the F1 people seem to like the partying of St Tropez. The problem seems to be that not many F1 drivers can afford to buy a garden in Monte Carlo and being stuck in an apartment or roaming around on a motor yacht is not as glamorous as some would have you believe. And so St Tropez provides them with somewhere to roam and (for some) somewhere to be seen roaming.
Jacques Villeneuve is not like most F1 drivers. His place in Monte Carlo is not a pokey little apartment but a serious piece of mansion and the calm of this establishment will have given Jacques the opportunity to stop and think about the future. Jacques has a contract next year with BAR which will pay him a huge sum of money. But he is not that fussed about whether he stays or not because the team is not like it used to be. David Richards is a nice fellow (although doing business with him would be daunting) but he has made it clear to Villeneuve that things have got to change. British American Racing wants a bigger commitment from Jacques and he is not sure that he likes what is on offer.
The team argues that Villeneuve has not done enough to warrant the kind of money that he is being paid. They would say that. Villeneuve argues that his very existence is of huge value in promotional terms and that he can only do so much with the machinery available.
The problem is that there is no obvious way out for Villeneuve in F1. All the good drives have gone and BAR will likely spend next year scrabbling over seventh and eighth places. Jacques is not happy with that and the team does not want to pay him to achieve that. But money is an issue in F1 in that it is the measure of one's value. It establishes the pecking order and Villeneuve is right up there. Guessing these things is never easy but The Mole's sources say that Villeneuve is the second highest earner in the sport, a long way behind Michael Schumacher but still well clear of the Eddie Irvine, David Coulthard, Rubens Barrichello set.
Now it seems Jacques has been thrown a chance by his old friend, former boss and a partner in BAR: Gerald Forsythe. Forsythe is a very smart man. He has made a fortune in the less-than-exciting world of power generation but he has also run successful racing teams on and off for the last 20 years. Forsythe's backing for nearly 10 years has come from the Canadian tobacco company Players. This is owned by British American Tobacco. Forsythe's relationship is such that, in addition to sponsorship, BAT actually owns 50% of his racing team.
At the same time Forsythe has a vested interest in CART. He is an important shareholder in the series and some of the other important shareholders are his friends and business associates. It is in his interest that CART flourishes but with the number of cars slipping month by month the task is getting harder. Forsythe has therefore hit on the idea of building a Canadian "superteam" in CART, using Players money. His desire would be to see Jacques Villeneuve, Paul Tracy and, probably, Alex Tagliani in a three-car team next year.
Players has a big budget but Villeneuve's salary is way beyond that. Villeneuve's manager Craig Pollock has made it clear that it would cost "a fortune" for Villeneuve to go to America next year and tried to diffuse the rumours but The Mole thinks that the move makes a lot of sense for everybody involved.
Consider the following: Villeneuve is not overly happy with the way things are developing at BAR; BAR is not happy at having to pay out so much money when that revenue could be used for technological development; the team has two drivers (Jenson Button and Olivier Panis) who will do a perfectly good job; BAT is going to have to pay most of the money. Is there such a difference if that money is used in the United States rather than in F1? This would give BAR more money for a development budget as BAT's investment in Villeneuve could be offset by money which Players wants to spend in CART. Villeneuve would give CART a much higher international profile and more exposure for Players. In other words the chances are that more cigarettes would be sold. Forsythe would build up the value of his shareholding in CART as Villeneuve's arrival would have a big effect on the series.
This is all sound logic but The Mole knows only too well that logic is rarely the reason why things happen in motor racing. BAT might say that CART has so little exposure these days that it does not wish to invest that much money. The Mole accepts this but would reply by saying that CART is a corporation which Wall Street thinks is worth only $80m (or at least that is the value of the shares). The odd thing is that CART has cash reserves in excess of $100m which means that although the CART share price is low, one cannot easily buy the shares because they are being held by others who see the series having a big future if they stick together. The big issue is whether there will be enough cars next year for CART to be viable.
In an effort to drum up more coverage (and therefore attract more sponsorship revenues) CART has recently been paying for its TV coverage. The Mole feels that this is a false economy. Creating interest in the series by buying in top drivers will make the coverage valuable to the TV stations and they will start to pay if they think people will watch and that will create an upward spiral for CART.
In other words it is in CART's interest to help BAT pay Jacques's salary.
The Mole cannot help but wonder if all this might not add up to a very good deal for Villeneuve.
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