THE MOLE

The billionaires

The Mole sometimes wonders about a generation that thinks that everything is "cool" and likes to drink Red Bull. The Mole tried a can of the stuff the other day in an effort to discover what all the fuss is about. And being singularly unimpressed by the result he went off to have a cup of tea with the youngest of the Penelopes in the department. He hoped that she, fresh from the PPE course at Christ Church, Oxford, would be able to explain.

Young Penelope, a Wycombe Abbey girl, was nervous, as nice girls are when their boss asks them to have tea. But once they got started she seemed to become rather more relaxed.

"Oh I'm afraid I am a bit old for all that," she said. "And I must say that it really is rather too sweet for me. I do know that if mix it with vodka you can make something called a Friday Flattener, which can make one rather amorous."

"Indeed?" said The Mole, trying to keep a straight face. "Even at Christ Church?"

"Even at Christ Church," said Penelope, with a blush.

The Mole had only started paying attention to Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz when it became obvious last autumn that he was interested in buying a Formula 1 team. He certainly had the money. The Mole decided to get some research done on Herr Mateschitz to find out what makes the man tick.

The Mole also sent a can on Red Bull down to the Chemical Defence Establishment (although it has another name these days) at Porton Down to see what they thought. The report that came back was filled with complicated phrases like "modulating neurotransmitters" and strange things called "norephinephrine". The Mole was able to gather that the interesting thing in Red Bull was an amino acid called taurine, which apparently occurs naturally in breast milk. Beyond that the report said that the drink had less caffeine than a double espresso and that if you want a similar kick the best thing to do is to have a spoonful of sugar. The secret of Red Bull, the scientists concluded, was probably in the marketing because the drink itself was not very exciting.

The report on Mateschitz was the everyday tale of an Austrian toothpaste salesman who hit it big after discovering that people in Thailand, who spent their days pulling rickshaws, liked to drink a local concoction which they said gave them energy. He tried it and liked it and set out to find the man who was selling it. His name was Chaleo Yoovidyha. They agreed a deal for Mateschitz to sell the drink outside South East Asia and they set up a company to split the profits between them. Mateschitz then went back to Austria and concocted something that he thought would sell in Europe. The drink was carbonated and sweetened and was launched in Austria in 1987 and Mateschitz used mystique to sell the drink. What was in it? People asked.

The marketing was clever with the Red Bull can being smaller than the standard drink cans, implying that the drink packed a bigger punch. Red Bull sought out a dangerous image, heading for extreme sports to sell the product. From the start he was involved in all kinds of weird and wonderful sports: flying, sky surfing, hang gliding, base jumping and jet skiing. The only thing they all had in common was that they were dangerous. Inevitably Mateschitz was drawn to motor racing. One of the earliest deals he did was to get an association with Gerhard Berger and that was followed by support for Karl Wendlinger and through that a deal with Sauber. In 1995 Red Bull bought control of the Sauber F1 team in an odd deal which left Peter Sauber in charge. That relationship however put Red Bull on the world map but as his ambitions grew so Mateschitz outgrew the team. He was opposed to the hiring of Kimi Raikkonen in 2001, wanting the team to hire Enrique Bernoldi instead. Sauber and Mateschitz fell out and the shares were sold on to Credit Suisse. Mateshitz wanted his own F1 team to help him sell Red Bull in America.

In the middle of 2001 The Mole saw a proposal for a US-styled F1 team which Mateschitz was trying to put together with TWR, Arrows and General Motors. The plan was to buy Ferrari engines and badged them as Chevrolets. It did not get off the ground.

At the end of that year Mateschitz was talked into sponsoring the TWR-affiliated Indy Racing League team owned by Eddie Cheever. A little later he launched his Red Bull Driver Search to find a young US driver to promote into F1.

By then Arrows was sinking deeper and deeper into debt and Mateschitz decided not to get involved. Cheever, realising that he needed a new supply of engines in 2003, decided to do a deal with rival IRL team owner John Menard to form Menard Cheever Technologies, a joint research and development company. Menard had a long history of involvement with General Motors and at one point had even taken over the entire Buick V6 turbo engine programme when GM decided to get out. Menard was going to be one of the GM-affiliated engine builders for the new Chevrolet engine in 2003.

Menard is not a poor man. He is the sole owner of the US's third biggest DIY chain, which boasts annual sales of $4.5bn. His passion has long been motor racing and he has run teams in CART and IRL since 1979.

A few weeks ago Menard Cheever Technologies acquired the racing operations of the defunct TWR empire. In the last few days Menard has bought the remaining design and engineering divisions of TWR including the Arrows/TWR factory at Leafield. Even if Menard has suddenly developed an interest in automotive engineering (where the profit margins are very tight) he will still want a way of showing the world that the company does good work. Tom Walkinshaw, the previous owner, had tried to do the same thing.

Could it be a coincidence that an Austrian billionaire looking for a Formula 1 team with a US flavour and a connection with a major manufacturer looks to be in league with an American billionaire with racing ambitions and strong links to General Motors, who has just bought an entire F1 factory?

It is beginning to look like that proposal that was put together back in 2001.

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