THE MOLE

The lessons of Ilmor

The Mole was in the little bar downstairs at The Travellers' and there was no-one much about. Outside it was pouring with rain and so a Pimm's Number 1 Cup seemed the best solution, with a little sprig of borage thrown in to, in the words of Sir Francis Bacon, "repress the fuliginous vapour of dusky melancholie".

The Mole needed cheering up.

The Travellers' is a place that The Mole finds agreeable if only because one has little chance of bumping into any from motor racing. Motor racing people do not inhabit gentlemen's clubs as once they did. Today they either go to Stringfellows, because they think is the place to be seen, or to the concrete bunker built by the BRDC at Silverstone. Those with social aspirations may become members of the RAC in Pall Mall but The Mole has always felt it is not really a club for gentlemen as it allows Welshmen to be members and (perhaps even worse than that) flies a flag outside, a crime akin to wearing a monogrammed dressing gown.

The Mole was idly reading through the despatches sent from his operatives at the Austrian GP and specifically about the rumours that Swiss engine designer Mario Illien may be poached from Mercedes-Benz by its rival Renault.

This was first reported in a Swiss newspaper called Blick, the story having been written by a man called Roger Benoit who can, at relaxed moments, sometimes be seen sitting, smoking large smelly cigars, with Illien. If anything happens to do with F1 and Switzerland Benoit knows about it and after something like 400 Grands Prix he had a pretty good idea of what he is doing. He is one of only two scribes who are really close to Bernie Ecclestone and goes to visit him every Christmas at Gstaad.

In other words, Benoit is a good source.

So when Mercedes-Benz's Norbert Haug dismissed the stories as "a non-subject" it suggested that either Haug is not aware of what is happening or that he was not telling the whole story. Everything, he said, was in "perfect order". His speech about the need to go forward together, vaguely Churchillian though it was, was not very convincing as The Mole hears that so popular has been the arrival of Mercedes-Benz men at Ilmor that some people are not even talking to each other.

"And therein lies the story of the GPWC..." said The Mole to the lady behind the bar, who was not in the least bit interested. "How in the world are these car industry goons going to get together and form a championship when they are busy poaching staff from one another? It is just preposterous."

"Yes dear," said the lady behind the bar, polishing a glass with great care.

"Still," said The Mole, not realising that he was being tedious. "It is an interesting idea."

And it has lots of potentially-interesting implications.

Let us assume, thought The Mole, that Flavio Briatore and his (no doubt fashionable) lawyers can extricate Mario Illien from the legal clutches of the beefy burghers of Bad Cannstadt.

What then?

Does Mario head off to Paris and live happily ever afterwards with Gauloises-sucking technicians in a less-than-modern factory in a dreary suburb of Paris?

One can only imagine Illien's joy at the knowledge that he would be operating from the factory which was built in 1969 on 12,500 sq.m of land next to a motorway. The factory covered 2,260 sq.m in those days but when the team entered F1 in the 1970s the factory had grown to 5,827 sq.m and there were 130 people working there. Today that same factory, although somewhat tarted up, has expanded to 10,995 sq.m and there are 260 employees crammed into every nook and cranny. They may be good people and there may be good machinery, but the factory was not built with Swiss efficiency in mind.

And, of course, the suburb of Viry-Chatillon has few delights for a man used to living in an English country mansion. The most exciting thing about the place, in truth, is the motorway which takes you somewhere else.

According to Jean-Jacques His, the recently-departed technical wizard at Viry, it takes the people at Renault Sport 18 months to develop a new engine. Work on the current engine was started in the middle of 2001 and it was fired up for the first time in October 2002. Thus even if Illien walked out of Ilmor tomorrow and caught the Eurostar to Paris we would be unlikely to see his first engine until the end of 2004.

Things are not that simple, however, because any top engineer in F1 wants to have some of his own people around him. Luring them all to Paris would be difficult. How much easier it would be, thought The Mole, if Renault was to build a nice new engine factory on a nice green field site next to its factory at Enstone. And how much more efficient.

The thing to remember, The Mole said to himself, is that Ilmor Engineering was a company run by Illien and Paul Morgan. The people worked for Illien and Morgan. Morgan is dead and if Illien departs are all the staff going to instantly become Mercedes-Benz employees just because they are told that there is a new owner?

Or would a lot of them follow Mario if he set up a new shop somewhere in England?

Renault likes to bang on about things being "100% Renault" so that it can easily justify the departure of operations from Paris to a place without the same laws, wages and working practices which, if one remembers the words of Alain Prost, make being in France such a difficult thing for a racing organisation.

The Mole laughed. It all made perfect sense but of course in racing that means that it will probably never happen.

Just like the GPWC.

Click here to read previous Mole columns: The Mole Archive

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