The mysterious Phoenix
FEBRUARY 15, 2002
When The Mole was a child he was fascinated by stories of smugglers and pirates and one of his favourite poems was Rudyard Kipling's "The Smuggler's Song". The Mole can still remember it now: "If you wake at midnight and hear a horse's feet, don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street. Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie. Watch the wall, my darling, while 'The Gentlemen' go by."
The Mole has always found this to be good advice when dealing with pirates, spies, terrorists, smugglers, drug barons and all the other interesting people one gets to meet at dinner parties. It is also good advice when dealing with some of the people in Formula 1, although this is not to suggest that anyone in the paddock is in any way reminiscent of any of people involved in the above list of occupations.
The Mole has found that some people in F1 are best if they are just left alone to get on with their wheeling and dealing because they get very upset if anyone asks too many questions. They then start throwing law suits. The Mole thought originally that Tom Walkinshaw was somehow involved in the Phoenix Finance Ltd story and as Thomas Dobbie Thomson Walkinshaw (as he is legally known) has a habit of going to the High Court when he does not agree with people The Mole felt that it was better to "watch the wall".
The Mole is not perfect (despite what his mother used to say) and when Walkinshaw told the world that the whole business was nothing to do with him and that his only involvement with Phoenix was "to support the engineering side of it" The Mole realised that he had made a mistake. And so out went The Mole operatives to investigate the rather curious Phoenix operation. Charles Nickerson, the man behind (or in front of) Phoenix is a friend of Walkinshaw. In fact the two men have done much business together over the years. They were even team mates in touring car racing 20 years ago when Nickerson used to race under the pseudonym "Chuck Nicholson".
The Mole's "watchers" have spotted Nicholson/Nickerson at a variety of F1 races in recent years. Usually he was hanging out in the Arrows motorhome.
Suddenly, it seems, this quiet gentleman has been transformed into a whirling dervish of corporate gymnastics as he tries to turn himself into a Formula 1 team owner. Why a wealthy man who is probably now close to 60 would want to do such a thing is a bit of mystery, but it seems that he does and by all accounts he is expending a great deal of energy to make it happen, despite being told by the FIA, by Bernie Ecclestone and by the other team owners that he is wasting his time trying to turn a pile of Prost parts and some old Arrows engines into a racing team.
Nickerson does not seem like a man who is often driven to desperate measures and this is the odd thing about the whole Phoenix business. If the organisation is so keen to compete in Formula 1 and has the money to do it, why is it messing about with all this secondhand material and sending cars off to Malaysia where they become impounded by the customs because someone has not thought the whole idea through? The Mole feels it would be infinitely more sensible to go along to the FIA and get a proper entry for the 2003 World Championship. The entry is available and one does not even have to pay for it. All that is needed is a deposit of $48m which is then refunded with interest in the course of the team's first season.
If Phoenix does not have enough money it could always ask Walkinshaw for a good word at the bank as Tom has managed to convince his bankers to lend Arrows vast amounts of money in unsecured loans. Walkinshaw appears to have an impressive Midas Touch when it comes to bank managers. If Phoenix cannot afford to pay for everything, there seems to be little point in going on because even the smallest team is spending around $40m this year. So if Phoenix does not have the $48m necessary to enter the World Championship next year why on earth is it trying to botch together a racing team from leftover bits and pieces from defunct companies which were never competitive?
One must add that time is an important issue as well. Walkinshaw may be helping out with technical things and staff but it is hard to see how he can do this for long as 2002 is a vital year for Arrows. The new car looks to be quite good when it manages to start a race but if it is not developed it will fade back towards the Jaguars and Minardis. Phoenix cannot use the Prost facilities in France and does not have its own headquarters at the moment. The logical thing to do, therefore, rather than wasting money on sending half-built cars to Malaysia and then having 30 people sitting around in a hotel with nothing to do, would be to use the time available to get things set up properly for 2003.
Diplomatically, as well, the attitudes of Phoenix have been very poorly viewed in F1 circles. The sport is looking ahead to an era of clean-cut, efficient businessmen with nothing to hide and open attitudes. This is the future and yet here is Phoenix challenging the FIA, ignoring Bernie Ecclestone and sticking up a finger at rival teams. It is changing company names from Phoenix to D.A.R.T and then back to Phoenix for no obvious reason (although there presumably is a reason) and has produced documents purporting to prove things that it wants to prove but which oddly were not included in the original sale documents. In France the investigative journalists are so amazed by what has been going on that they are now looking very closely at the activities of the Prost liquidator and even the Prost creditors are demanding a judicial review.
The result of it all is that Formula 1 looks at the whole sorry business with distaste. Even some of the less savoury people in the F1 paddock are saying that Phoenix is doing bad things for the image of the sport.
Tom Walkinshaw must be delighted that he is not involved.
Click here to read previous Mole columns: The Mole Archive