A letter from Langley

For the average member of the intelligence community, if indeed there is such a thing, any piece of paper which arrives from Langley usually excites interest. The word "Langley" brings to mind a leafy place on the banks of the Potomac River, near Washington DC where there is a very large white building which is known these days as The George Bush Center for Intelligence. It is named after the father of the current president.

For those of you who have not been there, this is the home of the Central Intelligence Agency and it is quite a place. "The Company" moved out of town back in the 1960s and settled into a very impressive 250-acre compound surrounded by wooded parkland. The first thing you notice when you arrive is the auditorium known to the spooks as "The Bubble" and the imposing headquarters building which looks like it was designed by a Soviet architect in the late 1950s. In fact this is really two buildings because the original was extended in the 1990s and a fancy new section was added and a large courtyard was created between the two buildings. This gives the place the feeling of being like a university campus. They even put in a fish pond so that spooks could chill out in the post Cold War era.

The Mole was thus rather disappointed when he noticed that the piece of paper which had arrived in his office last week came from Langley in England rather than Langley in Virginia.

The most exciting thing about Langley, Berkshire, is that it has a very big new building which is the European headquarters for an organisation known as Computer Associates,

"The CIA without the I," The Mole said to himself.

The Mole remembers the days when Ditton Park, the old moated manor on the Windsor side of Langley (complete with gardens designed by Capability Brown), was home of the Radio Research Station, a mysterious government research agency with lots of aerials but today the most exciting thing about Langley, Berkshire is probably Junction 5 of the M4 motorway which nestles between the Queen Mother Reservoir and the sprawl of modern Slough of which the poet laureate Sir John Betjeman once wrote: "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn't fit for humans now. There isn't grass to graze a cow."

Even the local authorities have trouble making it sound nice.

"Slough," they say, is "a vibrant and culturally diverse town, and is one of the main shopping and leisure centres within Berkshire. It is also a centre for local employment, containing the largest privately owned trading estate in the UK which benefits from the excellent rail and road links, with the M4 running along the town's border with Windsor".

Most exciting.

Langley is however the home of Bridgestone Motorsport which can be found in a big warehouse on what is called Hurricane Way in the Axis Park industrial estate.

"Most odd," said The Mole to his personal assistant Miss Pringle-Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys). "I mean it is a bit of an historical mish-mash. The street is named after the fighter aeroplane that saved the day in the Battle of Britain and the estate is the name of the pact between Germany and Japan during the last war."

"I didn't know the Japanese were involved in The Gulf War?" said Miss Pringle-Featherby.

"No," said The Mole, raising an eyebrow. "I mean the one in 1939-1945."

"Oh yah," said Miss Pringle-Featherby. "I see. Well, I expect the names are something to do with Langley's cultural diversity."

"It is all a bit of a mess," said The Mole as he began to read the statement issued by Bridgestone to explain why it had not got round to doing a deal with the Minardi team for the supply of tyres in 2003.

"Oh," he said finally. "This makes no sense at all to me. Why on earth has this happened? This statement reads like some kind of retro-fit of history. The fact that Minardi continued to test with Michelin tyres is really not a very good excuse. There was a testing ban for a whole month after Minardi first asked Bridgestone for tyres so I guess if Bridgestone had actually bothered to address the issue it might have been solved before Minardi had to decide whether test or not. What was Minardi supposed to do in December? Run on air?

"And then this dragged on all the way through January as well. What were they thinking? We all know that Paul Stoddart can be a little volatile from time to time so just leaving him in the lurch up to the last minute was not a very smart move by Bridgestone. Was there a strategy involved or was Bridgestone management just burying its head in the sand hoping that Minardi would go away? And then to ask for a million dollars up front at the last minute was not designed to keep Stoddart calm."

"Well, no wonder he went bananas," said Miss Pringle-Featherby. "I guess that the corporate wallahs in Tokyo probably did not appreciate some of Stoddart's comments about Bridgestone's "total lack of communication and cooperation over this matter" or the fact that he ran the cars around Valencia on Avon Formula 3000 slicks."

"But what was he supposed to do?" mused The Mole. "I fail to understand the Bridgestone position. The rules are quite clear. In order to be allowed to compete in F1 a tyre company must be willing, if called upon to do so, to supply 60% of the field if there are two tyre companies. The mathematics is pretty simple. In October there were 11 teams. Michelin was supplying six: Jaguar, McLaren, Minardi, Renault, Toyota and Williams. By my reckoning that is about 55%. Bridgestone was supplying five (Arrows, BAR, Ferrari, Jordan and Sauber) which is about 45%. That meant that any Michelin user could have switched to Bridgestone and asked for tyres.

"Minardi did.

"The percentages all changed in December when it became clear that Arrows was dead but with only 10 teams the mathematics were even easier: Michelin had 60% of the field; Bridgestone 40%.

"This Bridgestone statement is obviously trying to dampen down the flames but it is really is a lot of old waffle. The request from Minardi, they said, was "carefully considered". How can one carefully consider something that is totally obvious? Minardi had a right to request tyres and Bridgestone is obliged to supply them whether the company is interested in the team or not. It is not a huge burden when you consider all the good publicity that Bridgestone has been getting out of its relationship with Ferrari in recent seasons."

"So why," said Miss Pringle-Featherby, "would you invite bad publicity for such an unimportant business?"

"It really is most difficult to fathom," said The Mole.

"Inscrutable," said Miss Pringle-Featherby. "That is the word."

And then she paused.

"I wonder if they were all on holiday," she said. "I mean a lot of F1 people are at that time of year."

"If that was the case," said The Mole, "why was there no reply from Bridgestone to Minardi in early December?"

"Christmas shopping?" said Miss Pringle-Featherby, clearly grasping at straws.

"You know," said The Mole. "I think I prefer letters from Langley, Virginia. It is so much easier to understand what they are on about."

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