Penelope's little problem

Penelope (Wycombe Abbey) was the youngest of The Mole's operatives, younger even than the new girl Annabel, who was always so keen that everyone wanted her to transfer to another department.

Penelope was probably the best-qualified girl ever to work for The Mole. She had walked out of Christ Church, Oxford with a first in PPE, a full blue in fencing and a successful record as a member of the Oxford University Pistol Club. She spoke French, Italian and German and was as handy with a handgun as she was in the kitchen and could rustle up a mean banoffee pie or a cheesecake that never wilted.

"You should always judge a girl by her puddings," she said, with a glint in her eye.

She looked as though butter would not melt in her mouth, peeking out from beneath the fringe of her honey-coloured bob, as though she believed the world was a dangerous place to be. Men crumbled before her, even before she whipped out her Uzi. The Mole often had to remind himself that this was no shrinking violet. Her tongue was as sharp as her intellect.

Penelope's only problem was her expense account. The bean counters at the Treasury were not used to paying out for nice little high neck black dresses from Chanel.

It was a problem she shared with Penelope (Roedean) who had a shocking attachment to very expensive handbags.

"A handbag!" Penelope had roared one day when her expenses were questioned. "It is not a handbag. It's emotional baggage."

The Mole felt sorry for the girls. Living in the world of Formula 1 one sees money everywhere. There are special allowances for secret agents but there is no getting away from the fact that around 90 percent of civil servants earn less than 35,000 a year and so one either starves or has private income.

"If you were racing drivers," he said. "There would be teams falling over each other to pay you more. You are the best of the best. But this is not about money. You are serving your country. Doing the right thing."

When one lives in the F1 world one forgets just how absurd the salaries can be. Michael Schumacher might be worth $45m a year in salary and maybe Kimi Raikkonen is worth $22m a year. But The Mole has serious reservations about why one would pay Ralf Schumacher $18m a year. The only people who seem to have the right idea in F1 are Renault which pays Fernando Alonso $6m and thus has a wage bill of around $10m a year compared to Ferrari's $50m, McLaren's $35m and Honda's $30m.

The danger, of course, that a driver like Alonso will leave and go off to earn three-times that money at McLaren.

It is hard keeping good people when you pay them peanuts.

Renault always claims that it gets things done more cost-effectively than its rivals and The Mole believes that this is true. What was interesting after the European Grand Prix was that Fernando made reference to the question of money when he was asked if he felt Renault could develop its car as fast as Ferrari. That, he said, was dependent on money. No-one seemed to notice what Alonso had said but as soon as he got back to the office The Mole set the girls out to find out more about the finances at Renault.

"Have you noticed," said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey), "that Renault is very keen to get a commercial deal for the future? I am told that this is because they have a serious financial problem coming up as Carlos Ghosn has decided to limit their budget to $150m. The only way that can be increased is if they find commercial sponsorship and that is a problem because Mild Seven is leaving and that is another big hole in the budget that needs to be filled. If the team cannot get some serious extra money next year, they are going to have to cut back and that is bound to affect the performance. So they want a commercial deal as quickly as they can get it so that they can bump up their income from the Formula One Group to around $50m. That would really help them."

"Doesn't sound like they can afford Michael Schumacher or Kimi Raikkonen," said The Mole.

Penelope nodded.

"It is a good idea to do that but they have to convince Ghosn to come up with more cash," she said. "And he is famous for not spending more than has to be spent."

"I guess we will have to see," said The Mole. "My feeling is that car manufacturers are always talking about cost-cutting until they find something that will help them beat the others. When that happens they come up with the money somehow. Let us not forget in these hard times that several teams are still building huge new windtunnels. And let us not forget that McLaren is planning a motorhome of a scale that will leave Red Bull rushing back to the drawing board."

Penelope shook her head.

"You know we were complaining about money," she said.

The Mole nodded.

"Well forget it," she said. "Penelope and I, and Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies College), come to think of it. Even Annabel. We are in the perfect job. Where better in the world is there for a beautiful young woman? Inevitably there will come a day when we will each find a rich husband. We will avoid signing pre-nuptual agreements and either live happily ever after, in regal splendour. Or take our silly husbands to the cleaners when he runs off with younger women."

The Mole smiled, but rather weakly.

He knew that one day, like Fernando Alonso, the birds will fly the nest.

May 10 2006

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