The Penelopes blitz Melbourne

The start of a new Formula 1 season is a busy time of year for the Motor Racing and Trade Development Department of the Secret Intelligence Service. Being the first line of defence of Britain's motorsport industry, The Mole's department fights the good fight to stop foreign governments trying to lure away the best and the brightest and set up their own racing industries and ultimately destroy the British Motorsport Empire.

"It's not easy," said The Mole. "We are fighting alongside the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, but when it comes to motorsport they are just as much the enemy as the Malaysians and the people in Bahrain. George W and his cronies are right there, behind the NASCAR boys. We have to fight a secret fight to stop them taking people off to obscure corners of North Carolina to help to feed the growth of NASCAR."

Britain has enjoyed domination of motorsport since old Harold Macmillan said "You have never had it so good" in 1957 but the threats are multiplying as the Middle East and Asia get more and more serious. It is a undeniable fact that in the Middle East money comes out of the ground and is available to be invested, while in England one has to fight for years to get any cash to help the cause. The day will soon come when direct action may be necessary and the Penelopes will have to go into action with plastic explosives to keep the status quo.

The Mole flew all three Penelopes out to Melbourne for different missions.

Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies College), with her classical bone structure and English complexion, was judged to be the right agent to try to infiltrate the Chinese delegation, in order to see how things are going with them after their little "local difficulty" last year when a number of the important people in Shanghai were purged amid allegations of corruption.

Penelope (Wycombe Abbey) was told to infiltrate the group of visiting Singaporeans. She seems so innocent that everyone believes everything she says and no-one ever suspects that she might have ulterior motives.

"She's like Nick Fry in drag," said Penelope (Roedean). "But believe me, butter does melt in her mouth! Don't be taken in by that sweet little bob-haired innocence. She is a devil in a frock."

Penelope (Roedean) was given the job of trying to find out more about the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, using whatever means, fair or foul.

They met again on Monday in a rather nice meeting room in the Hotel Windsor. At "the Paris end" of Spring Street in Melbourne, which is quite the nicest part of town. Their meeting was accompanied by the oddly comforting sound of trams clanking around corners below on the streets.

"What about the Singaporeans?" asked The Mole, as he sipped a glass of Pine Springs mineral water.

"One of the big problems with all these Asian races is the time zone," said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey). "The biggest TV audiences are still in Europe and will remain there for a long time yet, so hosting races in the wrong time zones means that one limits the potential for growth. The thing that Bernie wants is to keep the company growing and if he cannot increase the audience without investing in more expensive TV technology, he can only grow the business by adding new races and exploiting the events more efficiently. So that is what he's doing. They are going to go racing at night. Bernie is very keen on the idea although I believe it came from someone out there. I think you will find that they are pitching for a date which fits in with the end of season Asian events in China and Japan, so my guess is that it will be on September 21 2008, if they can sort it all out in the time available. To do that they need a decision right now because they have got to build the pits and stuff like that. Singapore has a strong central government and so it can get things done quickly."

"What about the folk in Abu Dhabi?" said The Mole.

"Well," said Penelope (Roedean). "I went for the Aussie promotional girl disguise, with lots of Lycra and that always works. Men are all so busy trying to impress me when I wear this stuff that they get into competitions to tell me everything to prove how important they are. I love men! They're so easy to manipulate."

"Yes, well thank you for the social comment," said The Mole. "Can we get on with the report please."

Penelope wrinkled her nose in a disapproving but rather sexy fashion and embarked on her story.

"The sponsorship deal with Spyker looks good but really it is just the Abu Dhabi folk protecting their investment. You have to remember that Spyker Cars is 17% owned by Mubadala, which is owned by the government. So when Etihad and Aldar pop up on the cars there may not be that much money involved. Etihad is the government-owned national airline and when it grows up it wants to be like Emirates. Aldar is a real estate company which is controlled by Mubadala. Aldar is building the Ferrari theme park in Abu Dhabi and the new race track on Yas Island so Grand Prix racing is a key part of its future. Mubadala is also a shareholder and sponsor of Ferrari, Spyker's engine supplier. The sponsorship may also help Spyker forget about the chassis-sharing row this year because it is quite possible that there might be a deal in 2008 for the team to get its hands of Ferraris, which could be painted orange. So a little pain this year might pay off in the future.

"The most interesting thing I discovered is that the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has a website and they have a countdown thing on the site. You know the sort of thing, 623 days to go before the Grand Prix. Well, I did the numbers and the funniest thing emerged. The countdown will end on Saturday, January 31 2009. You have to say that's a pretty odd date for a Grand Prix."

"Really?" said The Mole. "That's extraordinary. Did no-one tell these people that F1 runs on secrecy?"

"At the moment the teams have an agreement that restricts the length of the season," said Penelope. "But does that really make sense? If you think about it, Formula 1 would have to benefit from becoming even more year-round. The serious teams have their cars all finished in the middle of January and then spend six to eight weeks doing tests. It makes a lot more sense to race in January, like they used to do in the old days."

"And if that is the case," said The Mole, finishing the thought, "other races can move into February."

March 21 2007

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