THE MOLE

Nicodemus Bawdsey comes to town

"Goodness, it has been a busy time," thought The Mole as he sat at his desk in SIS Headquarters in Vauxhall and caught a peek of Penelope (Wycombe Abbey)'s pert sports-toned behind as she leaned over a desk outside his office, adjusting a shoe or simply looking for a missing paperclip.

There were, he smiled, some delightful reasons to be at home rather than hanging out on the road with the circus folk of Formula 1. When one is on the road one forgets sometimes the pleasant things in the dull plod of normal life: familiar pert behinds, the banter of a happy office and trips to the supermarket.

When he arrived back from China, The Mole had found a memo from upstairs saying that the organisation had recently recruited a new boffin and his brain was available to all departments. The Mole read the memo twice and concluded that Dr Nicodemus Bawdsey, a postgraduate from The Department of War Studies at King's College, London, needed to do more to justify his SIS existence, and hence justify the decision to hire him, and hence not make someone in the top brass look bad.

Pondering his knighthood, The Mole decided, just for a change, to play the political game and immediately called in Bawdsey for a meeting to assess whether the FIA's recent behaviour constitutes a threat to British control of the sport and whether McLaren deserves the treatment to which it is being subjected.

And if not, what can be done to help the team.

Dr Bawdsey was a hairy sort of chap. Bearded, and therefore, in the eyes of The Mole, utterly untrustworthy. He said "You can call me Nico" with the kind of confidence that The Mole knew would result in the girls all calling him Nick.

And his girls were there to protect him: the three gorgeous Penelopes, his brilliant Legal Counsel Norma and Miss Pringle-Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys) busy taking notes and being impressed that the others had such fine brains.

"So Nick," said Penelope (Roedean). "What do you think?"

Nicodemus Bawdsey PhD shot out a confused look.

"I think that, um," he said, deciding not to say anything about the name. "Well, there simply has to be something behind all this smoke about McLaren. I mean, it there was nothing there how come it has been going on and on."

"I disagree," said Penelope (Roedean) rather curtly. "I think we are in a propaganda war. Have you noticed how almost every story that comes out in Formula 1 at the moment is one that somehow implies that McLaren is up to no good. It creates a perception. Look at this latest one: the FIA will assign an official exclusively to oversee McLaren's treatment of its drivers during the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix. What is the underlying message? McLaren is capable of fixing the result. There is considerable evidence that McLaren would do nothing of the sort, yet the story plays up the perception. The only evidence this year of anyone sabotaging anyone else at McLaren was in Hungary and Alonso was the guilty party. The team got punished for trying to defend him."

It was true. All year long McLaren has been on the receiving end of such stories, beginning in Monaco where the team was examined for allegedly fixing the result of the race. When the Stepney scandals broke the amount of perception-management by the parties involved was extraordinary. McLaren kept up a solid, very British silence because it believed that this was the right thing to do.

"I hear that McLaren has now signed up some Formula 1 journalist to be its new head of media," said Dr Bawdsey.

"It seems to me, Nick" said Norma Zaas, The Mole's brilliant legal counsel, "that in recent years Formula 1 has adopted many of the unsavoury practises of politics including the carrot and stick methods used on journalists by the political party spin doctors, who are trying to get their messages out and have no qualms as to how they achieve their goals. Make critical remarks and you do not get important interviews. This is now business as usual in F1 circles. Today journalists need to be very aware that reporting planted stories (the spin doctors like to call them briefings) is likely to have implications that the journalist has probably not even thought about. If these stories are not reported the spin doctors argue that the journalists are playing God and becoming players rather than observers. It is a minefield through which a careful crawl with a penknife is more sensible than an energetic attention-grabbing dance.

"But such is the speed of the modern Internet world that there is always pressure on the press to report the stories as they appear and ask questions later - if at all."

There were nods all around the meeting.

"The big question that an F1 journalist has to answer is whether McLaren is a team full of people who are doing all these things of which they are being accused," Bawdsey said.

There were a series of impatient sounds around the meeting.

"Don't be silly," said Penelope (Roedean), always the first to lead a charge. "We know McLaren are good guys. Anyone who has been involved in this sport for more than 10 minutes finds it inconceivable that these accusations have any foundation. The problem is that McLaren has always been hopeless at communication. That is Ron's fault because he is as he is, but if one gets through the laser shields you find one of the most principled teams in the paddock and one of the nicest. What is interesting is that the journalists who are attacking the team are those who have not been around for long; those who are simply dim and those who struggle with the English language. If McLaren folk have trouble being loved by the English media, how hard is it for the foreigners to understand? And how can they convince the Alonso-centric Spaniards and the Ferrari-obsessed Italians that McLaren is not like it is being painted.

Norma nodded.

"Everyone analyses it differently - as it suits them," she said. "One can argue that McLaren's decision not to appeal the $100m fine is a sign of the acceptance of the FIA process and, if you like, of the team's guilt. But I see it differently. McLaren is a big corporation. The F1 teams burns through a million dollars a day and the company is much bigger than just that. It is in the process of producing a road car that is aimed to take the Ferrari market out from under the Italian firm. It has a number of other successful businesses and thus since these F1 troubles began the company has adopted the kind of attitude that all big companies always use in times of crisis: risk management. You identify the risks, you look at what you want and then figure out how to get what you want with the minimal disruption. Above all, you understand and accept the risks and thus the consequences. You minimise the damage and maximise the positives. The team did not appeal the $100m fine not because it did not feel outraged but rather because it was trying to protect the opportunities that were left: winning the Drivers' title and avoiding running into trouble over the 2008 car. The relationship between the team and Fernando Alonso may have soured some months ago, by all accounts for very good reason, but the team is still doing everything possible to protect Alonso’s World Championship challenge. In Hungary the team got punished for protecting Alonso although there was really no desire at all to protect him. That is risk management.”

The Mole jumped in.

"The Alonso thing is fascinating, isn't it?" he said. "It is very clear that he does not feel secure with the team. Things were fine in the winter when he first arrived but gradually the relationship has gone downhill as Lewis Hamilton's star has risen. Alonso is clearly struggling to explain to himself how it is that he is being defeated on a regular basis by a rookie. There comes a time in the life of every F1 driver when eventually he comes up against someone who is faster. Drivers react in different ways. Some blame the teams and say that they are not being treated fairly. Some retire. Others dig deep and learn from the challenger. It is down to character.

“When you boil it all down,” said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey), Alonso would be leading the World Championship if he had not crashed in Japan. You cannot blame the team for that accident.”

There were nods all round.

"If you apply logic to the final race it should really be Hamilton who should be worried,” said Norma. “If McLaren favoured Alonso and let him win the World Championship, the team would still have the title and would have dodged any accusations of unfairness. In fact it would have created a positive perception that the team is ultimately fair. Alonso may depart taking the number 1 with him but as one cannot see the numbers on the F1 cars and the numbering systems are not used in any real commercial way it means very little. McLaren will be at the right end of the pit garages next year as the first team is not the one that wins the Constructors' title but rather the team that runs the World Champion. But that is a pretty poor reason to risk another penalty on the team by the ever-watchful FIA."

Penelope (Roedean) laughed.

"Where does the FIA's right to intervene end?" she said. "Imagine if Alonso was fired this week because it has been reported that he had signed a letter of intent with another team for 2008 when he is under contract to McLaren. Would the FIA leap in and insist that McLaren be punished if the Spaniard is not driving in Brazil?

"What do you think Nick?"

“I think,” he said, with a hint of uncertainty, “that this would be very satisfying for the team, but would create all the wrong perceptions - so it is not likely to happen.”

October 12 2007

Click here to read previous Mole columns: The Mole Archive

Print Feature